Memories of Christmas past
In these busy times of massive consumerism, the holidays have taken on a new form, somewhat like a hungry, anxious animal. Not so long ago, the season was joyous in its simplicity and spiritually renewing in its original essence. It brought us together. The celebrations were about family, sharing, camaraderie, life, and gratitude.
It’s been lamented and hashed many times: the holidays have lost their real meaning for many. Most barely get the day off, let alone have time to travel to be with family and friends. Traditions fall by the wayside. Childhood experiences become only a memory of a far different world.
In Crested Butte’s mining days, everyone was poor, but as one old timer aptly put it, “We didn’t know we were poor because everyone was.” But what they had was community, much like we have today, only with deeper snow perhaps and a harder way of life without all the amenities and modern comforts we have in our era. Still, we can be glad for the place we’ve chosen to live, among friends and a special sort of family called Crested Butte.
Born in Crested Butte during the 1940s, Trudy Yaklich grew up in simpler times when the town was still a mining town. “We always had a big Christmas tree in the middle of Elk Avenue,” she says and notes that the old timers just called it Main Street back then. “People didn’t drive around so the tree could be in the middle of the street. There were lights on it, the town would do that. Church was always real important. We went to midnight mass and that was a really special thing. In Crested Butte at that time, everybody was poor and so you didn’t have a lot of clothes but you always got a new outfit at Christmas.”
Trudy also recalls how prominent a role the school Christmas program played. “The Christmas play was huge and everybody in every class was in it. Since our school was so small, you had to have two and three parts,” she laughs. “It was usually some touching Christmas story or something more humorous,” she says of the elementary class event.
“The high school kids did the Christmas concert. Everybody played something. Crested Butte kids had to do everything, whether they wanted to or not. If you weren’t in band, there wouldn’t be a band. Everybody was in everything,” Trudy says of the 1950’s classes.
“After the play, Santa came and brought us stockings filled with hard candy, oranges and nuts. In those days, that was very special because we didn’t have sugar candy or processed sweets very much. We had home-canned fruit.”
Food, the glue that binds traditions and memories, was a big part of the holiday celebrations and Trudy recalls baking a lot of cookies and the Slavic dessert staple of potica, a sweet baked bread rolled with spices and sugar.
“On Christmas Eve we had a very simple dinner, usually vegetable soup, the best in the world, and homemade bread,” Trudy remembers. “Christmas was the big day. We’d have the feast consisting of turkey or sometimes ham with sweet and white potatoes with ham gravy, peas, and Parker House rolls, sweet fruit salads with whipped cream. We didn’t have veggie salads in the winter ever because that was for summer when you had your own lettuce.
“Christmas morning we always had potica and Kielbasa, which was typical for most of the Crested Butte Slavic community. It was very good because it was simple, and then the ladies could get to their cooking and you could go open presents after breakfast.”
Trudy also recalls that as kids, there were presents under the tree from both Santa and family. “On Christmas day, you got up at first light. The Santa presents were not wrapped and appeared magically in the middle of the night, the ones you wrote the letters for. The wrapped gifts were from family. In my time, there were no toy stores in town,” she said, recalling the time when there were no shops downtown except for Tony’s and Stefanic’s.
“Everything came from Monkey Ward’s [Montgomery Ward’s] catalogs. That’s where we got our babies from, too,” she laughs at the explanation their parents gave as to where babies came from.
“Catalog ordering created havoc sometimes because sometimes they were out of those items the kids wanted or it arrived broken and by then it was too late to do anything about it,” she notes of the pre-amazon.com days of overnight shipping. “What that meant was that mom and dad were up very, very late putting those things together because nothing came assembled.”
On Christmas Day, the town kids would visit every house in town, according to old-time locals, making sure they’d get to the older people’s homes to wish them happy holidays. “They’d give us a quarter or cookies and that was a Crested Butte tradition,” Trudy reflects on when the town was much smaller. “We were a very close community.
It was an honorable thing for kids to do and it kept that connection between the old people and the young people.”
Other town-wide Christmas Day traditions for kids revolved around snow, of course—sled rides and skiing—back before a ski area was even a thought. “We would climb Chocolate Peak, up the old Kebler Road and ski or sled down Kebler because there weren’t any cars,” she says about the mound now commonly known as Hippie Hill or Prospect Point overlooking town. “We’d also ski down from the top of Maroon Avenue.”
Eva Yetzbacher Kochevar was born in Crested Butte. Her father, Charles, owned the mountain from the late 1800s and sold it for a whopping $500. Eve, who is now 84, grew up in the 1930s here, the oldest of four kids, and remembers that when Crested Butte was a mining town, there was much cultural diversity with all the various immigrants and it was tremendously friendly. One of her favorite Christmas memories was when her parents loaded all four of the kids onto the sled and pulled them over to Sophie and Felix Ruggerio’s house, where they got homemade sweets on Christmas Eve. When they arrived home, Santa had already been there to deliver their gifts.
Randy Kochevar, who still owns Kochevar’s bar building, recalls Christmases where his father would make footprints in the snow on the roof, and mysteriously left none on the ground. He even managed to somehow imprint sled runner tracks on the roof and Randy laughs that, to this day, they still don’t know how he did it.
Local Cindy Czarnick Ervin grew up in a more recent generation of Buttians. “My fondest memories are of the complete amazement that Santa made it down our chimney every year in spite of the fact my grandparents refused to put out the coal stove fires on Christmas Eve! I was so upset they didn’t care if Santa caught fire.” Cindy laughs and recalls some of the harder financial times after the mines closed. “Everyone helped my family to give me a special Christmas even on a tight budget. I never felt we were poor because we always had homemade Yugoslavian baked goods like potica and plenty of food thanks to our fruitful gardens, and elk and deer meat or fresh-caught trout shared with my grandparents.
I still remember the ribbon candy they sold at Stefanic’s store. I would walk there daily for a piece of Christmas ribbon candy!”
After the ski area opened in 1962, a new wave of residents moved to Crested Butte who were labeled as hippies and ski bums, which was basically a realistic definition. One of those new free spirit pioneers was Glo Cunningham who, back in 1975, started a Christmas brunch for the wayward and orphans of holidays. “I didn’t want anyone to spend Christmas alone,” she says, since spending her first Christmas in town by herself. Her first party crammed 29 people into a 430-square-foot house, where everyone was served eggs. Later, it moved from the Eldo, to the Grubstake, to the Elk Mountain Lodge, and to the Talk of Town (which was known as the Plum). “I did most of the food for the first five years and people brought champagne and a grab bag gift,” she says.
But when the event got to the point that she never left the kitchen, she decided to make it a pot luck. One of her long-standing traditions is the Christmas grab bag gift. Originally, it had to be a re-gift, handmade or thrift store item and no more than $5. Forty years later, it’s now topped it off at $10 and she laughs about how some gifts return yearly. “It’s cool because we see the same gift come back over and over again through the years. One particular gift is a plastic hamburger and another one is this really ugly angel. People would save it for the year and give it back at the party,” she says.
Glo points out that everyone—yes, the entire town—is invited. Alas, she also claims that this auspicious 40th anniversary will be the last for the famed Christmas brunch at Glo’s.
Christmases in Crested Butte have always been a time of gathering and laughter, from the mining families who founded our town to the current visitors who bring their families to experience the real deal, practically storybook holiday.
Before your children grow old, before your parents pass on in their journey, take the time to commit to celebration and if you don’t have traditions, create them anew. Most Buttians know, it’s not about the gifts, or stressful time carved out from a busy life, it’s about connectivity. It’s about the love. It’s about the life we’ve chosen here. Happy Christmas.