In the five months before Christmas of 1847, several companies of pioneering members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had filed in successive waves out of the mountains into the Salt Lake Valley and begun the struggle to wrest a home out of the high desert ruggedness of the Great Basin.
Their leader, Brigham Young, was not there to celebrate Christmas. After leading the vanguard company into the valley in July 1847, he had returned to Winter Quarters in Nebraska to prepare more members of the infant church to make the journey west. Elder John Smith, cousin to founding Prophet Joseph Smith, was in charge of those who had been left in the Salt Lake Valley.
Christmas came on a Saturday that year, but there was work to be done. Those 1,681 pioneers were laboring to preserve themselves, to survive the difficult first months and to prepare for the expected influx of more pioneers in the summer. Despite the weather, they cleared land, built fences, gathered sagebrush for fires, plowed and prepared to put seed in the ground at the first hint of spring.
The first groups were crowded into the fort that had been built for their shelter and safety. It was located near the present-day Rio Grande Depot on 300 West between 300 and 400 South. By Christmas, there were 450 "houses," each 8 by 16 by 14 feet, to house the 1847 pioneers.
Much is made today of the lines from Clement Moore's "A Visit From St. Nicholas" that assure "not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse." In their primitive living conditions, the pioneers had no shortage of mice, stirring or otherwise. Mice and other vermin thrived, and it wasn't unusual to have one fall out of the ceiling onto the tables, beds or people below. Not to mention the muddy water and other debris that parted company with the roof and accumulated below.
There were no stores for shopping, no electric lights to delight the eye, no cornucopia of gifts to scatter among the children (558 of whom were in that pioneering group), no traditional Christmas feast to burden their tables.
What they did have were freedom from the hardships and persecution they had borne in the United States, the bare necessities to see them through the first winter and a keen sense of the blessings they had experienced and the importance of the birth and life of the Savior. If there were murmurings about the privations they suffered in the early years of settlement, none of them survived.
On. Dec. 26, the Sabbath, the community gathered around the flag pole and celebrated the delayed Christmas. Elizabeth Hunsaker, who was a young girl when that first Christmas was noted, later recorded the Christmas and day-after events:
"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 group sang traditional Christmas carols, adding the pioneer classic "Come, Come, Ye Saints," which had become a carol for all seasons for these stalwarts. Hunsaker wrote that after the communal celebration, her family enjoyed a meal of boiled rabbit "along with a little bread." Rations at the time were a half pound of flour per day, supplemented with thistle tops, berries, bark, roots and sego lily bulbs, plus any meat the hunters could provide.
Rebecca Ritter, who also celebrated that first Christmas in the valley, recorded that "the winter was cold. Christmas came and the children were hungry. I had a peck of wheat I had brought 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."
As the really tough years became history, there were later Christmas celebrations that were not so deprived. In 1850, one of the sisters wrote, "On this day I went to Brigham's Mill to the Christmas party. I stayed all night. We had a first-rate supper at midnight. I helped to get it on the table. They danced all night until 5 o'clock in the morning when the party broke up."
Utah's First Christmas was busy. It was Saturday with much work to be done. The celebration would wait until Sunday.
Sources: Information for this column was taken from an article, "Pioneer Christmas: Utah's First Christmas was busy. It was Saturday with much work to be done. The celebration would wait until Sunday," published by the Deseret News on Dec. 24, 1995; "First Christmas in Utah," published by historyofthesaints.org on Dec. 3, 2015; and "Questions and Sharing: 12th Day Christmas Past," published by mormonheritage.com on Dec. 23, 2012.