Mountain Living Flashback: Christmas in the Big Wood
Original photos by Jason McConathy
In 2000, when I was a writer for Mountain Living, I wrote a story, “Christmas in the Big Wood,” about spending the holidays with my daughter at our Wyoming cabin. The cover shows the holiday decorations in the living room. Since then, we’ve sold the cabin and my daughter is now a young woman, but the story is still near and dear to my heart. You’ll find the complete story below:
Although I first saw the cabin in June, I instantly thought of Christmas. Never mind the leafy 100-year-old cottonwood trees that surrounded the place; I pictured an evergreen standing tall against the living room’s darkly stained logs, fresh garlands framing the doorways, and a bank of candles glowing upon an old farm table. Call me possessed by Martha.
As the realtor walked us through the century-old cabin with its buckled wooden floors, each creaking planed seemed to whisper, “Merry Christmas.” The dining room was long enough for a table to seat eight, and as the realtor droned on about water rights and property lines, I was mentally putting the star on the top of the tree. But Christmas was only six months away. Could we refurbish the cabin in time to seat friends and family for a Christmas dinner at that so-far-nonexistent farm table?
Significant work needed to be done, and pronto: For starters, the ancient, crumbling chinking between the logs would have to be chipped out and replaced. In places, I could see daylight as flies, mosquitoes, and bees meandered in through the holes. The logs had weathered to a beautiful dove gray but, unprotected from the harsh Wyoming elements, needed sealing. And, of course, we’d need furniture.
Big Horn Mercantile Company, where everyone in town shops for Christmas, was decorated for the holidays.
Undaunted, we lined up several Wyoming contractors to begin work immediately after the late-September closing. In November I loaded up a van of flea-market treasures, selected with the help of a friend, and drove it to Wyoming: two beds, the perfect weathered dining room table, a sofa, and a chair. Spartan, yes, but what else did we really need?
Vintage spurs sit on Darla's shabby chic coffee table.
As we left Denver on December 20, we couldn’t dismiss a few signs that my perfectly planned Christmas was not to be. First, we discovered after leaving town in our suitcase-laden SUV that we’d forgotten to bring the presents! A Christmas without presents might hark back to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Christmas in the Big Woods—yet even the Ingalls family had maple syrup candy, red mittens, and a homemade doll. We wanted to make Christmas simple, but this was going too far. Desperate, we did what any other American family would do: We called my brother and asked him to break into our house, disconnect the security system, and mail us our packages.
Passing through the nearby town of Sheridan as we approached the cabin, we noted with dismay that all the Christmas tree lots were closed, the only evidence fo their prior existence the confetti of pine needles strewn across empty parking lots. Continuing on, we quickly devised an alternate plan: We could drive to the mountains and cut our own tree. City dwellers, we’d have to buy an ax. And where did one buy the permit? Could you chop down just any tree? As we discussed these issues, we passed Lumber Supply, where what to our wondering eyes should appear, a lone tree lay, left behind in a parking lot, free for the taking. It was the perfect-size blue spruce, one side totally flat, sagging branches leaving great gaps between the boughs—in other words, it was absolutely beautiful. We tired it to the top of our car, overwhelmed with gratitude for this unexpected symbol of Christmas, and happily crossed “buy ax” off our to-do list.
As we pulled into the driveway, it was the first time we’d seen the cabin since it had been refurbished. The logs had been completely rechinked and were for the most part stained—with the exception of the master bedroom, where a green tarp still hung over the windows, giving the room a cave-like but cozy feel. We set up the tree and decorated it with trimmings from our Denver home, singing Christmas carols into the wee hours of the night.
We all carry around in our heads a library of our best Christmases—the year we received the doll we’d always wanted, the surprise visit from Grandma in Peoria, or the new puppy crawling over packages under the tree on Christmas morning. Our first Christmas in the old cabin was just that sort of enchanted event. On Christmas Eve, snow as fine as confectioner’s sugar dusted our hats and coats as we walked the single block to the Big Horn Church—a white-steepled treasure built in 1888—as the church bells chimed. Our neighbor, Wilsen Moreland, drove by in his horse-drawn sleigh, taking children for rides through town. A merry group of carolers knocked on our door and sang Christmas carols; my daughter, Anna, joined in with the words of her favorite, “Joy to the World!”
An antique patchwork quilt and a snowflake-patterned blanket keep the chill at bay.
That first Christmas at our Wyoming cabin changed us. Removed from the fast city pace of shopping malls, blinking lights, and the barrage of holiday advertising, we indeed were able to return to the simpler holiday we’d dreamed of, where family, friends, and the community celebrated Christmas together.
Anna was only two then. Now, at age seven, all of her Christmas memories take place in the cabin. We have developed family rituals here, and Anna takes part in the planning. Where should we place the tree this year? What colors will we choose? Where shall we set Great-Great-Grandpa’s Santa Claus? We host a small open house every year, inviting friends to the cabin—a welcoming-the-season event that people have come to count on, calling to ask the date to reserve on their calendars. We buy handmade cards from the local mercantile and invite everyone we know. It’s not about the food or drink, but more about the company of friends, and definitely about the cabin.
We begin our preparation in early December, buying a tree from our local nursery, fresh cut from nearby woods. (We still don’t own an ax and probably still wouldn’t know what to do with it if we did.) Then we begin on the decorations, creating the simple fare from an earlier age—cranberry and popcorn garlands, gold bows tied to branches, red- and white-striped candy canes. Anna is in charge of making the wrapping paper; she sponges designs on simple brown wrapping paper and ties each packaged with a gold lace bow.
On the mantel we arrange our Santa Claus collection and place the ancient St. Nick—my great-great-grandfather’s toy—in a seat of honor. We frame the doorway with fresh garlands of greenery and place banks of candles around the room.
For our annual party, we begin baking sugar cookies weeks in advance. Anna’s favorite job is to decorate the cookies with brightly colored icings. December in the month of festivity, and due to the quiet pace of our tiny (population 217) Wyoming town, we have time to enjoy our endeavors. When party day arrives, we pack as many people as possible into our cozy cabin for an evening of celebration.
Since that first five-years-ago visit, we have created a ritual of walking to the little church for the Christmas Eve service then heading home for a feast of finger foods and the reading of a holiday tale—often that old standby, “The Night Before Christmas”—before retiring to await St. Nick. As a child, I loved my family’s Christmas traditions, and now as an adult, I see Christmas as a blend of the past and present, making our own contribution toward an evolving family history. Christmas Day we drive the 6 miles to my parents’ home, where my grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins, and great-great-aunt welcome us into the midst of a noisy, festive celebration.