Holidays in wilderness are an important time for students and field staff alike. They are fun and filled with joy; they offer unique moments to reflect on love and gratitude for family and the simple things in life.
Staff put a lot of intention into programming for the holiday season. And it all starts with team collaboration. The students play an important role in co-creating what the day will look like. Thinking about how to prepare the special holiday feast, honor traditions, and give gifts is truly a team effort, making the experience that much more meaningful to each individual.
Each team holds a group about holiday traditions, in which students and guides share about how their families celebrate the holidays at home. They may even develop creative ways to incorporate some of those traditions into their day or week, honoring shared experiences and unique differences.
Assistant Therapist, EJ Horrocks, MA was a field guide in Team Cleo for Christmas and New Year’s last year. She remembers:
“Our time spent together was special and added a unique layer to each student’s wilderness experience. Team Cleo opted for a ‘Secret Santa’ gift and card exchange. We looked for special items in nature to gift or use to create meaningful mementos for each other. Our team also had some art supplies they could use to create gifts. I made a giant dreamcatcher to gift Team Cleo, which we hung in the wall tent. My guide team brought the girls plastic ornaments that they could fill with layers of rocks, various colors of sand and clay, juniper berries and sprigs, etc. Those hung in the wall tent as well, creating a festive and personalized space for our team.”
One very exciting aspect of celebrating a big holiday in wilderness is, of course, the food. As a special treat, cinnamon rolls and bacon are welcome additions to holiday morning breakfasts—a highlight for many in and of itself! The dinner menu includes traditional holiday favorites like ham, homemade stuffing, and sweet potatoes, slow-baked in the Dutch ovens. And of course, pumpkin and apple pies for dessert! As always, the menu accommodates varying dietary needs and preferences. Everyone pitches in for meal preparation and together, the teams produce delicious results.
Major holidays in the wilderness at Open Sky also include a Community Gathering. This gathering features our annual holiday talent show, a friendly “bust off” fire-making competition, and group activities such as drum circles and storytelling. Put on by a lively and festive bunch of field staff, the Community Gathering is filled with creativity, connection, and lots of laughter. The talent show features both team and individual acts. EJ notes:
“It was fun to leave our team sites and join together with the whole camp as well as visiting staff from the Open Sky office. It’s a beautiful opportunity to build camaraderie and be reminded we’re all in this together. There is a lot of joyful and playful energy. Some acts that stick out in my memory were students writing Open Sky-themed re-mixes to popular carols, a mustard-chugging competition (ha!), and traditional dances from individuals’ home cultures.”
Throughout the holidays, teams maintain the structure of their normal routines. They go on expo, hike, come back to base camp, and do chores. They wake up and do yoga, meditation, and a feelings check. They have time for group reflection and personal reflection. There is comfort and safety in being grounded in routine, especially during a time that tends to bring up new and different emotions.
While Christmas day in the field is filled with fun, entertainment, and the aroma of the holiday feast, we do not ignore emotions tied to the holidays. Some students are motivated to make it a happy, perfect day. Others may feel some sadness, missing home and family. There is always space to feel every emotion that comes up. “We dive right into all of those feelings,” says EJ. “So often in wilderness, guides can only imagine what students are going through, so it’s a powerful opportunity for guides to experience these emotions alongside students.”
“To me, something magical about celebrating a holiday in wilderness is the way it highlights our love and appreciation for family,” EJ emphasizes. “It reminds us that family and love are more meaningful than the materialism often associated with this time of year. And in a way, our team grows closer as family as we celebrate the holidays together.”