Merry Christmas my friends
The Montana dispatch:
Last night the most perfect of Christmas trees appeared in my living room, covered in twinkling lights, a magnificent star and Big Sky Moose Drool beer cans.
''Eleanor'' as she has been christened, was cut down with a rusty saw, dragged through the woods, over fences and across our threshold in a mess of snow and sap and pine needles and shoved into a plastic, industrial-sized Huckleberry ice cream container late Friday night.
Initially she leaned dangerously to the left. So we propped her up with wine bottles shoe-horned into the bucket to keep her upright.
Then she leaned left. We lunged at her again, steadying the branches with gloved hands, snow still on our jackets, puddles of water around our boots, while someone shoved a Costco 24-pack of Sunny-D orange juice under her. There.
I look at her this morning while drinking coffee with eggnog-flavoured creamer in a Frosty the Snowman-themed mug I found in the back of the cupboard and feel quite pleased with our efforts. I think Eleanor is marvellous.
Eleanor in all her beery splendour is one result of seven girls with seven varied Christmas traditions (there is actually a very tender, Hallmark Christmas Movie-esque story from one of the girls behind the beer can ornaments) living together in the woods on a guest ranch in Big Sky for the winter.
As you can imagine, our cabin is crammed with coffeemakers and blenders lined up along the kitchen counters and five different boxes of cereal on the fridge and ski and Glamour magazines scattered on the couch.
Gift-wrapped presents that have been mailed from Nevada, Texas and California are on top of the microwave and under the branches of Eleanor.
There is a crocheted angel in the middle of a kitchen table, with a surface that was painted with the snow-topped mountain ranges around us before any of us arrived.
One lone red velvet stocking from another flatmate has been hung from a bookcase that holds a high percentage of Nicholas Sparks novels and three abandoned, tape-eating VCRs, just daring us to insert A Christmas Story.
A second pot of coffee is brewing. The snow is falling. Wine is mulling.
This year the holidays couldn't look more different than last year.
About this time 12 months ago I was hanging up sheets on a line at Omaui and then hoisting it high above the yard, with blooming roses and lupine, an outdoor bathtub and a view of the Foveaux Strait around me.
The sea sparkled; the weather in Southland that whole week was a gift. There was endless swimming and shell-gathering and beach running.
I bought canvas chairs for my deck and a record player. My flatmates in Invercargill during my first year got me a bean bag for Christmas and I dragged it around with a blanket and a book to catch the sunlight as it came through the sliding glass doors.
My family was visiting from California and we ate all our meals on the deck as scratched up vinyl played Oh Come All Ye Faithful and Silent Night.
Favourite guests came for Christmas eve and Christmas morning brunch and there was farm-fresh eggs and boxes with fresh basil, carrots and lettuce, Irish soda bread, cider-glazed ham, enormous bowls of strawberries and pineapple.
I made a trifle in a big glass bowl with raspberries and blackberries and showered the surface with chocolate shavings and rose petals from the garden.
And all my books - which had been in boxes for months because the crib was so tiny and I didn't have a bookshelf for them - suddenly had a purpose.
Inspired by an Instagram pic, I rounded them all up and piled them together, arranging them so they stacked into a triangle.
I wound lights around them and crowned them with a nutcracker and a star. I stood back with a glass of wine and surveyed my creation.
Voila. A Christmas tree. (Which I kept up until February).
My Christmases look so different every year, with new meanings and nuances, responsibilities that come with furniture and sometimes new freedoms that mean no furniture at all. And each year I am learning more and more to just ignore the Good Housekeeping how-to tips and countdown lists and roll with what I have.
Sometimes I am with family and there are traditions that I embrace and fall in line with. Some years feel heavy with the absence of people I miss.
Some years Christmas is summer, with bathing suits and towels drying on the deck outside; some years it is winter, and coats and scarves hang by the front door with the homemade wreaths and fudge that arrive from friends and neighbours.
Perhaps there are years when you wear a sparkly new sweater given to you by your mother, and you set down a glass filled with eggnog topped with freshly grated nutmeg, to take an ornament gifted to you by a grandparent in Christmas '84, and tenderly place it on the highest branch.
And there are the years you hang an empty beer can by the tab, right in the centre of a scrappy pine and think - as you crack open another cold while wearing a Grinch onsesie sourced from Walmart - that beer cans on the tree look surprisingly festive.
Obviously I'm in one of more off-the-grid Christmas years. And I miss my family and the warmth of California. But Christmas in Montana has its perks.
It is hard not to fall in love with the loveliness of the wintry, Narnia-esque woods that I tip my head back to see when I wake up each morning. I am surrounded by new friends, holiday-themed coffee mugs, and I have time to curl up with wine and popcorn and swap stories about Christmas past, all under a pretty perfect Christmas tree star.
Lovingly cut from a Big Sky Moose Drool beer box of course.
Merry Christmas friends.