Operation Mandatory Holiday Spirit: Underway

wreath For the past several years, I have been absent much holiday spirit. Since we spend Christmas at my sister's house in Indianapolis, I stopped putting up a tree years ago -- so much hassle and hardly worth it if we weren't going to be around to enjoy it. My mom died a couple of months before Christmas in 2003 and although we went through the motions, needless to say, spirit and buoyant hearts were in short order. For the past few years, with the Fellowship and moving to Michigan, etc., there just wasn't "time" to feel the joy.

But I decided that this year would be different. Tucked into bed a few weeks ago, I read the holiday issue of Midwest Living and felt a little stirring inside looking at all the old-fashioned decorations and holiday lights -- and I decided that this year, come hell or high water, I would try to get into the swing of the holidays. And in that very issue of Midwest Living was a spread about Saugatuck, Michigan -- a tiny town on the state's west coast -- all lit up for the holidays. The article noted the town's Sparkle ceremony, which lights up the town square and Chris and I decided we'd do a post-Thanksgiving getaway to Saugatuck, ripe with cheese, and try to force a little small town holiday spirit down our throats.


It should be noted that most people flock to Saugatuck in the summer, when its rep as a first-class Lake Michigan beach town means lodging rates are double and the square-grid streets of the small downtown are packed with weekend holiday-ers from Michigan, Illinois and Indiana. So when we told people that we were going to Saugatuck the weekend after Thanksgiving, the most common response was, "Why?"

Besides the aforementioned quest for a little good cheer, Chris' work schedule is relentless and it's rare to get him away from his desk -- and focus his brain on something else -- for a little while. It requires at least 48 hours away -- the first 24 to unplug, the second 24 to enjoy. Saugatuck, at a 2-1/2 hour drive from Ann Arbor, seemed a quick and smart way to do that.


We looked originally at staying at the Wickwood Inn, which is run by the Silver Palate Cookbook's co-author Julie Rosso, and is considered one of the best B&B's in the country. The Midwest Living spread showed its decadent holiday decorations. But even off-season, the prices were far too decadent for us. After having some trouble finding a cheesy B&B with Friday and Saturday night vacancy, we opted for the rather modern Bella Vita Spa & Suites. It turned out to be a pretty good choice, especially when you can pad across the hall in your robe and get a cranberry facial or a couples massage.

We took great pains to arrive in plenty of time for Friday night's Sparkle ceremony, even though both cats got quite sick and we spent Thanksgiving night at the pet ER with Allie, who spiked a 106 degree fever due to some still-undetermined infection. (Fortunately, our pet sitter is also our vet tech, so when Allie's fever was done by early afternoon Friday, we were okay to go.) Upon arrival, we bundled up to protect against the chill and walked the few blocks to Wick's Park where the ceremony is held. The town was playing its part perfectly -- all lit up beautifully, with luminarias lining the pavement, giant snowflake lights dangling from all the trees, their trunks wrapped in strings of white lights.


There were about two hundred people, mainly families, huddled together around a gazebo when we arrived, being entertained by an ambitious but largely inaudible town choir. Within moments, a spunky, gum-chawing young woman took over as master of ceremonies, but without benefit of a microphone. All we heard was something about God and the troops. (Those of you who are familiar with the Gilmore Girls will appreciate that we were feeling distinctly as thought we were in Stars Hollow.)

The organizers stalled for a while, as we were waiting for the fashionably-late Santa to flip the switch on the square. At least that's what I think we were waiting for. It was hard to hear. Then, sure enough, Santa arrives...via police escort. That's right, a squad car complete with flashing lights and sirens comes dashing down the street to drop off Santa. That should scar a few kids for life. Not to mention confuse them greatly, as they dash out in front of cop cars racing to the scene of a crime, yelling, "Santa!"

And then it happened. In one ill-timed fell-swoop, with the freezing crowd counting down (badly, I might add) from ten, Santa flipped the switch and...voila! Exactly four trees lit up. Yes, four. THAT was it. THAT was Saugatuck's Sparkle. More of a flicker, really. Sigh. So much for magic and beauty. So much for holiday sensations. We hoofed it out of there, bracing against the stiff breeze that came in off the harbor, squeezed into one of the packed downtown restaurants for dinner and were in bed, lights out and seconds from sleep by 9 pm.

We spend Saturday and part of Sunday wandering around the town, me snapping a jillion photos along the way. It was peaceful, silly and fun. Here's what I saw:

sculpture A cheeky sculpture by the town hall.

saugatuck2 Families shopping, bundled against the cold.

wagonwheel A beautiful wagon wheel on the side of a building.

bloodorange A hot cup of blood orange infusion tea, which smelled and tasted like heaven.

harbor The harbor, with an old steam ship on the far shore.

olivemill A wonderful little shop called the Olive Mill, where we tasted a zillion balsamic vinegars -- fig, black currant, apple -- and olive oils before walking away with a bottle of gorgeous organic olive oil and a decadent tangerine balsamic.

And lots and lots of holiday spirit:





Before we left Sunday, we took a quick drive over the bridge to neighboring town Douglas to get a look at Oval Beach on Lake Michigan, where Chris, a seagull and I tried to stave off the freezing wind:



And, where, just for good measure, a giant billboard in the middle of a residential street reminded us of the real meaning of the holiday season: