Come take a walk with me back in time, along a trail less traveled. Imagine what Christmas was like during pioneer days.
In the early 1800s, people emigrating to what was later named Utah Territory arrived throughout the year by the thousands. They intended to stay forever in their new home in the West as their leader, Brigham Young, stated: “We have been kicked out of the frying pan and into the fire, out of the fire into the middle of the floor, and here we are and here we will stay. God has shown me that this is the spot to locate His people, and here is where they will prosper. I have the grit in me and will do my duty anyhow.”
Brigham Young had grandiose dreams and a vision of America. His leadership drew and guided the pioneers across the continent. They were encouraged to live to their full potential and develop talents and trades in their new land. Many arrived within days of Christmas and only had time to build cabins or erect shelter from their wagons for their family. As one journal records, Christmas in 1847 was celebrated by 1,681 souls. A keen sense of the importance of the birth and life of the Savior had compelled these pioneers firm in their commitment to the Lord and their Christian faith to cross more than a thousand miles of unsettled prairie and mountains. They observed that first major Christian holiday in keeping with their circumstances. They had no stores for shopping, no lights and no cornucopia of gifts to scatter among the children. They only had the bare necessities to sustain life.
A dance, a word of gratitude or a small gift of sweets were some of the gifts shared in those long ago Christmas days. One group of mothers decided their children should have a special treat on Christmas morning. Although knowing their rations of molasses had been used, they went to the man in charge of the molasses barrel and asked for extra to make candy and cookies for the youngsters. He refused adamantly. Next, they made their way to their bishop’s wife, an elderly lady known for ingenuity. Her husband had been working outside most of the day and had come inside, sat in his chair and dozed off while waiting for supper. She went to him and asked if he thought the children should have candy and cookies, and he mumbled a yes. Taking this as an affirmative to her question, she went to the others and told them that he didn’t say no.
Since the man in charge of the molasses barrel was very conscious of his responsibility, he had placed a section of heavy logging chain and a large boulder on the lid of the barrel. Shivering from cold, the women crunched through the snow to the barrel. With infinite caution they removed the chain without one betraying clank. Together they lifted the boulder off the lid and lowered it noiselessly to the ground. Then they dipped molasses with a saucepan into each of their containers. With caution, they replaced lid, chain and rock. The little band of mothers headed back to their cabins and went to work. Christmas morning every child in the village had two molasses cookies and a lump of candy in his stocking. The bishop insisted to the end of his days that he couldn’t remember ever having given the women permission to get the molasses.
Toys at Christmas weren’t an option unless they were homemade. One 8-year-old made a doll for her little sister from a clothespin for which she hemmed, folded, dyed, tied and padded fabric, then painted a face for it. Her sister wrote in her journal that she always cherished the memory of her first doll and the happiness it brought.
A favorite pastime during Christmas holidays was sleigh riding in a horse-drawn sleigh complete with sleigh bells. Big groups piled into the sleigh filled with soft straw, hot bricks or rocks and plenty of covers. Laughter and sleigh bells warmed the hearts of those within their warm cabins listening as the revelers passed by. Skating on flat, smooth lake bottoms or ponds frozen to a thickness of a foot or more kept the entertainment going until cold noses and fingers drew the crowd to a bonfire with warm flames and bright light.
In 1852, when a social hall was completed in the Salt Lake Valley, Christmas was celebrated there with dancing parties both for the adults and children. Once there was a huge Christmas tree with presents wrapped and arranged in order of name and age for the children. They were wild with delight. After the tree was stripped of its presents, the floor was cleared for the dance. Those present were able to forget their labor and worry for a few hours during that Christmas celebration.
Many families worked through the day those first Christmases, as a girl wrote in her diary in 1847. She wrote that their first Christmas in the valley was spent working clearing sagebrush and plowing. Later a meeting was held by the flag pole in the center of the cabins where after building a bonfire, they all sat and sang praises to God, several gave talks, and some told stories of their youth in the old country from where they had emigrated. She told that there was handshaking all around and some wept with joy. She and her family returned to their cabin where they ate boiled rabbit along with a little bread. The usual ration was a half pound of flour supplemented with thistle tops, berries, bark, roots and sego lily bulbs. She related they all had enough to eat, and in the sense of perfect peace and good will, she had never had a happier Christmas in all her life.
Strength, courage and wisdom are the ties that bind us together with those who have gone before us, leaving a trail of hope and faith for us to follow as their descendants, and to build our own Christmas traditions and memories from.
Patricia Holden is the publicist for the Tooele County Company of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers. She is also a member of the DUP SheepRock Camp. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.