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August 25th is a special day in Yellowstone and not for the reasons you’d think. It’s the height of summer in Yellowstone. Cool mornings giving way to warm, sunny afternoons. Plump, sleek-coated elk munch on the soft, green grasses lining sparkling rivers. The river’s gurgling is broken only by the occasional splash of a trout jumping for a treat from the latest hatch of late summer Trico’s.
So, the tall lodgepole growing out of a rock in the middle of the Firehole River seems out-of-season festooned with bright red and green paper ropes and tinsel. It’s Christmas Tree Rock and it’s the semi-annual Christmas festival for Park employees. Each year, intrepid Park employees brave the fast-moving and not very warm water to ford the Firehole, climb up on the rock and decorate their own Christmas tree.
The origin of ‘Christmas in August in Yellowstone’ goes back many years and is always colorful, regardless of the version. In the waiting area of the West Yellowstone airport stands a year-round Christmas Tree complete with decorations and bearing witness to the most romantic, and most commonly heard, version. The story goes that sometime between the late 30’s and early 50’s, a horrible snowstorm struck Yellowstone Park stranding summer visitors. Marooned at Old Faithful and looking out on a wintry wonderland scene, the employees and guests decided to hold a complete Christmas celebration. Songs, a Christmas feast, and decorated tree commemorated the event. The story goes on that the tradition continues until today. Unfortunately, while a brief snowstorm in the summer can occur, there are no historical records of a blizzard significant enough to strand people long enough for such an event.
Another colorful version is that the employees of the Park themselves began the tradition in the late 40’s or 50’s. Early park employees were nicknamed ‘Savages’ until the mid 1970’s and infamous for their employee parties. ‘Savage Day’ was a July employee event that included a parade complete with floats. The evening ended with a costume ball in the Old Faithful Recreation Hall and more skits, dances, songs and rambunctious partying. So rambunctious in fact, that in 1947 Huntley Child (owner of the current park concessionaire Yellowstone Park Company) issued a stern memorandum about resulting “severe criticism” received by Savage Day partying employees for their behavior (wearing costumes, soliciting tips, drunkenness and general wildness).
Some people speculate that in order to calm down the employee-only celebration, it was extended to guests. This was affirmed in a 1958 memo from the sales manager of the Yellowstone Park Company who recommended involving guests as a way to extend their Yellowstone vacations.
At some point, the celebration was moved from July to August 25th. Why? Again, you can pick your reason. Some say it is because that was the day many of the Park employees began to leave for school or fall/winter seasonal jobs.
One other theory is that it was due to Handel’s ‘Messiah.’ Warren Ost was a Princeton divinity student and seasonal bellman that first came to Yellowstone in the summer of 1949. He returned again in 1950 to launch a student ministry in the park. He also developed choral groups and set a goal to perform Handel’s Messiah for the July Christmas celebration. However, he needed an extra month for more practice and so the celebration was moved to August 25th.
No matter what the true origin, the results are still the same. Each August 25th, you can drive by Christmas Tree Rock (3.1 miles south of the Madison Junction or 12.9 miles north of Old Faithful). Stop by the Old Faithful Inn for an early evening celebration of tree decorating, cookies and punch, music and a visit from Santa Claus. Visitor's have been surprised by the unexpected, but delicious Holiday meal of turkey and all the trimmings at Lake Lodge or Old Faithful Inn.
Christmas in Yellowstone…whether you come in August or in December, it’s a memorable tradition you don’t want to miss.