Montana Holidays Outdoors

Steve McGann  |   Friday Dec. 1st, 2023

My favorite Christmas ornament is a pine cone. It is fitted with a little eye screw and strung on a faded old ribbon. My Mother sent it to me as the wrapping for a present years ago. She included a description typed on her old Underwood, taped to the ribbon. She related that the cone was found by my Grandfather in the San Gabriel Mountains of California and made into a decoration. The wrapped gift is long forgotten but I saved the cone and its ribbon. That was the first outdoor Holiday item that I can remember. Living in Montana has provided many more.

My wife Ruth and I grew up in Illinois, the heart of the Midwest. The Holidays were defined by family, school, and church. I sang in the grade school Christmas choir. Ruth played the organ in church. Outdoor activities and traditions were largely absent from our celebrations. I suppose part of the reason was that a white Christmas was only a 50/50 proposition in our midwest communities. Early in our marriage we moved to Montana. From then on, things were different.

In Bozeman, snow for the Holidays is almost guaranteed. I can remember a few years when it was sparse in the city, but never a time when there was no snow in the mountains. The start of ski season and ‘Tis the Season’ occupy the same days on the calendar. Bozeman is a university town, and the MSU winter vacation schedule is usually mirrored by the city schools. Many adults in our community, affiliated with the college or the local schools, have time off when their kids are on break.
Big Sky, Bridger Bowl, Crosscut, and the many local groomed ski trails are usually open by the time of Christmas break. Students all over the Valley burst out of classes and clip their new ski passes to their coats. Snowboards and skis begin to show up on roof racks and in the back of pickups. Some families have traditional days in the Holiday calendar when they safari to Bridger Bowl, or Big Sky. The same thing is true of Nordic ski outings, ice skating trips, and surely, sledding on Peet’s Hill. There are ice skating rinks scattered across town for recreation or hockey. Some of the ski areas and local ranches have sleigh rides that combine the late afternoon cold with the early evening sparkle of the stars and moon.

One of the traditions that did not exist in our part of the midwest, but which we gladly embraced in Montana, is cutting your own Christmas tree. My personal experience of this fun outdoor winter activity was problematic. In my 20s, I had a hard time cutting down a healthy tree. My idea was to select a small tree that was growing next to a bigger, healthier one, reasoning that by removing the runt I was helping the growth of the larger tree. This led to me bringing home what is called a Charlie Brown tree, a small, possibly pathetic specimen of few needles and fewer branches—forget any symmetry. In later years, cheered on by my kids, I mowed down huge conifers without considering how far it was to ski back to the truck, or the height of the living room ceiling. In still later years, after purchasing an artificial tabletop tree, we continued to make the outing into the mountains and, with our Forest Service permit, brought home fragrant pine and fir boughs for side decorations instead of a large or small tree.

The end of big game hunting season coincides with the beginning of the Holiday season. Just about the time when the elk sausage is ready at the processor and the deer jerky is completely dried and ready, the season is upon us. Many Montana families have wild game family dinners, and snack on the meat that hunters in the clan have harvested during the fall season. Added to the feast might be smoked fish from earlier in the year, or from a recent ice fishing expedition. Of course, during these game feeds, the hunters and fisherpersons have full permission to tell the tales of the chase, hook or bullet.

Any Holiday dinner or Christmas morning get-together in Montana will probably be accompanied by a fire in the fireplace or the woodstove. Of course, houses all over the country have hearths and fireplaces. But where I grew up, most of these were bricked in, with just a mantle left. Wood or coal heat was a relic, and these artifacts were indications of a less affluent time than gas or electric central heat. So, they were de-emphasized or hidden. Firewood was available but expensive. In contrast, in our first home in Montana, we heated the whole house with a woodstove and, in the fall, began to drive into the mountains to cut and gather wood. During any cold Holiday morning, I spent some time outside chopping, then carrying firewood and kindling. One more outdoor Montana tradition.

As for the more formal Holiday events, there are plenty of school programs in gyms and auditoriums all over town. Performances of Handel’s Messiah and The Nutcracker ballet are always scheduled. But the best known Bozeman event is outside—the Christmas Stroll. Crowds walk up and down our closed-off Main Street, or ride on hay wagons. We all marvel at the lights, and the spiders or octopus decorations (as the kids used to call them) above every intersection. There are plenty of snacks available, and plenty of cider and hot chocolate, along with thousands of bundled up Bozemanites. This year’s Stroll will be held on Saturday, December 2nd, beginning at 4:30pm.

Another traditional event is the Bridger Bowl Torchlight Parade. This is held on December 30th, within a week of Christmas and a day before New Year’s Eve. Many ski areas celebrate with these parades—a line of torch-bearing skiers weaving down the mountain. The origins are unknown, but there is a traditional winter torchlight parade in Italy called Ndocciata that celebrates lighting up the dark on Christmas Eve. These types of events harken back to pre-Christian times, when the winter solstice was celebrated as the gradual return to light. In any event, the Bridger Torchlight Parade is yet another Bozeman outdoor Holiday tradition.

A few years into our retirement, after 40 plus Montana winters, we decided to become snowbirds. We spend a few months in Arizona each year. This has been a great experience, with new perspectives, activities and friends. Yet, we miss our Montana Holiday seasons. One Christmas we had dinner at Denny’s in L.A. Another year, after arriving in Arizona on a December 25th  flight, our dinner was salami and crackers, since the stores were closed. Interesting times, but not great choices. Last year, and again in 2023, within a couple of weeks, we were and will be fortunate enough to gather our family in Montana for the season. In 2022, we were together for almost three weeks. We skied every day, even the one when the high temperature was -25 degrees. Well, not for long that day. I am sure our schedule this Holiday will be similar. One of the memorable events last year was taking some visitors who were unfamiliar with both mountains and snow for a drive and a ski/snowshoe trip up into Hyalite. They were amazed at the clear, clean air and the scenery. We were able to better appreciate the familiar by observing their delight. Our younger son is a manager at Bridger, so again this year we will be going up the hill.

The best and most common Holiday traditions involve gathering with family and friends for meals, parties—any kind of group celebration. These usually take place indoors. But in Montana they are often preceded by some kind of outdoor activity. The warm, cozy times are enhanced, even earned, by the things we do in the cold, spacious outdoors. My goal is not to say that these traditions are better or more complete than anyone else’s, anywhere else. But for me, anything that involves being outside (including shoveling snow) is a desirable pastime.

When our older son and daughter-in-law were finishing graduate school in Seattle, they lived in a small apartment behind a large house near Lake Washington. The entire front yard was occupied by a huge tree. I gazed at and admired the tree for some time before I realized it was a giant sequoia, transplanted from the only area where they occur naturally, California. I was pleased, and kind of amazed by this, and talked about it often. That Christmas, I received a gift with a sequoia cone on a ribbon. It has taken a spot on the tree with my Grandfather’s cone from decades ago. 

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