Mackinac Island residents bond over tourist-free Christmas
By Kristi Kates | Dec. 10, 2016
The fudge shops are quiet, the streets are even more so. Instead of tourists in shorts and flip-flops, snow devils whirl across the empty beaches. This is the subdued, and much colder, version of Mackinac Island. It’s a place most tourists never see, and a place where Christmas community takes on a whole new meaning.
Known as a summer destination, Mackinac Island’s traditions revolve around carless streets, quaint shops, bicycling, dining, horse-drawn carriages and fudge, with tourists being the most important part of the island’s economy. Most people only visit the island between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
But the island’s 500 or so year-round residents are a hardy lot, reveling in the quiet after the tourists leave, and welcoming the return of snowmobiles, the only motorized form of transportation allowed other than emergency vehicles.
Celebrating Christmas here feels like — as the 1980 Christopher Reeve movie filmed on the island might suggest — a step back “Somewhere in Time.”
“The horse-drawn carriages create an old-fashioned, traditional Christmas atmosphere,” said Amanda Greenwood of the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau. “With a small-town vibe, the freshly fallen snow, and no cars, Christmas on Mackinac Island feels very nostalgic.”
Getting to and from the island isn’t as convenient as in the summer. You can fly in on Great Lakes Air or on a chartered plane; but in the winter, Star Line Ferry is the only water option outside of a private boat. It keeps a much shorter but regular schedule from its winter dock in St. Ignace as long as the weather permits.
“The water is colder, it’s a little windier in the winter, but our captains are used to traveling in all kinds of conditions, so for them it’s not much different,” explained Jerry Fetty, CEO of Star Line.
In the summer, Star Line transports full ferryloads of people. In the winter, it sometimes runs a “ghost boat,” where there are no passengers at all.
“Sometimes we only have just a few people on board, but the island residents depend on us, so we run regardless,” Fetty confirmed. “Plus who knows, on the other side, someone might need a ride in the other direction.”
Fetty observed that while there is the odd intrepid tourist who shows up on occasion in the winter, the majority of travelers to and from Mackinac Island are either people who live there, or contractors doing off-season work. But at the holidays ferry traffic picks up significantly, so Star Line decorates its boat with lights and a wired-down Christmas tree up on the bow. “Around Christmas, it can almost be as busy as a summer day,” Fetty said.
Fetty, who will be attending some of the island’s holiday events this year, said he hasn’t personally spent a whole Christmas on the island, although he’s definitely considered it. “There’s a neat, mysterious feeling about it,” he said. “You really get away from civilization and the typical hustle-bustle of the holidays.”
The lack of civilization might be considered a Christmas challenge on Mackinac Island. The places necessary to any town still run, such as the Mackinac Island Medical Center, the churches, the police and fire departments, and a few accommodations. But there are only a half-dozen businesses open, including a couple of restaurants, the post office, Island Hardware, Harrisonville General Store and Doud’s Market, which has been open since 1884.
Andrew Doud is of the fourth generation of Douds and has lived on the island year-round for the past 10 years with his wife, Nicole.
“The natural winter beauty of the island with all the snow cover is second to none,” Doud said. “We play lots of snow sports, like sledding, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. It’s a really unique time.”
The Douds traditionally go for a snowmobile ride on Christmas Day, driving the 8.3 miles around the entire island.
“There are always holiday parties. A midnight mass on Christmas Eve. And we alternate our Doud’s Market staff Christmas party between the two restaurants every other year so as not to show favoritism,” he said with a laugh.
Throughout most of the holidays, as Fetty mentioned, the island depends on the Star Line boat. Last winter, the boat ran all winter, except for just a couple of weeks. So when it’s time to go Christmas shopping, leaving the island is a regular tradition.
“People usually go off-island to Petoskey or Traverse City, or they do their holiday shopping downstate if they have a trip planned,” Doud said.
“Many residents also like to do Christmas shopping during the end-of-season sales at local island stores,” added Greenwood.
It’s best to get your shopping in while you can. By mid-January, once the ice forms on the lake, Doud’s and the other businesses on the island have to fly their stock over. Supplies are loaded onto planes, and then upon arrival at the island, they’re transported as usual to the stores by horse-drawn dray, just as they would be from the ferries.
Kirk Lipnitz, owner of Island Hardware, has lived on the island for 20 years and has owned the hardware store for eight.
“It’s so different here over the winter,” he said. “But it’s a very close-knit community, and I think that’s what makes the holidays special.”
Lipnitz’ list of holiday activities is similar to Doud’s.
“We have a holiday hockey game in the middle of the street in front of Horn’s Bar,” he said. “There are archery and cooking classes, and horse-drawn sleigh rides. Local chefs volunteer their time with Meals on Wheels, and then local kids deliver the meals on snowmobile to the older folks. Once we hit November, you can throw a rock downtown and not hit anybody — but there’s a lot more going on here than you might think.”
Perhaps the most distinctive holiday feature of the island is the tall, brightly lit Christmas tree, which is installed right on Main Street since there’s no traffic to contend with.
“The tree lighting kicks off the Christmas Bazaar, also on Main Street,” said Greenwood. “Community members congregate to sing holiday carols, and after the tree is lit, a wagon arrives to take everyone on an old-fashioned hay ride. The rummage sale then opens for early shoppers to get first dibs on the best buys in the Mackinac Island Fire Hall, and hot cocoa and cookies are served.”
If you want to go out for dinner, the choice is pretty easy, since there are only two restaurants — Cawthorne’s Village Inn and the Mustang Lounge — that are open in the winter.
Liz Thompson is a server and bartender at the Mustang Lounge.
“This is only my second winter on the island,” she said. “My family works on the island as well, so that’s why I’m staying. Christmas here is more of a community thing than a ‘private’ holiday — it really brings everybody together. We decorate the restaurant, and I love the Christmas tree in the middle of the street. But it’s definitely very, very quiet.”
Don’t worry, though — even though it seems remote, Santa Claus can definitely find Mackinac Island, and the island’s residents welcome him with open arms.
“We’ve actually transported Santa over to the island on the ferry, complete with his packages and everything,” Fetty said.
For more information about Christmas on Mackinac Island, visit the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau at mackinacisland.org.
Kristi Kates is a contributing editor and freelance writer.