Kendall Cotton: A merry Montana Christmas
After the summer tourists return home and fall winds down, I think the holiday season brings out the best in Montana. It’s not just the magnificent snowy landscapes. I think it’s the sometimes unique Montana Christmas traditions that many of us share in common that reveal our state’s true treasure.
As with many Montans, my childhood family Christmas traditions began with a trip to the mountains to find the perfect Christmas tree. I would argue that Montanans are unusually knowledgeable about trees. I remember learning how to identify all species of Montana conifers in my 4th grade. For some reason, this childhood knowledge stuck and is sure to come in handy during any holiday season. For my family we would search for the perfect Douglas Fir to decorate our living room.
Once the decorations are in place, one of the best parts of the holiday season is the food. The holiday season is always unforgettable when you try your hand at these old-fashioned family recipes that have been passed down through the generations. When there’s a family celebration at Cotton’s, someone scrapes up the last of their summer blueberries to make a cake using the family recipe. My mom and sister would spend hours preparing Christmas dessert dishes filled with the most delicious fudges and cookies of all kinds. My father would put together platters of carefully seasoned Thuringian from this year’s elk.
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On Christmas Eve we gathered with families from across the congregation for an evening service at our church in Missoula. The Christmas Eve service always brought out the best singers and musicians in the community. I remember seeing hauntingly beautiful modern interpretations of classic Christmas carols. The tradition of our church was to end with the singing of “Silent Night” with all members of the audience holding a candle. That certainly got the Grinch himself into the Christmas spirit.
After church we cruised home down the Bitterroot, slowing as we passed to catch a glimpse of the most impressive Christmas lights. When we timed it in our neighborhood, we could see Santa Claus climbing our neighbor’s chimney, waving a cheerful “ho ho ho” at passers-by no matter how harsh or cold the Montana winter weather might be.
Christmas morning, of course, was gift-wrapping with the family. My stocking was almost always stuffed with a pack of ammo for my .22 and a new pair of wool socks to keep me fit for all the skiing, shooting, and outdoor activities for the next year. When the weather was right, my dad and I would throw a coat over our pajamas, grab our shotguns and the dog, and sneak down to the Bitterroot River Slough just a short distance from our house to see if we were lucky enough to jump on some ducks or geese.
I have so many fond memories of my childhood Montana Christmases. We really live in the last best place to be a kid. While other more urban areas experience the creeping commercialization of Christmas, I’m grateful that Montana’s beautiful natural surroundings and tight-knit communities help keep old traditions alive year after year.
I wish all my readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Kendall Cotton is President and CEO of the Frontier Institute, a think tank dedicated to breaking down government barriers so all Montanans can be successful.