North Fork of the Blackfoot River

A Cowboy Christmas

Posted: December 1, 2021
Cowboy Claus kicks off Old West Christmas Fest on his horse, Nick.

They say that the magic of Christmas lives in the hearts of the young and old – a magic that’s cultivated over the years from our holiday memories. In the small town of Ovando, Montana, this magic has been gifted to locals and visitors alike for more than two decades. What began in the early-2000’s as the Old West Christmas Fest, an event created by local business owners to drum up business for the once sleepy town, has blossomed into an event that draws attendance from the western half of the state.

As soon as plates are cleared from the Thanksgiving table, Ovando’s community members are bustling about, turning the charming town into a winter wonderland. From petting zoos and festive crafts to a holiday market and even horse-drawn wagon rides, Christmas Fest has evolved over the years and become a family tradition for many. And true to holiday fashion, there has to be a splashy event kick-off, right?

At Christmas Fest, the celebration begins with the arrival of “Cowboy Claus,” who rides into town on his trusty horse named Nick. Cowboy Claus is a relative of Santa Claus himself, and the family resemblance is uncanny! Cowboy Claus has white curly locks and a long white beard, although he prefers western flair, and dons a red flannel shirt, jeans, chaps and cowboy boots. Santa’s relative attends Christmas Fest to collect Christmas wishes from the children and personally deliver them to the North Pole. One of the original organizers of Christmas Fest, and owner of Blackfoot Angler, Kathy Schoendoerfer, expanded on the magic of Cowboy Claus, “You have all these kids and they know Cowboy Claus is coming down Highway 200 – he rides down with a police escort and when the kids see the lights and hear the hooves, the faces on them, no matter the age, makes the prep-work worthwhile. Their faces are absolute joy and awe.”

The arrival of Cowboy Claus is only just the beginning of the celebration! After the highway clears, crowds flock to the local museum and patiently wait for a turn to sit on an antique saddle and tell Cowboy Claus their Christmas wishes. As Kathy reminisced, she chuckled, “Some of the kids are scared, while others have quite a list!” Most holiday wishes include what you’d expect… an assortment of toys and games, but if you ask Cowboy Claus, he’s had a few surprising requests, including children whose wishes include a brother or sister! Though a majority of those waiting in line are children, the jolly cowboy draws a crowd of all ages. One year, an elderly woman made the drive from Kalispell to capture a photo on Cowboy Claus’ lap, because she wasn’t sure how much longer she could make the trek. This memory is an especially endearing one to Cowboy Claus.

Mr. and Mrs. Cowboy Claus enjoy the annual tradition of Christmas Fest, which they lovingly refer to as, “a good old-fashioned family event.” Mrs. Cowboy Claus expanded on her favorite parts of the event, “The fire hall hosts gingerbread house construction, while the church provides holiday crafts and ornaments for the children, and of course, there’s hot chocolate! Some years there’s been cotton candy, Indian fry bread and there have even been re-enactments of old-fashioned western shoot-outs.” Cowboy Claus added, laughing, “We also hand out candy canes. But you have to be careful when you’re around Nick, because he’s sneaky and he’ll eat yours if you’re not paying attention.”

In the small town of Ovando, there’s no shortage of Christmas spirit, but with all of the preparations, sometimes it can feel like there’s not enough hands to trim trees and hang lights. Most community members volunteer to help with event booths and tasks, while others own stores that require all-hands-on-deck for the festival. It’s safe to say that the event would not be what it is today without the dedication of the community, and of course, local business owner and current event chair, Leigh Ann Valiton, who graciously leads the holiday extravaganza. Luckily, event volunteers would agree with Cowboy Claus when he says that he feels, “Great satisfaction being able to serve the community.”

On November 26, 2021, swarms of locals and visitors gathered to celebrate the 20th annual festival. Complete with Cowboy Claus, wagon rides and a petting zoo, this year’s event didn’t disappoint. Whether you’re looking to create a new family tradition, spark some holiday cheer or just experience a good old-fashioned cowboy Christmas, there’s nothing quite like the magic of Ovando’s Old West Christmas Fest!