Packed House At Christmas Eve Candlelight Service In Yellowstone National Park

The 110-year-old Mammoth Hot Springs Chapel in Yellowstone National Park was packed for its annual Christmas Eve candlelight service Sunday, this year drawing inspiration from the classic “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

AR
Andrew Rossi

December 27, 20237 min read

The annual candlelight service at Mammoth Hot Springs Chapel on Christmas Eve.
The annual candlelight service at Mammoth Hot Springs Chapel on Christmas Eve. (Andrew Rossi, Cowboy State Daily)

YELLOWSTONE — It was a serenely snow-covered Christmas Eve at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park. Not a creature was stirring (the resident throngs of elk were spending the evening elsewhere), but plenty of people were trekking toward the Mammoth Chapel for its annual candlelight service.

Residents of nearby Gardiner, Wyoming, and guests staying at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel stepped through the vestibule into the grandeur of the 110-year-old chapel. Christmas carols played on a pipe organ filled the vaulted ceiling as the pew filled.

By 6 p.m., the historic chapel was standing room only. The casual atmosphere was cut with the sounds of rustling paper and the cooing and cawing of bundled-up infants and toddlers, with everyone holding a candle.

When Jeff Ballard, pastor of the Gardiner Community Church, stepped up to the lectern, he thanked everyone for coming (and reminded them to hold their soon-to-be-lit candles vertically to avoid dripping wax).

“We're going to be singing some carols tonight, hearing the nativity story, and lighting some candles in celebration of the birth of Jesus,” he said.

Chapel By Candlelight

The Mammoth Chapel was the last structure at Mammoth Hot Springs built by the U.S. Army when it was still Fort Yellowstone. Built by Scottish stonemasons using Yellowstone limestone quarried near the Mammoth Campground, the chapel opened in 1913.

Ballard said Gardiner Community Church is one of many organizations that use the historic chapel, but no single group regularly uses it as its house of worship.

“We are just a local church that obtains a special use permit to use the chapel for a few special services each year, including the Christmas Eve Service,” he told Cowboy State Daily.

While Jesus is “the reason for the season,” Ballard encouraged anyone of any faith to attend the Christmas Eve service. For that evening, everyone under the vaulted ceiling is part of the community.

The service moved along with traditional Christmas carols accompanied by the chapel’s pipe organ. Gardiner residents shared parts of the Nativity story from the New Testament’s Gospel of Luke.

When the Gardiner Community Choir was asked to sing a carol, people from all over the church filtered their way through the pews and to the front. The music from many voices of diverse ages added a welcome vibe of community to the already festive, but appropriately reverent, atmosphere.

Jeff Ballard, pastor of the Gardiner Community Church, presents the annual Christmas Eve program at Mammoth Hot Springs Chapel.
Jeff Ballard, pastor of the Gardiner Community Church, presents the annual Christmas Eve program at Mammoth Hot Springs Chapel. (Andrew Rossi, Cowboy State Daily)

Be Not Afraid

Ballard’s sermon was the final in a series titled “Christmas at The Movies” that he gave at the Gardiner Community Church throughout December. After highlighting “How The Grinch Stole Christmas,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Elf,” he said he was “cheating a little” for basing the final entry on a 30-minute TV special.

If that wasn’t enough of a clue, Ballard’s prop for the sermon removed all doubt. He presented a Christmas tree immediately familiar to anyone who’s seen the 1965 classic “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

Ballard discussed the tumultuous production history of the special. Peanuts creator Charles Schultz and producer Lee Mendelson had only a few days to develop an outline for the Peanuts’ first feature outside the comic strip.

CBS executives weren't thrilled when the 30,000 cels of animation were completed. They cited many issues: no laugh track, a lack of action, the characters voiced by actual children and the music being “too jazzy.”

‘Too Christian’

Ballard said their primary objection was that the special was “too Christian.” A longtime Sunday school teacher, Schultz had complete creative control and insisted the special would not be changed to the executives’ liking.

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” premiered Dec. 9, 1965, between “Gilligan's Island” and “The Munsters.” The executives’ concerns were far from founded as more than 50% of American homes with televisions tuned in to the special.

“That is, by the way, a higher percentage than most Super Bowl broadcasts today,” Ballard said. “The show is a critical and commercial hit, winning both Emmy and Peabody awards. Coca-Cola was inundated with letters from fans of the show thanking them for sponsoring such a wonderful Christmas special and begging them for more in the future.”

While the special is noted for its explicit critiques of the consumerism associated with Christmas, Ballard discussed the more subtle theme of fear. As Charlie Brown fears that he won’t find the true meaning of Christmas, he gets a revelation from his friend and “the poster child of fear” in Peanuts, Linus.

That Linus Moment

The moment when Linus took the stage and recited Luke 2:08-14 was one of the “too Christian” moments the executives disliked. It has since become one of the most iconic moments of the special and Christmas pop culture in the United States.

“When (Linus) gets to the part where the angels tell the shepherds to fear not, he drops his blanket,” Ballard said. “You don't notice it at first because the blanket just disappears out of the screen. But when the hand comes back into view, and he continues to quote from the Bible, he no longer has the blanket in his hands. As far as I know, for the first time in Peanuts' history, Linus is empty-handed. Linus has decided that he doesn't (need) that security.”

Ballard continued to say abandoning fear is a constant theme in the New Testament. The shepherds were the first to be told to let their love drive out their fear, but they were far from the last.

“Charles Schultz is getting a visual representation of something that he believed: when a person has received Jesus as their Savior, he or she truly can let go of their fears,” Ballard said.

Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!

When Ballard’s sermon concluded, the lights of the Mammoth Chapel dimmed as ushers moved down the central aisle with candles in hand. Everyone lit their candles and watched as the darkness lifted from the lights in their hands.

“Let’s be reminded tonight that this is symbolic of what love can do in our hearts, and in our community, and in our world,” Ballard said. “May the love of Jesus drive fear out of this room and out of our lives.”

In the candlelit chapel, everyone sang a few verses from “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful” and “The First Noel.” Outside, the colors from distant Christmas lights adorning other Mammoth buildings flickered green and blue through the windows.

With that, the candles were extinguished, and the overhead lights restored. Everyone applauded and celebrated the sacred occasion as the annual service concluded.

“Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!” one woman shouted the moment she stepped outside the chapel, to the delight of everyone else, who were shaking hands and hugging friends and family as they made their way to their vehicles.

Then, a long procession of headlights started making the labyrinthine descent from Mammoth Hot Springs to the North Entrance of Yellowstone and Gardiner beyond. Nobody was fearful after holding the heat of their candle close and feeling the warmth of their community in the frigid cold of Yellowstone’s winter.

“There is something strong enough to chase away the fear,” Ballard said. “And that is love. God's kind of love has the power to drive fear out of our lives. The two greatest commands for Christ's followers are to love God and love your neighbor. It drives out anger and resentment and the desire to hold grudges. We have the ability, even tonight, to let go of our fears.”

  • Candles illuminate the Mammoth Hot Springs Chapel on Christmas Eve.
    Candles illuminate the Mammoth Hot Springs Chapel on Christmas Eve. (Andrew Rossi, Cowboy State Daily)
  • It was a peaceful scene outside the Mammoth Hot Springs Chapel on Christmas Eve.
    It was a peaceful scene outside the Mammoth Hot Springs Chapel on Christmas Eve. (Andrew Rossi, Cowboy State Daily)
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  • Chapel 5 12 27 23
  • Chapel 12 27 23

Andrew Rossi can be reached at arossi@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Andrew Rossi

Features Reporter