As you're preparing for the festive season, consider a few vignettes from the 1800s telling how our Utah forebears feasted, reveled, and somehow made their way through the winter holidays.
The first known Utah Christmas was a multicultural affair recorded by trapper Osborne Russell, who celebrated the day in 1840 on the Weber River with French mountain men and Shoshone, Nez Perce, Cree, and Flathead Indians. For Christmas dinner the group sat around a fire in the center of a teepee and feasted on fish, venison, stewed elk, fruit pudding, and six gallons of strong coffee. After dinner they smoked pipes and practiced target shooting.
In contrast, impoverished Mormon pioneers commemorated their first Noel in Utah in 1847 with a feast of boiled cowhides and thistle roots. On Christmas Day the following year, the pioneers marked the occasion by launching a contest to exterminate ravens, wolves, and any other wildlife they considered to be pests. The losing team would treat the winners to a festive dinner. Contestant John D. Lee wrote that the sound of gunfire on Christmas morning 1848 could be heard in every direction, which he noted, “is nothing uncommon about Christmas time.”
In the winter of 1854, the half-starved members of the Fremont Survey Expedition were making their way across Utah through deep snows and bitter cold. Solomon Carvalho, the expedition photographer, had secretly saved some sugar, arrowroot, and preserved eggs, which he boiled together to create a sweet custard, which he then served “to the satisfaction and astonishment of the whole party” on New Year’s Day 1854.
Another group of surveyors, members of the second Powell Expedition, attended a rainy Christmas celebration with the townspeople of Kanab in 1871. Expedition artist Frederick Dellenbaugh recalled that the festivities were lit “by three candles, a kerosene lamp and a blazing fire... Two violins were in lively operation…and there was a refreshing air of gaiety about the whole assembly...” Although they did not join in the dancing, Dellenbaugh wrote that, “our party [was] made welcome in every respect.”
Image: Stanton Survey. The Stanton Survey crew eats dinner in front of the Lee's Ferry fort on Christmas Day in 1889. The group was trying to find a route for a railroad line through southern Utah's red rock canyons. They didn't find a route. Photo courtesy Utah State Historical Society.
See Will Bagley, “Powell Spends Christmas in Mormondom,” Salt Lake Tribune, 12/23/2001, p. B1 and “Silent Nights Rare at Early Christmases,” Salt Lake Tribune, 12/24/2000, p. B1; “Way Back Then: The Winter Holidays in Utah,” at http://history.utah.gov/experience_history/glimpses/christmas1800s.html