Searching for a real Christmas at Circle C Ranch

BALDWIN, N.D. -- On a December weekend at Circle C Ranch, the air is filled with the sound of jingle bells, tractors and Christmas hymns. Each weekend leading up to Christmas, hundreds of cars pull off U.S. Highway 83 and park in a pasture to exp...

During Circle C Ranch Christmas, the venue's riding arena features stations of the Christmas story. Hailey Whitman, in white, is dressed as an angel and greeting attendees at the census station on Dec. 8. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)

BALDWIN, N.D. - On a December weekend at Circle C Ranch, the air is filled with the sound of jingle bells, tractors and Christmas hymns.

Each weekend leading up to Christmas, hundreds of cars pull off U.S. Highway 83 and park in a pasture to experience Circle C Christmas, complete with sleigh rides, camp fires and livestock.

"It is a ranch and it is always intended to be a ranch," said Sam Coleman, Circle C's executive director for the past year and a half.

Bringing people to the country for a farm experience is big business. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farms in the U.S. earned $713 million in agritourism pursuits in 2012.

So, Circle C Ranch's efforts to get people to experience nature and adventure are nothing out of the ordinary. There is, however, a difference between Circle C's activities and those of many agritourism ventures.


Circle C isn't trying to make money off its programs. It's trying to serve the community and give people a place to "experience a life of faith ... in a natural setting," Coleman said, calling Circle C a "fun and exciting place where people come and they experience real relationships, real family, real Jesus and real growth. That's the goal."

A focus on heritage and history

Sam Coleman, executive director of Circle C Ranch, preaches at a candlelight service on Dec. 8, 2018.

Trish Lenihan's family homesteaded on property located off of what is now Highway 83 north of Bismarck, N.D. She grew up there and started Circle C Ranch as a Christ-centered, interdenominational horse and rodeo-orientated youth camp in the 1980s.

The ranch, however, went "dormant" after about a decade, Coleman explained. But earlier this decade, work began to rejuvenate the ministry for a new generation.

Lenihan, who is recovering from a broken hip, remains on the Circle C Ranch board.

"We're so grateful for her and so grateful for her continuing vision for this place," Coleman said.

Circle C now has five "branches," Coleman said: horse ministry, family ministry, adventure and missions, the ranch itself and Circle C Christmas.


Horse programs were a big part of the history of the ranch and are a big part of the future. Classes began anew at the ranch over the past summer, and Coleman envisions more trail rides, classes, clinics and rodeos.

Bringing in the history of the ranch and the region are a big focus, Coleman says. He hopes to start events on that order, like Wild West Days or Ranch Days or Heritage Days.

"Horses are a big part of that," he says.

The other branches also are works in progress, though Coleman imagines family experiences, day camps and missions trips taking place through the facilitation of Circle C. The venue off Highway 83 itself also is open for conferences and camp-outs by outside groups, he says.

But it's in Circle C Christmas that the potential for the ranch to reach its potential shines through.

Circle C Christmas

Circle C Christmas features a live nativity at each of its services.

The Gospel of Luke doesn't mention animals in the Christmas story. Instead, there are mentions of Mary wrapping Jesus in swaddling clothes and placing him in a manger "because there was no room for them in the inn," and of an angel declaring to shepherds in the fields that they would find the Savior "wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."


It wasn't until the 13th Century that St. Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene, in part to highlight the humble beginnings of Jesus. According to the accounts of St. Bonaventure, the scene included "hay and an ox and an ass."

Much like St. Francis' efforts, Circle C seeks to create a less sterilized, less commercial version of Christmas. During a Dec. 8 candlelight service, Coleman tells the crowd of hundreds in the Circle C Ranch riding arena to seek a "real Christmas," not a perfect Christmas. He points out the live nativity before him, featuring a sheep and a horse.

"There probably was some manure there right close to Jesus as they wrapped him in swaddling clothes," he told the crowd.

"When we think about the nativity, we always try to make it perfect, and we try to make the whole Christmas experience perfect, when really it's the process," he said. "It's the journey. It's the time together with family. It's when it's not perfect that you are really able to experience what is real and good."

Sleigh rides are a popular part of Circle C Christmas.

Circle C Christmas was held on Saturdays and Sundays in the first three weeks of December, which meant six nights of live nativity, 12 candlelight services and thousands of guests taking sleigh rides, hay rides, tractor rides and visiting animals.

Making it all work has taken hundreds of volunteers. Coleman says at least 200 people have been involved in getting Circle C ready for Christmas for months leading up to the event, including planning and decorating. Each night, about 100 volunteers show up to play parts in the nativity, handle animals, direct parking, sell hot chocolate and cookies and more.

"Circle C Ranch Christmas happens because there are so many people who are passionate about the real meaning of Christmas," Coleman says.


Circle C Christmas featured an interactive Christmas story, in which people can get their "passports" stamped at six stations: census, innkeeper, shepherds, angels, wise men and the star, and nativity. At each station, they learn something about the Christmas story. Some stations feature arts and crafts. At any time, angels, wise men, shepherds and other characters, portrayed by volunteers, can be found walking around.

Hailey Whitman of Bismarck, was among the volunteers on Dec. 8. Dressed as an angel and helping man the census station, Whitman explained that she designed the programs given out and has served in several other capacities. She got involved through her friendship with Coleman and his wife, Sarah, and was at every night of the 2017 festivities.

"They had a beautiful vision for Christmas last year," she said. "It's such a beautiful example of what Christmas is really about."

Hundreds of people took in the early candlelight service at Circle C Ranch on Dec. 8, 2018.

The sound of the donkey braying during the candlelight service sticks with Whitman, as do the reactions of families to the setting and the experiences.

"It's been really fun to see sheep wandering around or a stray chicken running through," she said.

"There's tons of people who have never held a chicken before or petted a donkey," Coleman said.

The Kruger brothers of Hebron, N.D., John, 8, Noah, 6, and Andrew, 5, were making a repeat visit to Circle C Christmas. They also went last year, said their grandfather, Duane Opp. The boys got a kick out of the animals, of course, but their favorite part?


"Probably the hot cocoa. I loved that," said John. "It's super good."

"The hot cocoa and the sleigh ride," said Noah.

The boys also enjoyed the arts and crafts, the decorations and visiting the animals.

"My favorite animal that I petted was actually the bunnies," Noah said. "They were really soft."

The purpose of the evening wasn't lost on Noah and Andrew. Both said they learned about Jesus.

Opp, a retired registered Angus rancher, said he enjoyed seeing his grandsons interact with the animals. The relatively mild weather on Dec. 8 was an improvement over last year.

As the Christmas season winds down, Whitman said there's more to Circle C than just the holiday festivities.

"What I love about Circle C and the heart behind this ranch is that it's meant to be here for the community," she said. "It's meant to bring people together, and there's so many opportunities now but in the future, too, that Circle C will offer, so keep your eye on it."


"Circle C Ranch is a place for people," Coleman said. "It's a blast. And it'll be real."

Decorations and lights inside and outside of buildings at Circle C Ranch during Circle C Christmas are the work of at least 200 volunteers leading up to the festivities. Photo taken Dec. 8, 2018. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

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