Ann Arbor Delivers a Christmas Frame of Mind

It’s December. A light but bracingly chill breeze wafts by, ruffling that slightly scratchy woolen scarf warming your neck. Clean, crisp puffs of winter air become visible wispy clouds of vapor with each escaping breath.

Now, take a deep inhale. Green smells–fresh cut fir, boxwood, farm stand vegetables–mix with the warm aroma of that spiced coffee clutched between cold hands, filling your nostrils. Brassy sounds of joyous holiday carols sing out.


I’m remembering a Saturday morning in the year-round open air Ann Arbor Farmers Market where, thanks to some wintery sensory input, Christmas finally came.

Fresh poinsettias at Ann Arbor's Downtown Home & Garden


Finding Holiday Joy When December Feels Like Spring

So much of traditional Christmas magic is wrapped up in cold climate images that it’s difficult for us warmer area dwellers to feel the holiday spirit.

In Texas, “fall” and “winter” are differentiated more by a lack of sweat than autumnal colors or evergreens (cedar trees so don’t count). In fact, as I packed for my first trip to Michigan, Austin was a experiencing a balmy, sunshine-infused, 70-something, shorts-appropriate December day.

I had the damn windows open, for goodness sake.

Sigh. Reconciling what felt like spring with what was supposed to be winter just wasn’t possible. Forget about holiday decorating.

Ann Arbor, however, fixed me right up.

Cup of mint mocha at Zingerman's in Ann Arbor.
A warm holiday-themed drink is a wonderful treat. Zingerman’s holiday special, with whipped cream. Photo credit: Leah Nyfeler

With temperatures hovering in the 30s and a myriad of holiday-themed activities and decorations, there was no way to maintain a bah-humbug attitude. And since I can’t capture those amazing winter sensory experiences, I’ll settle with sharing images and descriptions via blog.

Ann Arbor Feels Like Christmas Should

Sunrise from the trail looking toward the Ann Arbor downtown skyline.
Ann Arbor is an outdoorsy town. I explored some of the Border-to-Border Trail, starting from the Argo Canoe Livery. Sunrise over downtown was beautiful. Photo credit: Leah Nyfeler

The temperature hovered in the 30s and 40s. As a Texan, I was struck by how relatively stable the thermometer stayed; days only warmed by a few degrees. I was also surprised by how late the sun rose (pack a headlamp for morning runs!) and early it set (it’s a short day, folks).

Packing Tip: Think layers, because interior heat can get very stuffy. I actually opened my hotel windows–one of many things I loved about staying at Graduate Hotel, a short walk from University of Michigan campus and downtown Ann Arbor.

So many holiday plants, Christmas trees, and downtown glee! Everywhere you look in Ann Arbor is full of festive reds and greens. The decorations are gorgeous.

Local artists start painting in November, and the seasonal artwork combined with shop owners’ festive displays add a magical touch of wintery whimsy to window shopping.

A snowy landscape on the window of Mani Osteria & Bar is representative of designs by local Ann Arbor artists who call themselves “Novemberistas.” Photo credit: Leah Nyfeler

Mani Osteria & Bar, home of that beautiful snowy window scene, serves small plate Italian food (yes, they have gluten-free options; accommodating allergy needs is easy in this foodie town). Next door is sister restaurant Isalita, inspired by Mexican street food.

Holiday Shopping, Made Easy

Holiday display with signs at Found Gallery in Ann Arbor
Tiny treasures inside await crafty folks at Found Gallery in Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown neighborhood. Photo credit: Leah Nyfeler
Christmas tree made out of books at Ann Arbor book store Literati
A clever twist on the traditional: this holiday book tree at Literati, one of many quality bookstores in Ann Arbor. Photo credit: Leah Nyfeler

Nearby Ypsilanti is a short drive away but totally connected in spirit. My stroll around made me think that perhaps Ypsi was collegiate Ann Arbor’s hippie sister. I got another  peek at the Border to Border trail and did some holiday browsing.

