Almost-secret Santa brings holiday cheer to rural Montana roads
She didn’t expect to be nabbed in the act, but my wife was caught. A neighboring ranch woman noticed her doing what she has done across Stillwater County: decorating the mailboxes of friends and neighbors with pine-coned greens and brilliant red ribbons.
“I don’t give many hugs,” Sheri Arnold said to Theresa when she caught her arranging greens and ribbons on her West Rosebud Road mailbox. “But come here. You get a big one.”
Later, Theresa said the hug meant a lot although she doesn’t do the decorating for recognition and had always hoped she wouldn’t be discovered.
She’s long been a secret Santa of some sort, sometimes leaving presents for people she felt needed an anonymous gift, sometimes decorating pine trees with ornaments and solar-powered lights along the rural roadway near where we live south of Fishtail. For years no one knew.
Later she switched from decorating roadside trees — since all the stately trees along county road borrow pits had been cut down by the county —to decorating the mailboxes and sometimes entryway fenceposts of friends and neighbors.
“She’s an awesome lady,” Arnold said. “I love what she does.”
Her drive-by decorating covers a lot of territory. From the Stillwater Road to the West Rosebud and Fiddler Creek roads to halfway to Columbus along Hwy. 78, where a former neighbor had moved, she has adorned mailboxes. A few friends in Absarokee also find greens and ribbons on their gates.
Her forays often were done in frigid weather and high winds. She wasn’t deterred. In fact, she had perfected doing the decorating quickly.
Word of who was responsible for the cheery touch to the wintry scene soon spread. Besides Sheri Arnold, a few others caught her in the act. One rancher told her, “I kinda thought it was you. Now I know who to thank.”
Another said she “had a hunch.”
“I kind of suspected Theresa was doing mailboxes because I heard she did the trees before,” said Tike Bowles. “She just seems like the elf who would help Santa. It’s wonderful to be one of the ones she chose.”
The gay greeting she placed on a fencepost along the Stillwater Road for Tess and Glenn Shipp “made us feel merry,” Glenn said.
Among other trades, Glenn sells firewood, and the frost-laced greens and bright-red ribbon swag on their fencepost, with his stacked wood piles behind, made a festive photograph.
“We’re using that photograph as our Christmas card if that tells you how we feel about what she did,” Glenn said with a laugh.
Decorating the mailboxes and gate posts from a few to many was intended to brighten a few people’s days. Now 25 to 30 mailboxes receive a touch of cheer. Upping the number meant gathering more greens to load into her dependable Subaru Legacy. Rolls of red ribbon were donated by retired teacher Geri Lou Flanagan, who discovered rolls of ribbon that were going to be discarded when a local floral shop closed.
It’s not as grand a gesture as the Maine company that provides 1.5 million wreaths to be placed on the graves of veterans across the United States, and nothing like the large-scale efforts of Toys for Tots or the Salvation Army bell ringers, but my wife’s small gesture is entirely self-financed and accomplished single-handedly. And she always thinks of someone else she missed and wished she had time to gift with a decorated mailbox.
The clandestine nature of her enterprise is a large part of what Theresa enjoys. Being found out takes away some of her pleasure, but simply making someone happy while expecting nothing in return is her own private joy.
As someone who sometimes becomes a grinch, grumbling about the disruption to routine occasioned by the holidays, Theresa’s gifts to friends and neighbors makes me happy. Her gift to others is a great gift to me.
So, if you read this, don’t let her know. The less attention she gets for herself, the better it will be for me.
Pretend you didn’t read this.
But if you’re driving in Stillwater County and see a mailbox with a touch of green and red cheer on it, I hope it makes you feel happy.