Imagine you live in 19th century rural Utah. Christmas is coming and your children look forward to a celebration with Santa and gifts. There are no stores, no mail orders. How would you meet their expectations?
“It [was] a two-room log house with a fireplace made of rocks and… rough lumber. [A row of] stockings hung in waiting for Santa to come down the chimney. [On Christmas] morning Ma and Pa tiptoed out to light the fireplace and candles; Pa with harmonica, and Ma with a faint cow bell ringing out sweet chimes... Thus the household was awakened; dog howling, cats running, and a great happy rejoicing.”
This idyllic memory from Agnes Hunter Wood, recalling her childhood Christmas in Cedar City, Utah around 1890, belies the generally lean nature of rural family life in 19th Century Utah. Providing special Christmas gifts would require Agnes’s parents to get creative.
Pioneer children in Cedar City usually found only two or three gifts in their Christmas stockings. Agnes recalls her siblings being thrilled to find “an ear of corn, onions, a carrot, a chicken foot, a handful of dried apricots or nuts, and some honey candy pulled and twisted until it was snow white.” Clothing was always needed and therefore a frequent gift, while books were scarce and therefore cherished. Rolling pins carved from old bedposts and tin cups hammered from used salmon cans were gifts born of frugality. A doll made from a twig and a scrap of fabric would delight any imaginative girl. Button strings were also popular with girls in the late 1800s. The goal was to collect 999 buttons before your wedding day so your beloved could present you with the 1000th. Boys like Agnes’s brothers got “a pocket knife, a mouth organ, or a jumping jack.”
Gift-giving customs differed among Cedar City’s immigrant groups. Danish pioneer Mettie Mortensen, for instance, opened her first-ever Christmas stocking while working in the home of an English family around 1860. She recalled, “I thought it strange when I was asked to hand up my stocking, as I had only the one pair, which I wore every day. My first Christmas gift in the new country was a tiny serviceberry pie.” For Mettie, it was a delightful – and creative – present indeed.
Image: Bisque porcelain doll with buckskin body, human hair, and glass eyes. A doll like this one would have been a rare or very special gift for a young girl. Photo courtesy of Megan van Frank and the Cedar City DUP.
See “Pioneer Christmas in Southern Utah” seasonal exhibit and associated research documentation at the Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum, Cedar City, Utah, 2012.