Life

Say cheers to Stillwater: holiday cheer abounds in this small river town in Minnesota

Midwest Traveler on the Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas store in Stillwater, where it’s Christmas year round. (Brian Peterson/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS
Midwest Traveler on the Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas store in Stillwater, where it’s Christmas year round. (Brian Peterson/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS
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The lighting was low, indirect. The perfectly arranged displays were backlit, so all I saw when I stepped into the old-fashioned storefront was ornaments — hundreds and hundreds of them, gleaming and sparkling in cascades of colors.

White segued to silver, gold to red. Ornate blown-glass Santas rubbed elbows with glitter-cheeked snowmen; exotic birds with feathery plumes perched next to intricately painted winter scenes; wax angels kept watch over regiments of nutcrackers.

I hadn’t come to Stillwater, Minn., to get a holiday boost. I’d come to the scenic river town on a late fall day-trip with my friend Sandy to have lunch, do some shopping and maybe stop at the speakeasy, if we could find it.

But about halfway through our shop-by-shop tour of the boutiques along Main Street, we walked into what townspeople call “the Christmas store.” Suddenly, I felt like a 7-year-old on Christmas Eve, filled with wonder, awe and an unabashed joy for Christmas.

That’s the effect the Kathe Wohlfahrt store has.

I have to admit the feeling took me by surprise. I’m not exactly a Scrooge, but I’m definitely not Christmas-crazy.

Every December my husband and I dutifully hang a Boy Scout wreath on the front door, put up a Charlie Brown tree, get out our shoe boxes of ornaments and hang a few favorites from the spindly branches.

But walking into Kathe Wohlfahrt — an almost museumlike shrine to Christmas — made me hungry for the holidays.

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Sandy and I had been browsing the boutiques at a pretty good clip. (I had this silly idea that we should try to hit them all.) But the magic of the Christmas store made us slow our pace.

We pored over one ornament after another, most of which were handmade in Europe. Sandy was taken by the classic blown-glass ornaments. I lingered over the cartoonish wooden characters from folk tales. We both stopped to study the music boxes, the manger scenes and the elaborately detailed schwibbogens (decoratively carved candleholders, a shopkeep explained).

We spent the better part of an hour in the store. And though Sandy was considering a cuckoo clock and I’d developed a serious crush on what looked like a little glass opossum, we somehow left empty-handed. (I did take a catalog with me. Just in case.)

Back on Main Street, Stillwater — with its historic buildings and riverside setting — did its best to extend our holiday high.

It was a bit of a jolt to go from the quaintness of the Christmas store to an uber-modern restaurant, Pearl and the Thief. But it was time for lunch and the tasty Southern-style food of chef Justin Sutherland (of St. Paul’s Handsome Hog) eased the transition.

Over crispy chicken thigh sandwiches and dirty rice bowls, our conversation ranged from our favorite ornaments (I still have a soft spot for a half-melted angel candle), our family traditions and, finally, the task at hand: which boutiques to visit next.

We’d already been to Betty June’s, which was jam-packed with stylish, casual clothing and affordable accessories (check out the acrylic earrings by Ink+Alloy). We’d spent some time appreciating Simply Chic’s well-curated collection and had lingered in Alfresco, with its fresh mix of home accessories, bed and bath offerings, and surprisingly creative selection of children’s toys and clothing.

After lunch, we hit Mara-Mi, a paper products store and coffee shop, and Sash, with its sophisticated menocore offerings. We bopped in and out of River Jeans, Downtown Divas and Enchante. We didn’t make it to all the boutiques (there are dozens), but we made an impressive effort.

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And while I didn’t splurge, I ended up with some unique items — a pair of embroidered gloves, wire earrings in a geometric shape and several lotions from Modern Roots.

We wrapped up our shopping just in time for rush hour, so we waited it out with snacks at the Long Goodbye bar in Lora, Stillwater’s don’t-miss hipster hotel. There, we decided it wasn’t just what we had in our shopping bags that had made the day so fun. It was the place.

We’d driven less than an hour from the Twin Cities, but it seemed like we’d come much farther. With the construction of the new St. Croix bridge, Main Street isn’t packed with traffic anymore. The birthplace of Minnesota is so much quieter and more pleasant to stroll. And, in addition to the warm and welcoming shopkeepers, the stores offered something most urban stores can’t: a sense of openness, a sense of place.

Carved out of historic buildings, almost all of the stores felt spacious, with tall ceilings, exposed brick walls and plenty of windows. That made them all the more inviting and added to the feeling that we’d really gotten away from the city.

By then, of course, it was time to head home. We took the short walk to the car, talking about when we could team up for another trip to Stillwater.

Oh, we did find the Velveteen Rabbit, the town’s speakeasy. But I’m not going to tell you where it is. That would take away some of the fun of finding it — yet another sweet surprise in Stillwater.

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