Christmas in Branson Feature in the Sun., Dec 3 Chicago Tribune
On December 3rd, Linze Rice published the following article about Branson, "Missouri’s ultimate Christmas town," for the Chicago Tribune, which has an online readership of about 6 million and a print circulation of 240,283:
Searching for a Holiday Miracle in
Branson — A Christmas Miracle
Branson embraces the holiday in a big way — beginning immediately after Halloween concludes
There was a flurry of snow and ice the day I was born on Christmas Eve 1989. Rather than a tree, my mom’s family surrounded her hospital bed, waiting to admire yours truly. Since then, embracing a Christmas birthday has been a struggle. As I got older, I learned that if I wanted the holidays to be tolerable, I needed to make my own magic happen. In my teens I rebranded Christmas and my birthday into Birthmas — a celebration of both. Now I try to lean into Christmas as much as possible with a ceramic tree collection, tons of baking and holiday movie marathons. So I wondered whether Branson, Missouri — purportedly the most Christmassy of all Christmas towns — would meet my exceedingly high standards for merry-making. I began planning a trip when, just days before my departure, tragedy struck: My sweet pit bull companion of 14 years, Bruce, died. Traveling seemed like the last thing I wanted to do. But I wondered: Could Branson’s tidings of comfort and joy help heal the broken heart of an agnostic, 33-year-old Christmas kid? “I guess we’ll find out,” I thought as my friend and I boarded our plane to Springfield, Missouri.
O come, all ye faithful
I rolled in Nov. 2, two days after the Christmas season had started, as far as Branson was concerned. Halloween is considered its Christmas Eve. In Branson it’s an “unwritten rule that by Nov. 1 your Christmas decorations should be up,” said Amanda Stout, jack-of-all-trades at the Sugar Leaf Bakery. The city, nestled in the Ozarks, has about 12,000 residents, but that number swells to about 2 million visitors around the most wonderful time of the year. Chicagoans can get there via a two-hour flight into Springfield, Missouri, and then about a 45-minute drive. By car alone, it’s a little over eight hours. “Branson in itself is a really small community,” Stout explained. “We have big things and we have the grand amusement things and all of that kind of stuff, but … we want you to walk through the doors and feel like you’re visiting a friend or that you’re coming to see family.”
At the Chateau on the Lake Resort, our home base for the trip, a stately facade opens to an opulent atrium filled with Christmas trees, three glass elevators and views of all 10 floors. Lighted garlandadorned arches guide you to waterfalls, live birds chittering from patina cages, and a long rope from which a certain jolly red-suited gentleman shinnies down. The highlight was the mouthwatering cookie village created with exceptional culinary artistry. Stained glass Fruit Roll-Up windows adorn the graham cracker church, as Tootsie Roll and Nutter Butter dogs scamper around candy cane street lamps. A re-creation of the Chateau itself sports a vanilla wafer-tiled roof, pretzel balconies and jelly bean stonework. Around each edible edifice are tiny string lights. Altogether, 300 pounds of powdered sugar, 120 pounds of egg whites and 600 pounds of candy, cookies and other goodies form the sweet village, created over the course of 175 combined hours.
It’s worth a visit even if you don’t stay at the resort. More yuletide trappings await at the Titanic Museum Attraction, a building designed as a half-scale of the real ship containing hundreds of artifacts from the vessel, its passengers and crew — plus a stunning $1 million re-creation of the grand staircase. The museum was decked out in lovely Christmas garb: a tree in the lobby with soft red teddy bears, garland, bows and poinsettias throughout. For such a historic tragedy, its holiday spirit was certainly intact. I was greeted by Phoebe Head, a nearly 20-year employee whose passion and reverence for her job were infectious and immediately put me at ease. In the evening we went to one of the city’s three official tree-lighting ceremonies. In the background was a surprisingly familiar site: the Branson Ferris Wheel — or as Chicagoans knew it until February 2016, the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier, resplendent with its red gondolas and LED light display of peppermint swirls and snowflakes. At the top of said wheel, with the little courage I had to look out at the horizon, I could see a sea of darkness with an electrifying neon river running through it. A silent, holy night in Branson.
