Discovering Steamboat: 75-year-old tradition marks Santa's arrival

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Four little words captured my interest recently as I was searching for a holiday-themed column idea. The note on my desk from reporter Tom Ross referenced “Hayden’s roving Christmas tree,” and I immediately knew I had to find out more.

Exploring Steamboat

Lisa Schlichtman's "Exploring Steamboat" column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today.

Find more columns by Schlichtman here.

Researching the history of this Routt County tradition was like unwrapping a present on Christmas morning.

I first learned that the roving Christmas tree would be marking its 75th anniversary Dec. 24, and after talking to Cindy Wright, the woman spearheading the current effort, I discovered the legend behind the holiday tradition was Steamboat electrician and “sound man” Walt Webber, Wright’s grandfather.

According to Wright, the idea of the roving Christmas tree evolved throughout time.

Webber first attached speakers to his panel truck and drove around the Spruce Street neighborhood in downtown Steamboat, playing Christmas music. The next year, he added four small Christmas trees to the corners of the truck. and then according to Wright, one of his daughters told him he should dress up as Santa. From there, the effort really took root.

In subsequent years, Webber’s wife, Gertrude, and other ladies in town would make popcorn balls and handmade candy that Webber, dressed as Santa, handed out to children as he drove from home to home on Christmas Eve.

The four small trees on the corners of his truck soon were replaced by one large beautifully decorated and brightly lit Christmas tree. On Christmas Eve, the streetlights along Lincoln were turned off, and the glow from the roving tree would light up the night, signaling the arrival of Santa in Steamboat.

“It just kept growing,” Wright said. “One year, they gave out 1,800 candy bags. It became big in the whole valley.”

In those years, the roving Christmas tree visited Oak Creek, Yampa and Toponas on Dec. 22, Hayden on Dec. 23 and Steamboat on Dec. 24.

As Steamboat grew, the effort became too large for Webber and his family to orchestrate alone, so the roving Christmas tree became a Steamboat Springs Lions Club project. Eventually, the Lions Club decided to suspend the project, Wright said, and Frank Franco brought the roving Christmas tree to Hayden.

“At some point, the 4-H club in Hayden took it over, and then eight years ago, that 4-H club disbanded,” Wright said. “We were living in Hayden, and I talked to my family and asked if they wanted to bring it (the roving Christmas tree) back in the family.”

The answer was “yes,” and now, it is Wright, her cousin Alan Webber and members of their families who are making sure the roving Christmas tree tradition continues delighting the children of Hayden.

This year on the 75th anniversary of the roving Christmas tree, Wright will be hosting a Webber family reunion at her home on Christmas Eve. She is expecting about 50 family members to gather in Hayden for the occasion, including her aunt and Webber’s only living child, Norieta Rule, who will be traveling to Northwest Colorado from Alaska.

“My aunt was 3 when the roving Christmas tree started,” Wright said.

After enjoying a meal together, the large group of Walt Webber’s descendants will jump aboard this year’s two roving Christmas tree floats, traveling from house to house, handing out bags of candy to excited youngsters.

“Our float has a Santa house on it with a big tree, reindeer, lots of lights and loud music. The other float is a winter wonderland with a big tree, a sleigh and reindeer,” Wright said, adding that both floats will have their own Santa on board.

Families in Hayden who want the roving Christmas tree to stop at their home are asked to keep a porch light on and to keep an eye out for the traveling float. This year, there is a new Webber’s Roving Christmas Tree page on Facebook, which will allow Hayden residents to follow the tree’s progress as it makes it way through town. Wright said she and other family members will be posting pictures on the page throughout the night to let people know where they are.

When the tree stops at individual homes, it is the reaction from young children that keeps Wright and her family inspired year after year.

“They jump up and down, sometimes screaming and yelling, going back to get their mom and dad,” Wright said. “They’re just amazed that Santa Claus is coming to their house on Christmas Eve. It’s just pure joy. It’s about the magic of Christmas for them.”

Wright said the knowledge that she and her family are keeping alive a tradition her grandpa started 75 years ago is extremely gratifying.

“It is a treasured Christmas memory for so many kids. It makes you feel proud that your grandparents did something that touched so many lives. It’s pretty cool to be able to continue that.”

For more information about Webber’s Roving Christmas Tree, “like” them on Facebook or call Wright at 970-276-4446.

I invite readers to help me discover more about Steamboat and Routt County by suggesting places you’d like me to visit, people you want me to meet or activities you’d like me to try. You can reach me at lschlichtman@SteamboatToday.com or 970-871-4221.

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