CHRISTMAS, Mich. -- Julius Thorson created Christmas -- a storybook village in the state's Upper Peninsula where treetops and Lake Superior glistened and a Santa's workshop turned out miniature trucks, dolls and other toys.
But Thorson's toy factory burned down in the early 1940s, and for the next half-century Christmas consisted of little more than a handful of cottages, trailers, and a few taverns and stores.
Nowadays, Christmas is merrier thanks to a casino that has sparked the local economy and has some residents predicting a tourism boom that would fulfill Thorson's wish for a thriving community.
Not that Thorson would approve of people trying their luck at slot machines and blackjack tables in his town.
"He didn't want anything like that," said his former son-in-law Louis Passinault. "Gambling has nothing to do with Christmas."
The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, which opened a small gambling hall in Christmas six years ago, is expanding the casino to 22,000 square feet. Even before the grand opening, the Christmas Kewadin Casino is often crowded with gamblers.
To supporters, the casino is a welcome source of jobs, customers and prospects for growth in a place that only 150 or so call home. The casino is to employ 150 workers once the expansion is finished.
"It generates a lot of tourist traffic, and that's what we've needed for a long time," says native Rick Carr, who is developing a housing subdivision in Christmas.
The village along Lake Superior in the central Upper Peninsula, some 400 miles north of Detroit, is barely a mile from end to end. The area is home to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and Grand Island National Recreation Area, most popular during the short summers. Casino boosters say it will draw tourists all year and fill a need for nighttime entertainment and business.
Thorson, a game warden, opened his toy factory after buying a 40-acre tract during the Depression. "He wanted to build a Christmas village, a nice family place," Passinault says.
When the factory burned down, Thorson moved away. Over the years, there were sporadic efforts to revive the yuletide theme.
The U.S. Postal Service opened a satellite office in Christmas in 1966 and the year's first yuletide stamp was issued there. The post office has been inundated every year since with requests to place the Christmas postmark on cards, packages and letters to Santa.
"We're Santa Claus -- at least we get a lot of mail for him," says Karen Beauchaine, who with her husband runs the post office in their convenience store.
In the 1970s, plywood cutouts of Santa and Mrs. Claus, both about three stories high, were placed near the highway. Streets were named St. Nicholas Avenue and Jingle Bell Lane.
But the efforts failed to create the growth Christmas has enjoyed with the casino in town.
Inside the casino, one of 17 tribal gambling operations in Michigan, are the flashing neon lights and cacophony of jingles, beeps and rattles typical of gambling halls. But with the high log ceiling, crossbeams, Santa-and-sleigh chandelier and carpeting that looks like gift wrap, there's a feel of a rustic country lodge decked out for the holidays.
"We felt it was important to enhance the Christmas theme instead of clashing with it," manager Karen Heyrman says.
She shrugs off complaints that Christmas and gambling don't mix: "We do a lot for the community. I don't think anybody else envisioned the potential this area had. We took a chance, and once other people saw it, they followed suit."
A meat market, an auto garage and a snowmobile and motorbike race track recently opened. The Beauchaines are enlarging their store to add a gift shop and a place for Santa to greet kids. Down the road, a gas station and motel are going up.
Carr hopes someone will revive Thorson's idea of making toys, ornaments or candy -- anything to prevent the yuletide character from being lost.
Don't worry, real estate appraiser Tom Gilbert says. There's no reason for folks in Christmas to sing, "It's beginning to look a lot like Vegas."
"I'm hoping that in 10 years, so much will be going on that people will say, 'Oh, by the way, there's a casino here,"' he says.
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