Out here in this corner of southeast Arizona, St. Nick shuns the idea of harnessing up a bunch of reindeer in favour of riding Black Jack, his trim black and white paint.
This is one of the few places in the world where Santa's helpers wear chaps, well-worn cowboy boots and a hefty layer of sunscreen below their Stetsons. Call it breaking the mould, but ranch wrangler Jonathan Johnson brings joy western style into the hearts of young and old alike when he dons his beard and red suit to ride into town aboard his trusty steed.
Christmas gifts under the mesquite? Sneaking a kiss under the ponderosa pine? Celebrating the season with a prickly pear margarita? Well, why not?
After all, you're deep in cowboy country here. We're at Tanque Verde Ranch, 20 kilometres northeast of downtown Tucson. An Arizona dude ranch that draws clients from all over the world, Tanque Verde puts its own spin on holiday fun.
From the cosy carolling sessions and mulled cider to the eventual arrival of Santa, Christmas is a celebration enjoyed in the saddle of one of the 180 horses owned by the ranch.
For most of the guests, a big part of Christmas Day is spent on a traditional horse ride through the beautiful Sonora Desert under a cloudless Arizona sky.
More than four dozen species of cacti are found in this arid and hauntingly beautiful landscape. But it's the tall stands of the magnificent saguaro cactus that capture photographers' attention. It's a big part of the signature western scenery that's been luring would-be cowboys from as far away as Munich to Manchester for more years than owner Bob Cote cares to remember.
It's also a popular destination with Canadians, says Cote.
"We have many repeat customers. There's one Canadian family that's been coming back here for more than 20 years. They're now bringing their grandchildren," he says.
Before hitting desert trails where you'd expect to bump into John Wayne at any moment, Cote and his wranglers serve up blueberry pancakes the size of dinner plates, topped with a mountain of bacon, sausage, hash browns, chili scrambled eggs and fresh baked biscuits.
"Now that's a trail mix," says one awed rider, straining under the weight of his heaped platter. My sympathies were with the horses supposed to carry us after we'd polished off the huge spread.
The 640-acre property abuts the Saguaro National Park and the Coronado National Forest in the Rincon Mountains that slope down to the ranch. It's a prime location for lovers of the outdoors and for those with a passion for horses.
Tanque Verde Ranch was settled in the 1860s, and named after the rare desert water holes found on the property. In those days, it was just about as far away as you'd want to be from Fort Lowell, site of the present downtown Tucson.
The ranch was on the edge of the U.S. cavalry patrols in that frontier era. With Apache raiding parties in the surrounding mountains, early settlers did not sleep easily at night.
A dude ranch since the early 1930s, Tanque Verde was purchased by the Cote family in 1947. It is now a premier destination for the wild west experience, with a whole lot of pampering thrown in for good measure.
With its heated swimming pool, hot tubs and spa, the ranch provides a 21st century cowboy experience far from the rough and tumble days of the old west.
From an historical perspective, the legendary Wyatt Earp and "Doc" Holliday made their claim to fame in Tombstone, a town just 100 kilometres away.
-- Canwest News Service