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Holiday Nights to bring comfort and joy

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

 Christmas greens will wrap doorways and windows of Greenfield Village’s historic homes and buildings and white lights will be strung between street lamp posts, but the merriment at Holiday Nights will unfold a little differently this year.  

Model Ts and horse-drawn carriages will be out on the streets but not for rides. They’ll be staged for Christmas card photos. Musicians will roam the village playing holiday tunes from horse-drawn vehicles. A couple of quartets will perform as well, but there will be no other carolers; in the past, local choral groups have been invited to perform, but not this year.

Visitors — whose numbers will be limited to 2,500 per evening — will be required to wear masks throughout the outdoor venue.

A tree decorated with sweets in the window of Sir John Bennett Sweet Shop at Holiday Nights Greenfield Village in this file photo.

 Those are among the changes — safety precautions because of the coronavirus pandemic — at Greenfield Village’s Holiday Nights, an annual event at the Dearborn institution since 2000. One of the few Christmas festivities still on the calendar in Metro Detroit, the multi-night affair has drawn about 100,000 visitors the past few years.

 Traditionally, Holiday Nights features carolers and live music performances, Model T and horse-drawn carriage rides, tours of historic houses and buildings, decorated in greens and some featuring holiday cooking demonstrations, ice skating, roasting chestnuts, bonfires, and an end-of-the-evening extravaganza with fireworks. And Santa Claus, of course.

“Holiday Nights is like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ crashes into Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol,” says Jim Johnson, director of Greenfield Village and curator of historic structures and landscapes. “It has so many elements of Christmases past. You can chill out and enjoy the holiday seasons. Greenfield Village after dark is just awesome.”

Santa Claus will still be there, of course, perched on the balcony of the Robert Frost House, where the poet lived while he was teaching in Ann Arbor. Resembling a late Victorian-era Santa, the jolly man will greet children by names — with some assistance from helpers on the ground. Reindeer will be nearby.

As usual, many historic homes will feature past Christmas decorations and traditions. Unfortunately, visitors will not be able to enter most buildings; they’ll be able to peek through doors and windows and interact with costumed presenters — from a distance. Highlights include Christmas in the 1870s at the Ford House, where the village founder and automotive icon was born; a Christmas homecoming in 1900 at the home of the Wright brothers, the aviation pioneers; and chocolate making in the 18th century at the Giddings Family Home, the former residence of a New Hampshire merchant.

Dolly Scheibelhut peers out the window of Mrs. Cohen Millinery as guests pop in and out of stores Tuesday evening at Greenfield Village.   'Holiday Nights' in Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan on Dec. 19, 2017.

Because of its larger size, the Noah Webster Home will be one of the few structures open for walk-throughs, with a limited number of people allowed in at a time. The Websters were Congregationalists and did not celebrate Christmas. Instead, the 19th-century home will be decorated for a New Year’s open house, a custom of the time period in New England. Young people ventured from home to home for drinks and visits.

“We’re being really nimble and things are going to change day to day, hour to hour. It’s good to remember there will be about 2,500 people in the Village instead of 6,000, that number is lower than our lowest attended evenings last year,” Johnson says. “People should be pretty spread out.”

 Other program modifications include eliminating ice skating, indoor caroling and holiday dinner events. Food will be available for pickup and takeaway at the A Taste of History Restaurant and food stalls. The village has expanded outdoor seating areas with heaters. Visitors can take off masks while eating or drinking but are being asked to remain stationary.

 The evening extravaganza, the only formal activity, has been revamped as well. There will be no sing-along and cheer from Santa outside the Martha-Mary Chapel on the Village Green. That was traditionally followed by a procession to the village entrance, with visitors in tow. Costumed presenters, with lanterns in hand, will head to the entrance about 9:50 p.m. for a fireworks display. The program ends at 10 p.m.

Santa's sleigh sits atop the Robert Frost Home

 Holiday greens will be available inside and outside the village. The Greens Market at Bagley and Main Street sells balsam fir trees, wreaths and holiday greens. Outside the village entrance, near the museum Clock Tower, the Henry Ford Greens and Tree Lot stocks hundreds of balsam firs from Nova Scotia, Canada. The trees are sourced for their heritage shape and distinctive pine scent — they are reminiscent of Christmas trees in the late 19th century and early 20th century when less shearing was done and trees were less dense with branches.

 Expect some minor changes at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation as well.

 As usual, visitors will still be greeted by a 25-foot Christmas tree at the center entrance of the museum. Santa will not be around this year, however.

 Several popular museum displays will be decorated for the holidays, including the Lionel Model Train layout and several dollhouses. Visitors will find traditional decorations in pockets of the expansive museum as well.

The Henry Ford is also adding 25 more ornaments to its Hallmark collection display. The Henry Ford last year acquired a comprehensive collection of 6,600 ornaments from an Indiana Hallmark retailer. Dating from 1973 to 2009, the collection includes Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Collectors Club, miniatures and lighted ornaments, along with catalogues, banners and documents. The museum displayed about 100 ornaments last year.

The birth place of automotive pioneer Henry Ford is decorated for the holiday season.

Among the additions this year is The Hulk ornament, selected to complement the exhibit, Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes, which runs through Jan. 31. The ornament displays are located in the promenade, between the Clock Tower and the museum store.

“We had a lot of people in the museum last year looking for the ornaments,” says Kate Morland, the museum’s exhibit director. “They were so excited to come and see the ornaments. We were so happy with the response we got. We wanted to make sure we presented them again this year.”

Already a hit this season is the LEGO train layout by the Michigan Lego Users Group. It features recognizable Detroit skyscrapers alongside new elements, including Hogwarts Castle from Harry Potter and Highclere Castle, the setting of Downton Abbey. 

 “We had a lot of people in the museum last year looking for the ornaments,” says Kate Morland, the museum’s exhibit director. “They were so excited to come and see the ornaments. We were so happy with the response we got. We wanted to make sure we presented them again this year.”

 Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the museum is limiting the number of guests to a rolling capacity of 1,500. Other safety precautions remain intact, including wearing face masks and social distancing.

 “We’re really looking forward to the holiday season, especially this year,” Morland says. “People are looking for some sense of comfort and continuity. We hope to provide that.”


Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village

6:30 p.m. - 10 p.m. Fri.-Sun., Dec. 11-13, 15-23, 26-28

The Henry Ford

20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn

Admission: $30, adults; $22.50, ages 5-11; free, children 4 and under

Discounts for members; advanced ticket purchases are recommended

The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation

9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily

Admission: $25, adults; $22.50, senior citizens; $18.75 ages 5-11; free, children 4 and under

(313) 982-6001