I used to take holiday decorating pretty seriously. Photographs of our house show the multicolored snow reflecting the glow of thousands of tiny lights in the trees of our yard, a winter wonderland not unlike Clark Griswold’s house in the movie, “Christmas Vacation.” But, since moving to Montana, my front yard is a forest too vast to light with anything smaller than a multi-million-candle-power floodlight. And lighting it would seem to lack relevance since I, in my studded all-wheel-drive SUV, am one of the few people willing to climb the steep, snowy driveway to see it.
I don’t really miss decorating our house, though, and for that I have Deb Kampsula to thank. Deb is the organizing force behind the Bigfork Elves, the unofficial army that every year occupies Bigfork and, fueled by coffee, donuts, and Christmas spirits, transforms it from the quaint little lake town of summer into Montana’s Christmas Village. I’m one of the Elves.
I spoke with Deb recently to gather some intelligence on this paramilitary assault force. “It all started in 1979,” she told me. “A group of guys thought Bigfork should be decorated for Christmas. I can’t remember who all were involved, but Edd Blackler, Frank Crane and Ray Schlitz were some of the guys I remember. Frank was ex-military and is responsible for the military character of the operation. When he was ready to retire from organizing the Elves he selected Doug Averill to take over, knowing that Doug would keep the tradition alive. Doug has been leading the brigade since 2000 and he enlisted me as the Chief Decorating Elf in 2003.”
It’s important to understand that this military influence doesn’t go much beyond pins and ranks. But those who come back year after year receive a promotion in rank, signified by the pin on their Elf hats. You start with no rank, but quickly begin the progression from Lieutenant to Captain to Major and ultimately to General. I’m a Major; Deb is a Colonel. (I’d be a Lt. Colonel, but I forgot to trade in my pin last year.)
So what do the Elves actually do? “Decorating day is the Saturday before Thanksgiving,” said Deb. “But the operation starts the Saturday before that. We all meet at Flathead Lake Lodge for breakfast and then go cut trees and test lights. We’ve got about three miles of light strings to test. Some of the new strings are LEDs and they tend to be pretty reliable. But we still have a lot of the old C-7 incandescent bulbs. Those are pretty fragile. We test them to make sure they’re all working before we put them up. I should also mention that Toot Sward heads up bow making as a separate operation; her group makes literally thousands of red bows.”
“Then, on decorating day, that’s when you see the Elves. We congregate at the Bigfork Inn, have coffee and donuts, shoot a group photo, and then proceed down the streets to decorate the buildings. Everyone is assigned a building or an area and there is a Flight Leader responsible for directing the work at that area. By the way, we’re always looking for people who want to be flight leaders; take charge types who have done this at least once before.”
The Elves start by tying lights to the evergreen garland purchased by the building owners. They hang the lighted garland along all the low areas. Then the mobile lifts come down the street and lift lights to the higher rooflines.
“Usually, we’re done by noon,” says Deb. “And to make sure no one gets too cold or thirsty, the Beverage Babes circle the Village in a golf cart stocked with coffee, hot chocolate, and several special ingredients for added warmth.”
So, who can be an Elf? “All are welcome,” Deb says. “None of this would happen without the support of our community. Just dress warm, bring a pair of gloves, and show up at eight. And if you don’t have an Elf hat, we’ll provide one.”
Prep day at Flathead Lake Lodge is Nov. 16 this year; decorating day is Nov. 23. And you don’t have to salute me. I’ll just be happy to see you there.
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