On the second day of Branson …
We headed out to Wolfe Mountain, where we had a date with Snowflex tubing — whizzing down a 400-foot hill at a rate of nearly 30 mph while sitting in an inner tube. To put it lightly, we absolutely did not want to do this. But I couldn’t think of an excuse believable enough to get out of it, so we each grabbed a tube and followed our guide up a slow-moving sidewalk to the top. Our lives flashed before our eyes as we stared up the runway of artificial, turf-like snow. Brush your fingers across it, and you feel like you’ve rubbed against the hard side of Velcro. A countdown of “3 -2 -1,” a shove, and down we flew, screaming our faces off but having the thrill of our lives. Once we reached the bottom, our plan of doing it just once and leaving was out the door. We scampered, with childlike glee, back up the hill for another go, and then another. If the exertion leaves you hungry, grab a snack at the aforementioned Sugar Leaf Bakery nearby. The bakery decorates for Christmas with sleigh-riding snowmen and elves, colorful strings of ornaments and evergreen garland hung throughout. Stout’s specialty is her mother’s yule log recipe, a 28-inch confection of rolled chocolate cake and icing. Customers can buy a slice or order a whole cake for pickup. Stout says they usually make up to 50 yule logs per season, and each takes about six hours to make. “We have not only just our local following, but we have a really great tourist following,” the head baker explained. “Those people we now consider family, because when they come here for a six-day stay we probably see them 10 times.” As customers make repeat visits, “We get to see how their families grow too,” she said.
Where the treetops glisten
For the ultimate holiday immersion, don’t miss Silver Dollar City, an 1880s-era theme park that shares ownership with a portion of Dollywood and hit No. 1 on TripAdvisor’s list of U.S. theme parks this year. The dazzling “An Old Time Christmas” display — best viewed at night — lasts through December. Over 6.5 million lights, 800 trees, 600 wreaths, 15,000 yards of ribbon and over 3 miles worth of garland laced throughout the park transform it into a winter wonderland. Near the entrance the Midtown area shimmers top to bottom with snowflakes, angels and glowing neon building facades. At the center an 80-foot tree sparkles with millions of color options, straight out of a Lifetime holiday movie. Take in twice-nightly parades, performances of “A Dickens’ Christmas Carol” and seasonal wassail, hot chocolate and buffets of prime rib and turkey. If that’s not enough, another worthy holiday spectacle is the Shepherd of the Hills Trail of Lights display, a drive-thru holiday light experience that weaves you through the 160-acre mountainside property, showcasing millions of colorful bulbs. We drove under a tunnel of snowflakes, along a whirl of “jumping” reindeer and past dozens of glowing Santas, elves and horses.
Go tell it on the mountain
Our last stop was for Sunday brunch in the Keeter Center at College of the Ozarks. Located in Lookout Point, it had panoramic views of the mountains and of the Branson strip. Just beyond the sleeping cows, you could still see the Branson Ferris Wheel. The campus aims to be its own self-sustaining community, with a grist mill, dairy pasture, meatprocessing plant and hydroponic greenhouse — all run by students. The Keeter Center is a spacious lodge with a 15-room hotel, gift shops, a cafe and bakery, and an expansive, elegant dining room. Students in white waiter jackets — most of whom are studying culinary arts or business — whisk guests to their tables, which stretch as far as the eye can see. Students take turns managing the dining room and all its facets — from the menu to the staff to the cooking. Lettuce grown in the greenhouse is brought back to the kitchen, milk from the school’s herd of 60 dairy cows is churned into ice cream in the campus creamery, and hogs and beef cattle move from farm to plate, reappearing as smoked meatloaf and sweetly glazed ham. Hotel rooms decked for the holidays showcase student-made stained glass panels, a lit Christmas tree, stone fireplace and the school’s signature Turndown Cookies — an oatmeal-chocolate chippecan cookie served on a decorated plate with cold glass-bottled milk nightly. Students provide the turndown service, bake the cookies and do the housekeeping. For 90 years the campus has also been churning out fruitcakes — the idea of a former home economics teacher who first baked six cakes with her students for friends of the school with the hope of generating donations. Now it’s a serious operation, with mail orders zipping from Branson to happy — or hapless, depending on your take — recipients across the country.
The reason for the season
On my flight back to Chicago I reflected on the past three days. The “snow” hill, the lights, the Titanic — what did it all mean? Branson is undeniably a winter holiday destination. The whole town seems to take pride in the season, particularly in the sense of time-tested traditions. It wants to become one for you too. But traditions sometimes change, willingly or not. What was once the Grand Palace Theatre is now an aquarium with an eye-catching disco ball octopus wrapped around the building. The Navy Pier Ferris Wheel is now the Branson Ferris Wheel. It still holds all the memories, the first dates, the first kisses and the engagements experienced by Chicagoans, but now visitors to Branson get their turn. Alcohol is still a rarely advertised vice, but weed is legal. New traditions can be good. That’s what I’m trying to tell myself on this first Christmas without my beloved Bruce. Maybe repeat visits to Branson will become a new yearly ritual for my friend and me.
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