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South of the Border: Our second Christmas in the Sweet Grass Hills


January 22, 2020

Church members and guests participate in Holy Communion during the Christmas Eve service at the Whitlash Presbyterian Church. The church has survived more than a century by adapting as times and conditions changed in the Hills. Sunday services continue to draw an average of twenty worshippers.

Columnist's note: When Sherry (my wife) and I moved to Whitlash mid-December of last year our plan was to leave about this time (December, 2019) when Sherry's year of pastor-in-residence to the Whitlash Presbyterian Church would be completed. She and the congregation decided to extend the arrangement until next fall. That gave us a second Christmas at Whitlash.

Our first Christmas here was very sad and neither my wife nor I have a clear recollection of our first Christmas in the Sweet Grass Hills. Last December our 24-year-old granddaughter, Kayla, died suddenly in Washington state. It was the week before we were to move to Whitlash. We dropped off some household goods in Whitlash on our way to Washington to grieve with our family and attend Kayla's memorial service. The events during our first Christmas in Whitlash are vague at best.

This Christmas season was celebrated in a new place we've come to love and enjoy. Here's some of what happened as we celebrated our second Christmas season in the Sweet Grass Hills.

Holiday festivities included

some familiar events...

Like everywhere, holiday parties with work groups, families and organizations happen up here. My wife is a member of the Bears' Den Homemaker's Club and they held their annual gathering in Chester. My wife came home with treasures from the gift exchange the ladies held. The homemakers' group is one of the few remaining extension service's clubs that once trained and educated rural wives.

The Whitlash Church had several traditional Christmas celebrations. My wife and I missed decorating the church last year because we were in Washington state. This year the decorating started a bit later while the fellowship hall got a new carpet just before the holidays. Members helped move furniture so the new carpet could be laid, then returned to put up the tree, advent candles and other decorations. The little church certainly looked festive. The children selected a stockings full of treats.

The Sunday before Christmas there was a Candlelight Service in the late afternoon. A potluck supper was served before the service began. The program included lighting the final Christ candle for advent, some singing of Christmas carols and hearing the story of Christ's birth. A service of 'lighting remembrance candles' allowed congregants to light votive candles to honor the memory of someone special to them. At the end of the service everyone held a lighted candle and sang "Joy to the World."

On Christmas Eve the church gathered again for a late afternoon service. The advent candles were relit after a medley of Christmas carols. The congregation gathered for Holy Communion to remember Christ's sacrifice for us. Remembrance candles were also lit. More stuffed stockings and jingle bell bracelets for the kids followed, as well as some holiday treats in the fellowship hall. While some congregants were away visiting relatives or friends, several former residents and family returned to the Hills for the holidays and joined the services at the church.

... as well as some new and unusual ones.

About a week before Christmas a rancher brought his cows down from a fall pasture on East Butte. The herd and cowboys came up the road in to Whitlash and for some unknown bovine reason the cows decided to detour through the church yard and our front yard. First time we ever had cows, cowboys and herding dogs as holiday yard ornaments. It was interesting. I told my wife, "they say you should aerate and fertilize your lawn in the fall. The cows just did it for us."

We've lived in ranch country before (Chinook and Wyoming) but never right in the midst of things like where we are now. A new holiday experience was a steady flow of cattle pods past the house coming to and from local ranches. We were told the "early snow" had forced the shipping of cattle later in to the fall. We missed all that last year when the cattle shipping was mostly completed earlier in the fall.

Some folks have "live" yard ornaments for Christmas. About a week before Christmas a herd of red angus being moved from a fall pasture in the mountains detoured off Whitlash Road and through the yard of the Whitlash church and parsonage. A cowboy looks through the picture window of the parsonage. Not your normal Christmas yard display.

Part of my responsibility is to keep a path shoveled to the church in the winter. I did a lot of shoveling last year but later in the winter. This year a lot of snow came early, then drifted. It was the drifts that blocked the church parking lot at times and the solution was for me to chop a pathway through the drifts from Whitlash Road to the church. I didn't realize snow drifts could get like cement when the conditions were right. I'd heard ranchers talk about cattle walking over fences on drifts and finally understood how that could happen.

Another thing I'd never experienced before was Canadians doing their last minute package pickups at the local post office. I wrote earlier about why Canadians living close to the border have U.S. post office boxes (many U.S. companies ship purchases for free to customers plus items shipped from the U.S. to Canada take much longer to arrive). But I'd missed the flurry of activity as the Canucks rushed to the post office to pick up their last minute Christmas gifts. One harried rancher said, "Now I know how Santa feels just before he leaves the North Pole."

One more familiar Christmas time event happens up here in the Hills as well-Christmas cookie exchanges. A ranch neighbor invited my wife to a cookie exchange in Sunburst. That reminds me, there are still a number of those 'imported' cookies I've not sampled. I believe those cookies are calling my name, a familiar call that brings back fond memories of past Christmas seasons.


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