Christmastime in Montana

“Friday, December 25, 1857: Christmas is past and gone. -The day passed off quietly and very pleasantly. Mr. Chase and Mr. Harris got up a Very Nice Egg Nog in the Morning and, as for dinner, few in a More civilized World can boast of a better one.”

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Charles Russell, Christmas at the Line Camp, 1917

Although not always civilized, Christmas in Montana has always been memorable. In Christmastime in Montana, David Walter has compiled hundreds of stories and descriptions of Christmas celebrations from the archives of Montana history. Starting with the first fur-trappers of the 1810s and stretching into the new millennium, these articles, editorials, memoirs and oral histories paint a vivid picture of Montana Christmas traditions. Walter considers the project “not merely a thick, fancy greeting card,” but a vehicle for understanding and tracing the culture of Montana. The book highlights both traditions that have gone by the wayside (or changed beyond recognition) and traditions that remain constant.

Stories, so many stories. Stories that I could easily turn into blog posts. I seriously considered a post comparing Christmas feasts throughout the years (it was sorely tempting, the book includes not only the 1893 Hotel Helena menu but also glorious descriptions of trapper, prospector and lumberjack dinners) until I remembered I had just pulled that trick in the Thanksgiving blog. In the end, I decided to restrain myself, I’ll tell you about the book, and you read the stories for yourself

The vignettes call forth a whole range of emotions. In one disquieting account, Wilbur Fisk Sanders, one of the leaders of the Vigilantes, offhandedly begins “four nights before, the good citizens of the gulch had hanged a murderer” and goes on to recount how he spent “a very Merry Christmas” surrounded by bodyguards, each watching the others suspiciously “wondering if (in the crisis certain to come) there would be any flinching.” Other pieces serve as reminders that on the frontier a holiday in the dead of winter didn’t offer much reprieve from the scramble for existence. William Thompson, for example, writes of scrounging frozen onions from behind a Virginia City store and feasting on “rank, tough and stringy,” bear meat as well as “unapproachable” homemade cake.

However, most of the entries tend toward the lightly sentimental and humorous. The book brims with tales of anonymous benefactors, sumptuous charity balls, and festive children’s parties. Christmas, it seems, usually brings out the best of Montana. Despite Walter’s admonishments to treat the book as a historical text, and my own pragmatism as an historian, I couldn’t help but feel a little nostalgia for the “old-fashioned Christmases” described (menus do that to me).

Christmastime in Montana is utterly factual and completely entertaining. From solemn occasions to humorous tales, Walter navigates us through two centuries of history, finding joy in the voices of Montana’s past.

The Essentials:
Title: Christmastime in Montana
Editor: Dave Walter
Publisher: Montana Historical Society (November 1, 2003)

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