The Second Act: Elfin Magic

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Some people go for the holiday festivity. Others go out of civic pride. For still others, it’s tradition and the opportunity to socialize. I go for the maple bars.

Every year on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, a few hundred individuals don red-and-white Santa caps and descend on Bigfork. They are the Bigfork Elves and this is the day they transform Bigfork from just another quaint little town in Northwestern Montana to Montana’s Christmas Village.

The Bigfork Elves is an actual organization. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. It used to be just an idea housed under the umbrella of Flathead Lake Lodge. Then it moved to the Community Foundation for a Better Bigfork. But this year, under the guidance of its Executive Director and Head Elf Michele Shapero, it became an organization in its own right.

The Elves came about in 1979 when a group of Bigfork residents decided the town should be decorated for Christmas. From the beginning, there have been military ranks associated with the Elves. Everyone starts out as a private, but those who come back become officers and receive a promotion in rank with each year of service, signified by the pin on their Elf hats. It’s important to understand that this military influence doesn’t go much beyond pins and ranks, though. The Elves are not the Bigfork branch of the posse comitatus.

Insofar as I have been able to tell, it’s not a sexist organization, but there are several designated “babes.” Donna Lawson and Gretchen Gates are known as the Beverage Babes, important figures in the organization because they traverse the town in their golf cart fortifying the Elves with coffee and cocoa. Toot Sward refers to herself as the Bow Queen because she’s in charge of the Bow Babes. This group of Elves makes and maintains the inventory of red bows that are so important to the operation. And if you speak to Toot, she won’t miss the opportunity to tell you to “Wrap the wires around the limbs. DO NOT tie them together!” Apparently the bows are hard to get off in January, when the temperature is below zero, when they are tied securely to the trees.

The Elfin advance formally starts the Saturday before decorating day with the traditional bulb-twisting pancake breakfast. While perhaps more important in the pre-LED days, participants still check out every bulb in every string and replace those that fail to light. And, associated with the bulb twisting, a cadre of woodsmen (and woodswomen) collect several hundred small evergreen trees to that will decorate every unadorned post in Bigfork.

Then, on decorating day, the festivities begin at 8 a.m. in the parking lot of the Bigfork Inn where everyone signs up to decorate a building or area of town. Doughnuts, maple bars, coffee, cocoa, a warm fire and some short speeches kick off the event. A group photo follows and then the Elves proceed to their assigned areas to decorate. Decorating takes two general forms. The roofs are decorated with evergreen garland and lights. The posts and poles are decorated with small trees and ribbons. This is serious decorating with the garlands being lifted to the high reaches of the buildings using borrowed hydraulic lifts.

The decorating usually finishes a bit before noon and everyone returns to the Bigfork Inn for their promotion and a bowl of chili.

Anyone who wants to can be an Elf. There’s no registration, no oath and no fees. If you show up on decorating day without a hat, there’s a bin full of them for people like you. And if you like the experience and plan to come back another year, just keep your hat and remember to pick up your promotion.

The day doesn’t end at noon. Later in the afternoon, the Village hosts its annual art walk, where each of the galleries offers coffee and cookies and art to see. In the evening, the town gathers around the Christmas tree to see the lights turned on. Christmas carols are sung, the children’s theater performs, and “The Night Before Christmas” is read. The transformation is complete as the little town of Bigfork becomes Montana’s Christmas Village.

David Vale retired from the world of statistics before he moved to Bigfork. Having been an Elf for eight years, he now holds the rank of Colonel. And gets two maple bars with his coffee.

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