Christmas isn’t the reason for Yellowstone National Park’s winter season, but for many locals and visitors, the annual Christmas celebration at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel is a treasured tradition.
And the highlight is when Santa arrives. But instead of taking his sleight pulled by magical reindeer, the Jolly Old Elf makes quite an entrance in a beautifully restored vintage yellow touring bus, waving as local kids wave, fidget and squeal with excitement.
Christmas celebrations at Mammoth Hot Springs go back for generations. Recently, Xanterra, the concessionaire that manages all the hotels in Yellowstone, decided to make its annual Christmas tree lighting into a bigger, community-oriented event to celebrate the unique communities that make their living near the park’s North Entrance.
“It allows us to not only do something for our visitors and guests, but to bring together the community in Mammoth, Gardiner, and everyone who lives around here to kick off the season,” said Rick Hoeninghausen, director of sales and marketing for Yellowstone National Park Lodges.
What better way to open the park’s winter season than with the arrival of Santa Claus?
The Map Room adjacent to the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel lobby slowly filled with people and conversation Friday as the park opened again for its winter season.
Kids were already munching on treats, jingling the bells at the tip of the Yellowstone elf hats they got for the occasion.
As the excitement for the Jolly Old Elf to arrive built, the first overnight guests were wandering over to the main desk to check-in. Several wheeled their bags into the Map Room to see what the commotion was all about.
Karen Tryman, Xanterra’s retail director in Yellowstone, is one of the key organizers of the annual Christmas celebration. She and her staff find a special enjoyment in preparing the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel for the Christmas season.
“This hotel is so beautiful and so elegant," she said. "Adding this Christmas décor enhances that sense of place. We’re fortunate to have a talented team that can add to the feeling of place. I think it's great that guests walk in and check in with a sense of enjoyment of the holiday.”
“I hope everybody leaves here tonight feeling a little bit warmer and maybe a little bit of joy and hit the bar maybe a little bit of something else too,” said Hoeninghausen as master of ceremonies. “This is a good time for a break. I know we can feel a little stress in the home and a lot of noise in the world right now, so hopefully we can take a little break from all that tonight, share our time and meet some new people.”
Hoeninghausen then asked the guests staying at the hotel to make themselves known. The rest of the attendees, residents of Mammoth and Gardiner, Montana, cheered for them.
“Welcome! You’re now part of this community,” Hoeninghausen said.
Jingle Bell Rock
The honor of lighting the Map Room’s Christmas tree was given to Yellowstone Deputy Superintendent Mike Tranel, who said his switch would only work if there was enough enthusiasm for Santa in the room. After a countdown and a cry of “We love Santa,” the lights bedazzling the Christmas tree filled the room with splendor.
Holiday carols and music were presented by Gardiner’s Little People Learning Center, Snoopy Cooperative Preschool, Gardiner Public School and the Gardiner Community Band.
“Most of those kids have parents who work in the park,” Hoeninghausen said. “It’s a great opportunity for them to showcase their music and everything they do.”
While festive, all the excited children were waiting for the main act.
Santa Takes The Bus
Tradition says the arrival of Santa is marked by the distant jingling of bells attached to a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. At Mammoth Hot Springs, the bells are replaced by sirens, and the sleigh and reindeer by an entourage of Yellowstone EMS vehicles.
The flashing red-and-blue lights cued the children to pour out of the Map Room and line up outside the hotel. The Gardiner Volunteer Fire Department led a procession of emergency vehicles, escorting a historic Yellowstone tour bus carrying an exuberant Santa Claus (although he needed some help with the door as even a historic bus is cutting-edge technology compared to his usual ride).
Santa found his seat next to the Christmas tree, and the eager kids gathered around him as the man of the hour read “Bear Stays Up for Christmas” by Karma Wilson. Even Santa won’t pass on an educational opportunity when in Yellowstone.
Santa stuck around for some one-on-one time with the kids, who patiently waited their turn to share their Christmas wishes. The kids could also use the lobby’s special mailbox to send postcards directly to the North Pole to remind the big man about their discussion.
“This is what it’s all about,” Tryman said as she watched the kids react to seeing and speaking with Santa.
The evening progressed, and the Christmas celebration quietly ebbed away. Kids with hats full of extra goodies were escorted back to their rooms by their parents. Adults settled in to enjoy a drink and the holiday ambiance with their friends and colleagues.
Another season of Yellowstone Christmas memories had begun.
A Yellowstone Christmas
Many people don't associate Yellowstone with Christmas for a region and a national park defined by its spectacular summers. Xanterra hopes the Christmas celebration will become a cherished holiday tradition for guests and the people in the local communities that make Mammoth Hot Springs such a hospitable destination.
“We are one of the larger employers here in the area and are many of the people who work here,” he said. “We live here, families have grown up here. We have a sense of love from the community but also an obligation to give back. For the people I work with, that's a special feeling.”
Besides, who doesn’t love Yellowstone and the Christmas season?
“You get all the benefits of Yellowstone, plus this special community holiday event,” Hoeninghausen said. “That’s why we want to do it — to bring that element to the park for one evening.”
Then And Now, From Here To There
While Santa was the highly anticipated guest of honor, the season is cause for celebrations of all kinds.
“When I think of this park, I feel like we're in a prehistoric place,” said Edward Stafman, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Shalom in Bozeman, Montana. “It feels as if it would have felt on the first day of creation if I had been there. Hannukah comes at the winter solstice, the darkest time of the year, but where light barely begins to increase. A great rabbi once taught that spiritually, the light of the menorah grows to reveal the light that was hidden away at the time of creation.”
Stafman invited the children to join him in lighting a menorah near the Christmas tree, then spoke the traditional blessings in Hebrew. Many people in the room joined him.
“Take a moment and just look around at the light in the eyes of all of us,” he said.
Scott Fraser, an artist, educator and founder of Project Indigenous, spoke of the symbolism of water and how the positive atmosphere in the Map Room can flow from Mammoth and improve the world.
“I believe that water can record what you're saying tonight, your song and your spiritual activity,” he said. “When it snows, I want you to go outside. And I want you to say things like joy and love and happiness, that those things will go to our country and change. You can change this. You are at the headwaters of the wild river.”
Andrew Rossi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.