Mid-century modern dinnerware and Christmas trees in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
Lots of fun vintage shopping to be done in downtown Ypsi. I particularly like mid-century modern. Photo credit: Leah Nyfeler


Glass chandelier pieces decorating Christmas tree at Materials Unlimited in Ypsilanti
Look closely: these tree decorations are repurposed bits of antique chandelier glass. At Materials Unlimited in Ypsilanti. Photo credit: Leah Nyfeler

Materials Unlimited was a true find. I love repurposing items, and the shop is full of all types of architectural salvage. Sure, you could use it all as it was intended, but it’s so much fun to come up with new uses. My husband is just lucky I didn’t buy the bar cart I coveted. I did treat myself to an antique heating grate, which sits on the dresser holding my earrings.

Facade and front window with holiday decorations at Ann Arbor's Downtown Home & Garden.
Ann Arbor’s Downtown Home & Garden incorporates birds with holiday decor. Photo credit: Leah Nyfeler

With Christmas trees were everywhere, I realized my fresh tree will most likely have made the trek from Michigan. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, the Great Lakes State is one of the top growers (along with Oregon, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Washington).

Oh, you can’t imagine how fresh the farmers market, full of holiday greenery, smells! This Texas girl had never experienced anything quite like that aroma.

Christmas tree at Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in Ann Arbor.
The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library tree was decorated with felt cardinals. Photo credit: Leah Nyfeler
Christmas tree in lobby at Ann Arbor's restored Majestic Theater.
Restored Majestic Theater (circa 1909) had a huge tree in its ornate lobby. Photo credit: Leah Nyfeler

Celebrating the Season in Ann Arbor

No shortage of holiday activities in this town!

The Ann Arbor Farmers Market hosted the annual KindleFest celebration, a night of crafts, music, and outdoor beverages. People on dates and family outings shopped, huddled around blazing fire pits, drank spiced wine, and sang carols.

Handmade chocolate stand at Ann Arbor's KindleFest 2016.
Gorgeous handmade chocolates at KindleFest 2016.
Handmade felt trees at Ann Arbor KindleFest.
Tiny felt Christmas trees at KindleFest. So adorable I took one home. Photo credit: Leah Nyfeler

But the thing that filled me most with holiday spirit was attending the University of Michigan’s University Musical Society seasonal performance of Handel’s “Messiah.”

Held at the historic Hill Auditorium, the Choral Union is accompanied by the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra. The holiday performance has been a tradition since 1879–1880 season.

I always decorate my tree at home while listening to and singing along with “Messiah,” but I had never heard a full, live performance. The acoustics in Hill Auditorium were truly spectacular; the soloists were so skilled; the music uplifting.

It was impossible to leave that evening and not be fully in the holiday season.

University of Michigan's Hill Auditorium decorated for annual performance of Handel's "Messiah."
University of Michigan’s Hill Auditorium seats 3,500. Built in 1913, it was recently renovated in 2004. Photo credit: Leah Nyfeler

Oh, and I found another more literal way to be filled with holiday spirit.

Holiday cask of bourbon and bottle of gin from Ann Arbor Distilling Company.
Ho, ho, ho! A bottle of the Ann Arbor Distilling Company’s special autumnal gin made it home with me. Photo credit: Leah Nyfeler

Ann Arbor Links

Ann Arbor Distilling Company

Argo Canoe Livery

Border-to-Border (B2B) Trail

Downtown Home & Garden

Found Gallery

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library

Literati Bookstore

Majestic Theater



Zingerman’s Deli & Zingerman’s Coffee House

Holiday display at Zingerman's Coffee Company
Displays at Zingerman’s Coffee Company showcase the business family’s distinctive art and presentation style. Photo credit: Leah Nyfeler



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Published by Leah Nyfeler

I'm a writer, editor, runner, and adventurer who is always looking for the next new story, exciting adventure, and good meal/book/movie. My focus is on helping people find their best, healthiest self through sharing what I know and how I've come to learn it. In addition to my blog "Enjoying the Journey: Observations on the Fit Life" at, my articles have appeared in a variety of print and online magazines. You can hear me as part of the 2015 Austin cast of Listen To Your Mother.

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