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Utah State History

How was Utah’s first Christmas Day observed? By working, of course

By Carter Williams, KSL.com | Posted - Dec 20th, 2018 @ 11:32am



Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah history for KSL.com's Historic section.

SALT LAKE CITY — Christmastime across Utah usually starts with gorgeous lights strewn everywhere across the state, nowadays. There are fun little Christmas displays in the windows of Macy’s at City Creek and elsewhere, and there are even a couple of pageants and nativities across the state.

We’ve explored how some of those traditions — the ones so many look forward to each year — came to be. But have you ever wondered how Christmas was first celebrated in Utah?

It’s a story that begins months after Mormon pioneers reached the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847. By December, there were more than 1,500 pioneers living in the area. Dec. 25, 1847, was a Saturday and it wasn’t a day that many took off like many will do Tuesday. Instead, the pioneers worked.

Men gathered sagebrush and plowed on Christmas Day, and the settlers didn’t really celebrate the holiday until the following day, which was a Sunday, according to the Deseret News.

One pioneer, Elizabeth Huffaker, wrote that the pioneers gathered around the flagpole at the center of town and sang Christmas hymns and hymns associated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She wrote that people shook hands with each other and some even cried with joy, as children played after the service, the Church News noted.

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There were other accounts of the day, as well.

The Deseret News added that one pioneer wrote that the winter was cold and many children were hungry by the time Christmas came around.

Another account suggests holiday festivities began prior to Dec. 26. Eliza R. Snow wrote in her diary that there were some holiday parties in which pioneers socialized and enjoyed a “splendid dinner,” according to a BYU Studies article looking at how pioneers celebrated their first Christmas. She added that holiday events began before and "extended through the New Year."

That said, BYU Studies stated Huffaker’s account likely summed up Christmas for most pioneers.

Huffaker wrote that she concluded her Christmas celebration with her family. They ate boiled rabbit and bread for their holiday meal, Church News noted. She wrote, “in the sense of perfect peace and goodwill, I never had a happier Christmas in all my life.”

The holiday looks completely different in 2018. Looking back at how pioneers celebrated Christmas 171 years ago truly shows how much changes over time.

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