Hollywood does not own the moniker of Tinseltown. Butte can most certainly claim it as the Montana version. At the turn of the twentieth century, Butte boasted a vibrant vaudeville scene with opulent theaters seating 2,500 that hosted the likes of Mark Twain and Charlie Chaplin, who made his first American appearance there. Butte has been every bit the dream maker and heart breaker that Hollywood has come to represent. As Mary MacLane so aptly put it in 1917, “This Butte is capriciously decorated with sweet brilliant metallic orgies of color at any time, all times, as if by whims of pagan gods lightly drunk and lightly mad.”
Butte can wear the name Tinseltown for another, more literal, reason. Beyond Butte’s nineteenth century siren call to people from across the world looking for a better life, and beyond Butte’s eccentric and splashy multicultural theatrics, Butte has long embraced tinsel as the perfect trappings to turn an ordinary tree into a shimmering Christmas tree reflecting the lights, the colors, and the very dreams of the Christmas season. While I lack the facts to support the supposition, I will bet you that Butte sells more Christmas tinsel per person than any other community in the world.
Growing up in the multicultural milieu that was Butte, Montana in the 1950’s endowed me with a belief in Christmas magic. Butte was more than a flashy and eccentric place. More than a rough and tumble place. Butte had, and still has, a vigorous embracing heart that crosses cultural, economic, and social boundaries to form a vibrant community. To live in Butte is to be “in it” together, to not only honor and enjoy each other’s unique cultural differences, but to celebrate them through food, art, and theater. At no time, are Butte’s richly hued split personalities more apparent that at Christmas.
Historically, Butte’s working class immigrants from across much of Europe brought their Christmas traditions with them which they proudly exhibited in their distinct neighborhoods. Skilled machinists, carpenters, electricians, and welders applied their crafts to creating elaborate Christmas displays with moving parts, music, and endless lights at volunteer fire stations, churches, and in front yards across the city. The Anaconda Company lite up the majority of Butte mining head frames that dotted the entire city and could be seen from the Harding Way highway as people drove over the Continental Divide into Butte. White lights on the “M” for the Montana School of Mines (now Montana Tech) overlooking the city were replaced with red and green lights for the season. Uptown business streets was decked out to the nines with music playing, snow falling, and store fronts competing with each other for the most elaborate Christmas decorations. Cold temperatures, warm welcoming houses, and numerous seasonal parties, musicals, and shows of all kinds were a given.
Through all of Butte’s seasonal excesses, tinsel was a unifying and essential decorative element for home Christmas trees – lots and lots of tinsel, tinsel that took hours to carefully hang like icicles and properly reflect the twinkling lights. Family bonds we forged and family fights ensured over the stringing of tinsel during the holidays. People tried to save tinsel, generally unsuccessfully, from year to year by placing it in the Sears and Pennys Christmas catalogs like a thousand book marks – which meant that taking the tree down was as big a job as putting it together.
While the family of my birth was totally engaged with Christmas tinsel, my own family outlawed it from our family tree years ago. My husband and two sons lacked the proper upbringing to put up with its laborious application – and it became increasingly difficult to find and purchase in such places as Alaska. Tinsel just wasn’t de rigueur outside of the Butte area.
Luckily, Fairmont Hot Springs (known to me and all others of a certain age as Gregson Hot Springs) carries on the Butte tinsel tradition in a grand way. Their enormous tree completely covered in tinsel and surrounded by wildlife mounts on the wall enchants my inner child and takes me flying off to the Butte, Montana Christmas I long to celebrate. They do Christmas right. They go to excesses. All of their outdoor trees sport bright lights of every hue and are laden with fresh fallen snow. Red stocking with names of staff members are hanging from every mantel on every fireplace. It is simply delightful!
My family is more than willing to accompany me to get my Butte Christmas fix with an annual weekend stay at Fairmont. We dine at my favorite old style Butte restaurants, such as Lydia’s Supper Club, converse for hours to solve the world’s problems while soaking in the outside hot pools surrounded by snow, play on the slopes at Discovery Ski Area, and stop in Philipsburg on the way home to revel in the old fashioned Christmas atmosphere and pick up some delicious peanut butter taffy at the Sweet Palace. This weekend trip is a Christmas present to me from my family each year – and I LOVE it.
The 2015 holiday season’s trip was particularly wonderful. It snowed and snowed all day on Saturday, creating tons of powder for my sons’ snowboarding adventures at Discovery. Sunday dawned clear and cold – cold enough for booted feet to squeak as I walked along the shores of a frozen Georgetown Lake. It was nearly winter solstice and the bright rays cast by the low lying sun presented one Kodak moment after the other. It was winter as exactly winter should be. It was the winter of my dreams, the Christmas of my dreams.
Modern Philipsburg could be Butte of the 1950’s with their uptown wreaths, city center crèche, old, ornate buildings – old Butte on a miniature scale. The really enthralling thing is that none of this – Fairmont, Butte, Philispburg – is artificial. It has not been concocted by some marketing guru to satisfy someone’s idea of what an authentic (such an over used marketing term!) Christmas should be. No, all of this is organic and community created. The staff at Farimont hang the tinsel, the citizens of Philispburg collectively decorate their beautiful mountain town, the same family that started Lydia’s Super Club still serves up the best Italian food in America, hot springs are a geological features throughout Montana, and who but Nature or God could sculpt the mountains, light the sun, and forge such a dramatic landscape. My family’s Christmas gift to me surpasses all others in its meaning. I savor it all year long.
As a parting gesture, my Christmas trip ended with a bald eagle in a tree on one side of Montana Highway 1 and a rough legged hawk on a utility pole on the other side. I will be smiling for a long, long time.
Merry Christmas from Tinseltown, Montana!