After the summer tourists return home and the fall winds down, I believe the holiday season brings out the best of Montana. It’s not just the grand snowcapped landscapes either. I think it’s the sometimes unique Montana Christmas traditions that many of us share together which reveals the real treasure of our state.
A Merry Montana Christmas
"I’m thankful that Montana’s wonderful outdoors and tight knit communities seem to help keep old traditions alive year after year."
Like lots of Montanans, the family Christmas traditions of my childhood started with a venture into the mountains to find the perfect Christmas tree. I would submit that Montanans know an unusual amount about trees. I still remember learning how to identify all the types of Montana conifers in my 4th grade class. For some reason that childhood knowledge stuck and certainly comes in handy every holiday season. For my family, we would search for the perfect douglas fir to adorn our living room.
Once decorations are set in place, one of the best parts of the holiday season is the food. Christmastime is always memorable for trying your hand at those old-fashioned family recipes passed down through the generations. If there’s a family event at the Cotton’s, someone will be scraping together their last huckleberries from the summer to make a pie following the family recipe. My mom and my sister would spend hours making Christmas dessert dishes filled with the most delectable fudge and cookies of all sorts. My dad would be putting together platters of meticulously seasoned thuringer made from this year’s elk.
On Christmas Eve, we’d join families from around the community for an evening service at our church in Missoula. The Christmas eve service always brought out the best singers and musicians from the congregation. I remember witnessing stirringly beautiful modern renditions of classic Christmas hymns. Our church’s tradition was to conclude with singing “Silent Night” with all the members of the audience holding a candle. This was sure to put even the grinch himself in the Christmas spirit.
After church we’d drive back home down the Bitterroot, slowing down as we passed by to get a glimpse of the most impressive Christmas light displays. If we timed it right when we got to our neighborhood, we’d get to witness Santa Claus on top of our neighbor’s chimney, waving at passersby with a cheery “ho ho ho” no matter how rough or cold the Montana winter weather might be.
Christmas morning of course was opening presents with family. My stocking was almost always stuffed with a pack of ammunition for my .22 and a new pair of wool socks to keep me going for all the skiing, shooting and outdoor activities sure to take place in the next year. If the weather was right, my dad and I would throw on a coat over our pajamas, grab our shotguns and the dog, and sneak down to the Bitterroot River slough just a small distance from our house to see if we would be lucky enough to get a jump on some ducks or geese.
I have so many fond memories of the Montana Christmases of my childhood. We truly live in the last best place to be a kid. While other more urban areas experience the creeping commercialization of Christmas, I’m thankful that Montana’s wonderful outdoors and tight knit communities seem to help keep old traditions alive year after year.
I wish all of my readers a Merry Christmas and a very happy new year!
The column originally appeared in Lee Newspapers.