Christmas in early Utah was a festive event, filled with parties, gifts, and games.
There’s a lot of debate these days about the place Christmas should occupy in American culture. Some, including Utahns, argue that we need to put Christ back into the holiday. We need to get back to the good old days, they say, before commercialism and raucous parties took over. The funny thing is, Christmas in early Utah—for both Mormons and non-Mormons alike—was a loud, sometime disorderly affair, dominated by gifts, parties, and, yes, even Santa Claus.
To be fair, Christmas in 1847—the year the Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley—was celebrated just like any other day. Most people worked that first Christmas, if only because they needed to make sure they could survive the winter. Over the next couple of decades, however, parties, dances, and carolers became the Christmas norm in Utah. One year, Brigham Young had more than a hundred people over to his home for food and entertainment. Another year, a brass band marched around SaltLake serenading citizens in their homes. One observer even thought the holiday sounded like the Fourth of July, with the sounds of gunfire and games echoing through the city’s streets.
Interestingly, the Mormon celebration of Christmas looked very similar to the non-Mormon version of the same holiday. Perhaps the only difference was the lack of alcohol among the Latter-Day Saints. For instance, when miners from Ophir in Tooele County got together for a rousing party on Christmas in 1871, whiskey greased the wheels of conviviality. But it appears that even some Mormons had a sip or two of alcohol to ring in the season, causing LDS leaders to admonish them to not get too carried away. By the 1860s, Santa Claus had appeared on the scene and assumed quasi-religious significance in Utah’s LDS community, with children admitting they were thankful he heard their prayers and stopped by their homes on Christmas Eve. Mormon apostle Anthony Ivins even decided to hand out miniature Noah’s Arks to local children—with chocolate Santas steering the boats.
Image:Title page of A Christmas Carol, first edition 1843. Christmas celebrations in Utah would have looked a lot like the one depicted in Charles Dickens classic book. Dancing, feasting, and merriment characterized the holiday for Utahns. Illustrated by John Leech.
See news reports and advertisements focusing on Christmas in Utah in the following editions of the Deseret News: December 28, 1850; January 11. 1851; January 5, 1854; December 24, 1870; December 31, 1970; Also see “Their Friend,” in Kate B. Carter, comp., Our Pioneer Heritage, vol. 14 (Salt Lake City: Daughter of the Utah Pioneers, 1958-1977); John E. Baur, Christmas on the American Frontier, 1800-1900 (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, 1961; Richard Ian Kimball, “‘All Hail to Christmas’: Mormon Pioneer Holiday Celebrations,” BYU Studies 40 (2001): 7-26; and Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America’s Most Cherished Holiday (New York: Vintage, 1997). On Christmas at Ophir, see the December 29, 1871, edition of the Salt Lake Tribune.