GRAND RAPIDS TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.
About 500 volunteers spent hundreds of hours over three weeks transforming the main building into a winter wonderland. It features 46 trees, each representing a holiday tradition from around the world.
The festive display just east of Grand Rapids draws 85,000 to 100,000 visitors each year.
Visitors to the Metro Health Christmas & Holiday Traditions exhibition will be greeted by the smell of evergreens, the sounds of carolers and the sparkle of 300,000 lights inside and out.
The building is also dressed in hundreds of orchids, 800 to 1,000 poinsettias, and numerous amaryllis.
THE RAILWAY GARDEN: ‘BEAUTIFUL EXPERIENCE’ FOR THE FAMILY
Guests can also check out the Railway Garden, which runs through three indoor garden spaces.
“We’ve got the train running, we’ve got these iconic West Michigan buildings, and the trolleys and the beautiful garden and it’s just a wonderful winter space to enjoy with the whole family,” said Steven LaWarre, director of horticulture for Meijer Gardens.
He said it takes employees and volunteers about three weeks to gut the space and create the Railway Garden, which includes cedar cuttings, junipers, evergreens, poinsettias and a mix of tropical plants.
“The garden itself is just this beautiful experience, and then you layer over the top of that the Railway Garden and it’s really a unique experience. It’s one of the few places that you can see people come into and just jump up and down and cheer as the train comes through. Then you add to that the evenings that we’re open late, and when it gets dark and the light and the sparkle and it’s really truly a magical experience,” explained LaWarre.
Nestled in the greenery is miniature versions of 37 Grand Rapids area landmarks including Calder Plaza and its sculpture, La Grande Vitesse, Rosa Parks Circle, McKay Tower, Flanagan’s Pub and Fifth Third Ballpark, as well as Holland’s Big Red lighthouse.
Grand Rapids’ sister cities are also well represented with five landmarks along the railway, which runs through three indoor garden spaces.
LaWarre said Meijer Gardens worked with Applied Imagination out of Kentucky to recreate the iconic buildings. All of the architectural detail on each of the structures comes from natural materials — from stained glass made out of dried fruit and mushrooms to shingles created out of dried leaves and bark.
“It’s really truly incredible when you start paying attention to these things, all of the detail that’s there,” said LaWarre, adding that he finds something new each year.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
LaWarre says donor Lena Meijer, the wife of late Meijer co-founder Frederik Meijer, and her friends started the display about 25 years ago and it has grown every year since then.
“I think it was a way to originally to decorate for the holidays. But really that expanded into something where we could look at (and say), ‘OK, well what happens around the world, you know beyond West Michigan and then how do we build upon that and how do we fold in cultures that we may have been unfamiliar with and personally each of us might not experience and how do we grow that to better reflect our changing community,’” LaWarre explained.
The display began in 1995 with the German tree — a tribute to Lena Meijer’s heritage. Homemade German springerle biscuits hang from the tree, including a Dutch windmill to honor Fred Meijer’s Dutch roots.
Other popular features of the Meijer Gardens display include the England tree complete with antique Christmas cards and mistletoe and the Eid ul-Fitr display celebrating Ramadan’s end.
HOW YOU CAN TAKE PART
The Metro Health Christmas & Holiday Traditions exhibition will be on display from Nov. 26 through Jan. 5. Admission is free for members and children ages 2 and younger. Ticket prices range from $4 to $14.50, based on age.
For more information, including performance times for carolers and when you can see Santa and his reindeer, visit the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park’s website.
LaWarre says the exhibition wouldn’t be possible without the help of volunteers. He said that for every hour Meijer Gardens is open, it needs about 23 working volunteers — and that doesn’t include special exhibitions.
If you would like to help out, visit Meijer Gardens’ volunteer page here.