It was 1864 when then-President Abraham Lincoln declared a national Thanksgiving holiday, to be held on the last Thursday of each November. In his words, the holiday was to be for "thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father, who dwelleth in the Heavens" (see abrahamlincolnonline.org).
Mormon pioneers then living in Utah Territory embraced the opportunity for an annual day of thanksgiving. But they had been practicing since as early as 1848, just a year after the first vanguard pioneers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints filed out of the mountains into the Great Salt Lake Valley.
Wary of what this unfamiliar desert land would yield, they had nevertheless dug irrigation ditches, planted their crops and rejoiced when the lands brought forth. Later, they mourned when frost hit early and crickets came to dinner, rejoiced again when the crickets disappeared down the gullets of saving seagulls and replanted in a never-ending cycle of hope.
In this atmosphere of alternating determination and challenge, pioneer leader/prophet President Brigham Young declared a day of rejoicing and thanksgiving. The story was recounted in a Friend article titled "The First Thanksgiving in Utah" by Patricia Reece Roper and published in November 2004. She, in turn, had gleaned her information from an earlier Ensign recounting of the event (see "Utah's First Thanksgiving," by Ron Esplin, October 1982). Parlely P. Pratt's diary was the inspiration for both, I suspect. I have borrowed from both articles.
Roper recorded that "Thursday, 10 August 1848, dawned warm and bright all over the Salt Lake Valley." The sun was barely topping the Wasatch Range when preparations began. A lot of work already had been done before the cannon blast announced the beginning of formalities at 9 a.m.
A Liberty Pole, "decorated with sheaves of wheat, barley, oats and a single ear of green corn," was the standard for a white flag, Roper shared. A cannon was fired to announce the special day and the band played.
My great-grandfather Martin Horton Peck arrived in the valley that year. I wonder if he was in time to break out his clarinet to join the performance.
Those in attendance shouted, "Hosannah to God and the Lamb, forever and ever, amen." There were, of course, speeches from the pioneer leaders, who offered gratitude for the plentiful harvest. Then-Elder John Taylor, who would later be the third president of the LDS Church, offered the official Thanksgiving prayer and a blessing on the food.
The congregation joined in Parley P. Pratt's "Harvest Song" (see "Harvest Song," Ensign, October 1982). Here's one of the verses:
But lo, in the mountains new sheepfolds appear!
And a harvest of plenty our spirits to cheer.
This beautiful vale is a refuge from woe,
A retreat for the saints while the scourges o'erflow.
Let us join in the dance, let us join in the song.
To thee, O Jehovah, our praises belong.
All honor, all glory, we render to thee,
Thy cause is triumphant, Thy people are free.
Everyone had a role to play in preparing the meal. Girls helped their mothers bake cakes, pies and other pastries. (Remember, there were no stoves as we know them, no microwaves. Not even an electric mixer. Try meringue without that!) The boys joined fathers in pulling beets and carrots, washing cucumbers, radishes and beans.
The feast was served under a bowery on tables that had been decorated for the occasion. A bugle call invited the crowd to sit, and then it began. (Here's where it became a whole lot like today's feast. They dived into bread, beef, cheese, green corn, melons, lettuce, radishes, beets, onions, peas, carrots, cucumbers, parsnips, squash and beans, saving a bit of room for cakes, pies and pastries.)
At 2 o'clock, the bugle again blared, sounding the end of the feasting. It was time for dancing. (I'm going to dance this year. Let my family make of it what they will. Based on past experience, I'll bet that some will join me and a whole lot of others will sit there worrying, "There she goes again! Grandma's gone off her nut!")
Back in that 1848 version, the tables were cleared away and the band played while as many as 50 couples at a time danced the Virginia reel and a few quadrilles.
President Young then invited the Saints to spend the rest of the day as families, joyfully and prayerfully, "in response to the time-honored custom of our Fathers at Plymouth Rock." Those who had enough were invited to share with the poor.
There were subsequent special days of thanksgiving and prayer for the pioneering Saints as they toiled away to make this old desert blossom as a rose. But that first one settled the principle in their minds and hearts: "Thou shalt thank the Lord thy God in all things" (see Doctrine and Covenants 59:7).
When Honest Abe put the official seal on what had been a sporadic and uncertain American holiday, they were ready.