Cutting your own Christmas tree is common during the holiday season across KELOLAND. But a West River family puts the spirit of Advent into each tree cut.
For years, the Trask Family of Elm Springs, South Dakota, has been hosting local ranch families and friends for a day of food, fellowship and celebration of the Christmas season. This year below-zero conditions complicated the day but didn't freeze the spirits.
It all began with a prayer for the Advent season, but this year also for friends and neighbors who lost livestock in the early October blizzard.
Then came the food, simple and substantial and centered on beef, just like the lives of the ranch families who gathered on a blisteringly cold December day at the Pat and Rose Mary Trask ranch near Wasta, South Dakota.
The meal was followed by outside business - a hunt for Christmas trees in the wooded draws and creek bottoms of the nearby Cheyenne River breaks. The cold would be most profound out there this year. But the Trasks said they never thought about postponing because of the weather.
Indeed, it was a cold day, with a high that wouldn't reach zero and a chill that seemed to settle deep in the bones. But invited guests from the Elm Springs ranching community and beyond weren't about to let a hard chill keep them from joining in a long Christmas-season tradition.
"No, we really didn't have any second thoughts because we had already planned to come out here and we've been out here before when it was really cold and it didn't dampen too many spirits. Everybody still had a good time," Paul Yantes said.
But that doesn't mean they were gluttons for outdoor punishment.
“We knew we weren't going to be spending too much time outside, so everything we do out there is going to be quick," Paul said.
For some young veterans of the event, the process means more than the result.
"I'm going to cut a tree down," 12-year-old Liam Yantes said. "We're going to Boston for Christmas, so we don't really need one. But it's still fun."
Some local ranch folks, including Pat Trask's lifelong friend Philip Wilson and his wife, Mary Kay, said they come each year for something other than a tree.
"Well, the food," Wilson said. "And the good company."
The frigid weather has its benefits, too, Wilson says.
"It keeps the riffraff away," Wilson said.
It kept a few regulars away, too. And because of the bitter cold, the open hay wagon was traded for an enclosed livestock trailer with quilts added for warmth. The October blizzard had ravaged the cedar and juniper groves, so Christmas-tree options were reduced. But those with warm hearts and sharp saws still found something to take home.
Soon fragrant symbols of the season were carted to pickups and strapped on car top, as the gathering reassembled indoors.
With people gathered close to the stove, the outdoor chill was soon forgotten. But the reason for the gathering was not.
"We do this because the reason for the season is the Redeemer," Pat said. "Jesus is the reason."
No doubt Jesus is the reason for this ranch celebration, which typically brings back all of the Trasks' 12 children and old friends from near and far. The trees have traveled a bit, too, over the years.
"We've even sent trees to Sioux Falls on semis that were leaving Flying J truck stop after we have this day," Pat said.
But the trees are only a symbol of the much greater growth in human connections that Pat believes occur each Christmas season. Connections were surely clear in the humble machine shed far from bright city lights.
"And so it is a mystical time of humanity giving way to divinity," Pat said.
Pat himself can't recall for sure how many years the family has held this gathering. It's somewhere near 30, although even regulars have lost count.
"It's just a Christmas tradition," Paul said. "It's been going on so long that, if you asked me when it started I probably wouldn't know; because it gets to be so many times that you get to think you've just always been doing it."
The Trask Family was spared the kind of extensive livestock losses that were suffered in October by some of their friends and neighbors. But the Trasks urge everyone to keep those hard-hit ranchers in their thoughts and prayers during this holiday season.