The story of Christmas
CHRISTMAS — Christmas is a small town in Alger County along M-28, approximately three miles west of Munising. It wasn’t always called Christmas.
Ojibwe people used the land that would one day become Christmas as a favorite camping ground in the summer as they migrated to Grand Island to harvest berries and fish. They referred to the general area as minisiing, meaning at or near the island. According to maps made in the early 1670s, French voyageurs and Jesuit missionaries also found the site a useful stopping point in their travels. They called the location Les Grandes Isles, the big islands.
The area went by several names in the first part of the nineteenth century. It was known for a time as Onota, a small township slightly to the west, possibly dubbed by geologist and ethnologist Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. It was also called Bismark, then Wayne’s Mill, the latter name presumably reflecting the fact that a man named Wayne operated a sawmill there.
In 1870s, a forge was established at this location to turn raw ore from the Marquette Iron Range into commercially viable pig iron. This industrial process required large quantities of hardwood charcoal, and the area was particularly rich in suitable trees. This industrial center grew into a town called Bay Furnace, home to about 500 residents. A massive fire that raged on June 1-2, 1876 destroyed the furnace and many townspeople’s homes, and the community dissolved.
A sawmill town then formed on the spot where Christmas later grew. It was known as Munising, reflecting the original Ojibwe name. When a rival mill town using the same name developed three miles away, the Christmas location became known as Old Munising. New Munising soon overtook Old Munising in size and economic importance. Eventually, Munising came to refer to the town we know by that name today. The Bay Furnace label returned to use to describe what would someday be Christmas.
By the 1930s, the area was largely uninhabited timberland, much of it owned by the land company J. M. Longyear founded. A Michigan Department of Conservation game warden named Julius Torson happened upon a logger in the woods at what is now Christmas. The logger told Torson that he had purchased the timber rights to the land for $800, but that the Longyear company had offered him to sell the land and the timber rights for $1,800. On March 1, 1939 Torson bought the land itself from the Longyear Estate for $1,000, thinking it an excellent investment.
In 1940, Torson registered his 49 acres under the name Christmas Plot. He had an ambitious plan to replace the North Pole as Santa’s official headquarters and built a factory to manufacture toys. Torson believed that children all over America would want to play with toys made in Christmas, Michigan.
The Christmas Industries factory operated under the management of George Mitchell, and a small settlement reformed at Christmas. A fire in 1942 burned the factory down. Despite the loss of Christmas Industries, a community continued to develop. In the following decades, Christmas was a small town of about 50 homes. The town continued its holiday theme with streets such as Santa Lane, St. Nicholas Street, and Jingle Bell Way.
Christmas, Michigan achieved international celebrity in 1966. The town got its own rural post office, and the first Christmas postmark was issued July 8, 1966. Later that year, Christmas was chosen as the unveiling site for a new seasonal stamp featuring an image of the Madonna and Child created by Flemish painter Hans Memling.
The unveiling ceremony held Nov. 1, 1966 was attended by prominent Michigan politicians who braved hazardous winter conditions to meet U.S. Deputy Postmaster General Fred Belen. United States Representative Cliff Clevenger noted that Alger County was “building a great new society in the North.” Michigan State Senator Thomas Schweigert declared that Christmas was the “focal point of the entire world for at least 24 hours.”
For many years to come, tens of thousands of letters per holiday season passed through the Christmas post office. People from every state in the U.S. and many other parts of the world wanted the Christmas postmark on their letters and cards to their loved ones.