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Home Fires

Passing through the autumn gateway and into winter, we might come home to a familiar house, to a school, to the wider world of nature, or to ourselves. Holiday time is a broader concept than it once was, with more varied traditions and with more transcendent meaning.

Those of us who grew up in Big Sky Country remember many quaint and rustic things about the holidays and winter in general. David Branger of Roscoe tells stories of cutting ice on East Rosebud Lake to last a whole summer’s worth of dudes at the old Tee-O Bar. In the first half of the 20th century, all around the state, sleigh rides to and from neighboring ranches were commonplace as folks went out for hot toddies and storytelling. The dainty two-seater sleigh could be found in some places, but gone are the people who heard its peculiar sound on the snowy streets: my grandmother told me it sounded like a sustained note on the violin. More often, groups would board a heavy conveyance called a sledge with sturdy draft horses to pull it. Any driver who was up to snuff outfitted his horses with brass bells.

The cowboys of the late 19th century often found themselves without work after fall roundup and thus picked up odd jobs until spring came. The term "Christmas on the line" came from the cowboy riding snow-dusted fence lines from ranch to ranch, keeping track of strays and picking up a hot meal where he could. Alone he rode, through frosted sagebrush and over timbered rimrocks, knowing only the sound of the horse’s breath and the creak of saddle leather. Imagine the glad sight of a lit-up log cabin or bunkhouse, its windows casting orange rectangles of light on the night landscape. Inside, our cowboy was made welcome and given a seat by the fire, whether he was a poor fellow with a borrowed horse or a smartly-styled buckaroo.

The little settlements that popped up around Montana knew they had arrived when they had people and resources enough to build a simple school, church, and a fellowship hall. Every town found a way to move beyond the private threshold of home, reaching out to those less fortunate and celebrating a larger love in community. Whether it was at the school, the church, or at the Odd Fellows’ Hall, there was a Christmas pageant, program, or dance.

In each of our lives, the holidays bring welcomed sights like a fire on the hearth or the doors of a community building flung wide. The company of family and friends, especially for those whose lives are touched by loss and difficulty, makes all the difference. Dave Walter’s wonderful book, “Christmastime in Montana,” features newspaper articles from small towns like Avon, Conrad, Plentywood, Denton, Dillon, and more.  There are stories of costume contests, of the first Christmas with the telephone, and of the Butte Boy Scouts who repaired all toys at the Twin Bridges Orphanage. Years from now, our own hours, days, and years will be the stuff of nostalgia for our children and their children.

The simple scent of a fir tree in the living room transports us back to childhood and times past, helping the clouds of worry drift away and revealing all that truly matters. Soon we begin the journey into another year. On our evening walks, the steadfast stars greet us again. We see them by the thousands, scattered like frost in an indigo sky and shedding on us the blessing that is Montana.    

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