By Kris Blankman
Have you ever wondered why you do what you do to celebrate Christmas? Religious beliefs, family traditions, and cultural influences are all part of who we are in Utah today. Perhaps by looking at our past, we can see where it all began. On the Weber River, Osborne Russell, a Utah trapper, recorded the first known Utah Christmas in 1840, with the Shoshone, Cree, Flathead, Nez Perce tribe, and French mountain men. After sharing a meal of venison, fish, stewed elk, strong coffee, and fruit pudding around a fire in the center of a tipi, he recorded that following their meal, they smoked pipes and held target practice.
A few years later, a poor and impoverished group of pioneers entered the Valley in July of 1847. Six months later, living together in a fort, they celebrated their first Utah Christmas. It mainly consisted of boiled rabbit and some bread. A young pioneer girl, Elizabeth Huffaker, left us with the following account of that first celebration: “I remember our first Christmas in the valley. We all worked as usual. The men gathered sagebrush, and some even plowed, for though it had snowed, the ground was still soft, and the plows were used nearly the entire day on Christmas. We celebrated the day on the Sabbath when we all gathered around the flagpole in the center of the fort, and there we held meeting. And it was a great meeting. We sang praise to God. We all joined in the opening prayer, and the speaking that day has always been remembered. There were words of thanksgiving and cheer. Not an unkind word was uttered. The people were hopeful and buoyant because of their faith in the great work that they were undertaking. After the meeting, we all shook hands with each other. Some wept with joy, the children played in the enclosure, and around the sagebrush fire that night, we gathered and sang: ‘Come, come ye Saints, no toil nor labor fear, but with joy, wend your way.’ In the sense of perfect peace and good will, I never had a happier Christmas in all my life.”
As time went on, the pioneers and settlers to Utah began to prosper, and Christmas festivities began to improve. Traditions and cultural customs from all over the world were shared by the immigrant pioneers. The Christmas tree, a German tradition, became wildly popular. It is believed that nuts, dried fruits, and cookies baked into shapes were used as some of the first ornaments. Music and dance were an integral part of the early Utah Christmas celebrations: songs such as “Come Come Ye Saints” and, later, “Silent Night,” which had been translated to English by 1858 by Episcopal priest John Freeman Young. The pioneers were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and celebrated Christmas much like any other Christian faith. Reading from Luke,the story of the nativity was shared. Other literature was quite possibly a part of the season, as A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was written in 1843.
Until the railroad came, gifts were mostly all homemade and few and far between. Often, an orange or an apple was left in a stocking and was the sweetest gift of all. After enjoying the sweet fruit, many pioneers saved the peels and put them in drawers and trunks to keep their clothes smelling nice. Children were just as excited on Christmas Eve in the 1800s as they are now; however, toys looked much different. There were handmade dolls hand sewn from scraps of material. Small homemade wagons were made for little boys or doll-sized highchairs were made for little girls. Knitted hats and socks or a set of scrap lumber blocks were welcomed. Since toys were cherished, many have been kept and passed down in families. A collection of pioneer toys can be found at the International Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum in Salt Lake City and in smaller DUP museums throughout the state.
Sweets were a luxury in pioneer times, but molasses would be saved throughout the year so that, on Christmas, there were treats like honey taffy, cookies, and candy canes for the children.
Many pioneers brought their culinary traditions with them. Scottish saints enjoyed shortcake, while the Danish sipped sweet soup made of rice and fruit juice. Scandinavians made rice cooked with cinnamon, sugar, and milk. And the British enjoyed plum pudding to celebrate the holiday.
By the 1870s, Christmas looked much different. There were buildings and homes in which to share the holiday with family and friends. Santa Claus had become part of the celebration. Goose and venison were shared at the Christmas table. The celebrations lasted for hours and sometimes days.
Now, here we are in 2022. Utah has grown and evolved. A myriad of cultural influences can be seen wherever you look. New traditions are present, but old traditions can be seen every holiday. Caroling is still a favorite Christmas activity in small towns across our state. Sledding, ice skating, and looking at the lights are all traditions that live on. Perhaps, as we rush into the holiday season, we should pause for a moment. Think about the first Christmases in Utah. It is quite possible that if we reflect on the words of Elizabeth Huffaker, “…There were words of Thanksgiving and cheer. Not an unkind word was uttered,” we can have an experience like she did, where we can all say, “In the sense of perfect peace and good will, I never had a happier Christmas in all my life.”
Merry Christmas Utah!
All Photos courtesy of Weber State University Archives