FIVE MONTHS had passed since a small band of Latter-day Saints wearily filed into the Salt Lake Valley and settled down to make it their home. More had arrived in the autumn and as Christmas 1847 arrived, the vanguard of settlers numbered 1,681 souls.
Compelled across more than a thousand miles of unsettled prairie and mountains by their Christian faith, these pioneers were firm in their commitment to the Lord and his latter-day leaders. They observed that first major Christian holiday in what was then still part of Mexico, but they did it in keeping with their circumstances.No stores for shopping, no electric lights to delight the eye, no cornucopia of gifts to scatter among the children, no traditional Christmas feasts to burden their tables - only the bare necessities to sustain life, faith in a better future and a keen sense of the importance of the birth and life of the Savior.
Early in the winter morning, they awoke in their cabin homes inside the Old Fort, congregated for their usual prayers and set about their chores.
Dec. 25, 1847, was a Saturday, and there was work to be done, livestock to be tended, fences to build and land to be prepared for later sowing.
Fortunately, the weather had been moderate, as Stake President John Smith wrote. That was a blessing for isolated pioneers praying for winter survival and the opportunity to provide for themselves more adequately the following year.
While their menfolk worked outside, women faced the ongoing challenge of caring for children (558 were included in the group) and keeping order in cabins whose leaky roofs frequently oozed mud and water onto dirt floors. On this day, they might have recounted to their children, as they went about their chores, the age-old story of Bethlehem and the birth of a special baby. Perhaps there was talk of earlier, less straitened Christmases.
Their cabins were located near the present-day Rio Grande Railroad depot on Third West between Third and Fourth South streets.
The initial 29 cabins inside the adobe walls of the fort, each 8-by-16-by-14 feet, had been multiplied by 450 identical houses to accommodate the main body of pioneers for that year. The larger group of 1,500 arrived in September 1847, following by two months the advance party that first descended out of the mountains into the sage-covered valley.
An unidentified writer who was only a girl in 1847 later recalled that first holiday:
"I remember our first Christmas in the valley. We all worked as usual. The men gathered sagebrush and some even plowed, for though it had snowed, the ground was still soft and the plows were used nearly the entire day on Christmas. We celebrated the day on the Sabbath, when we all gathered around the flag pole in the center of the fort and there we held meeting.
"And what a meeting it was! We sang praise to God, we all joined in the opening prayer and the speaking that day has always been remembered. There were words of thanksgiving and cheer. Not an unkind word was uttered. The people were hopeful and buoyant because of their faith in the great work they were undertaking. After the meeting, there was handshaking all around. Some wept with joy, the children played in the enclosure."
Around a sagebrush fire that evening, the Saints sang. Not "O Little Town of Bethlehem" or "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," which wouldn't be added to the roster of Christmas carols until eight years later, but likely other loved songs associated with the holiday. And, of course, the Mormon classic, "Come, Come Ye Saints," which, for the pioneers, had become a carol for all seasons.
The family of the girl who wrote of that first Christmas ate boiled rabbit for Christmas dinner, along with a little bread. The usual daily ration was a half pound of flour supplemented with thistle tops, berries, bark, roots and sego lily bulbs.
"All had enough to eat," she wrote of the holiday feast. "In the sense of perfect peace and good will, I never had a happier Christmas in all my life."
Rebecca Riter also spent Christmas 1847 in the Old Fort.
"The winter was cold," she later wrote. "Christmas came and the children were hungry. I had brought a peck of wheat across the plains and hid it under a pile of wood. I thought I would cook a handful of wheat for the baby. Then I thought how we would need wheat for seed in the spring, so I left it alone."
Pioneer leader Brigham Young was not in the valley for that first Christmas. he had returned to Winter Quarters, Nebraska, staging point for the westward trek, to prepare for the greater migration for the following year.
But for those he left behind, a little anchor in the wilderness, it was a holiday to remember.