River Street flows down the center of Manistee, Michigan; it’s a sleepy stretch that thunders to life for one weekend each December, when a team of horses delivers a towering Christmas tree, the symbol of the town’s holiday celebration. For 25 years, Manistee’s turn-of-the-20th-century buildings have stood witness to the procession while 10,000 revelers (in a town with a population of 6,220) remember Christmases past.
But that’s just the final piece of the annual Victorian Sleighbell Parade and Old Christmas Weekend (December 4–7, 2014). Events leading up to the no-cars-allowed parade give visitors a chance to shake off holiday stress at kids’ art shows, pageants, a soup cook-off, a crafts show and more. And the effects of that community spirit sweep through town, where time feels sweetly slowed amid festooned boutiques, eateries, antiques shops and bookstores.
About 60 miles south of Traverse City, this former lumber town is a summertime haven for active travelers who want to paddle the Little Manistee River and hike along the Lake Michigan shore. All of that feels decidedly distant during this winter weekend’s Sleighbell Prince and Princess Pageant. Attendees climb the polished old wooden staircase leading to the restored 1903 Ramsdell Theater’s ballroom, where a line of pint-size contestants, fidgeting in their holiday finest, await their turn at the mic.
“What is something that makes you feel special?” the master of ceremonies asks a freckle-faced second-grader. “Hugs,” she says without hesitation.
Downstairs, docents lead tours of the theater, where James Earl Jones performed in his first Othello, then invite guests to settle into the burgundy velvet seats for the Manistee Civic Players’ presentation of a classic holiday play (It’s a Wonderful Life this year).
Community events and shopping fill most visitors’ time during the weekend. The 140-vendor Sleighbell Craft Show and Bazaar packs the parking lot at the high school with cars; in the boutiques along River Street, window displays showcase entries in the citywide gingerbread-house contest. Shopkeepers dressed in Victorian-Era clothes invite passersby into their stores, while merrymakers wander the street, drinks and snacks in hand. Carriages pulled by draft horses roll past, the steady clop-clop-clop providing background rhythm for the brass band playing beneath the renovated Vogue Theater marquee. A handbell choir rings out holiday tunes as the buttery-burnt scent of roasted chestnuts wafts down the street. In the basement of the First Congregational Church, ladies serve the annual Lumberjack Luncheon—hearty beef stew, flaky biscuits and homemade Michigan cherry pie. A visitor named Vern looks on in wonder from his seat in the church basement. “I’m from out of town, but I’ve been doing some work for the city here all week, and I stuck around to see for myself what all this fuss was about,” he says. He shakes his head over his hot cup of coffee. “It really is something, isn’t it?”
Outside, parade-goers meander to a good viewing spot, taking time to slide a dollar into the palm of the boy scooping popcorn outside The Outpost clothing store and snagging a steaming cup of free hot apple cider along the way. The crowd grows almost impassible, its anticipation building as the dusk deepens to night and stars begin to shine.
The parade begins. Business people, civic volunteers and school groups proudly march by before hooves on pavement announce the grand finale. Two teams of horses pass by, each towing an enormous Christmas tree. Volunteers scramble to get the trees in place, and a quick flip of a switch brings both to twinkling light. Fireworks burst overhead and ignite the sky. For these few moments in Manistee, all is not calm, but all is most certainly bright.
Click ahead for our trip guide.
What to do
Manistee County Historical Museum Tour a Christmas-theme exhibit and see a toy train display featuring Lionel and American Flyer models from the 1930s and 1940s. (231) 723-5531; manisteemuseum.org 
Old Christmas Weekend The 2014 event runs December 4–7. Crafters and artisans set up at Manistee High School for the Sleighbell Craft Show and Bazaar; you might have to search for a parking spot, but the show is worth the effort. Partygoers feast on traditional homemade beef stew at the First Congregational Church’s Lumberjack Luncheon before touring the stained-glass–adorned sanctuary upstairs. The temporary Sleighbell Chocolate Shop sells festively packaged truffles, barks and fudge made by volunteers; sales benefit the Manistee County Child Advocacy Center. Thousands of spectators—many dressed to the nines—attend the Victorian Sleighbell Parade on Saturday night (bring a blanket to wrap up in). (877) 626-4783; visitmanisteecounty.com 
Ramsdell Theater This historical venue is home to the Manistee Civic Players. Check the website for the performance schedule. (800) 836-0717; manisteecivicplayers.org 
River Street retailers You’ll find many to choose from, but these are some of our favorites. The Ideal Kitchen specializes in cooking gadgets. Surroundings, a cigar and gift shop, has a walk-in humidor. Upscale women’s clothing tempts shoppers at Suvi, and it’s easy to lose yourself in the wide selection at Anne’s Book Store. (231) 398-3262; visitmanistee.com 
Where to eat
Goody’s Juice and Java The drinks and fresh-baked scones impress customers. (231) 398-9580
The Glenwood It’s worth the 20-minute drive north to Onekama for a meal at this turn-of-the-century former resort—just be sure to make reservations. Come hungry for salads topped with from-scratch dressings; steaks, lamb and fresh Lake Michigan fish; and decadent frozen peanut butter pie. (231) 889-3734; glenwoodrestaurant.com 
House of Flavors Stop after 11 a.m. during the winter, and you’ll get a free scoop of their own brand of ice cream at this 1950s-theme diner. (231) 887-4600; houseofflavors.com 
Shay’s Chop House Affordable comfort food shines here in Onekama; specials include steaks and freshly harvested seafood. (231) 889-3121; shayschophouse.com 
T.J’s Pub Downstairs in the Ramsdell Inn, this cozy pub dishes meals with locally sourced ingredients. Start with the bruschetta or homemade meatballs. (231) 398-9174; ramsdellinn.net/the-pub 
Where to stay
Little River Casino Resort If you can get past the smoky smell in the lobby, the resort offers large rooms with lofted ceilings and French doors leading to a courtyard, plus a pool, a workout room, and on-site gaming and concerts. (888) 568-2244; lrcr.com 
Ramsdell Inn For a historical setting in downtown Manistee, snag one of the 10 guest rooms, which are spacious and richly furnished. Just be prepared to carry luggage up a flight of stairs—there’s no elevator. (231) 398-7901; ramsdellinn.net 
For more information and to plan your trip: Manistee County Visitors Bureau (877) 626-4783; visitmanisteecounty.com 
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® November/December 2013. Prices, dates and other details are subject to change, so please check specifics before making travel plans.)