In December 1847, the first Christmas in what was then Mexico but would eventually become Utah, was celebrated.
“It had only been five months since the pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley,” according to LDS Church News Archive, Article 28796. “By December more than 1800 had gathered in the valley where a large fort had been erected.”
Compelled across more than a thousand miles of unsettled prairie and mountains by their faith, these pioneers were firm in their commitment. Their observance of that first Christmas holiday they did in keeping with their extreme circumstances.
“Everyone had moved into the 29 cabins that were built inside the adobe walls of the fort, each 8 by 16 by 14 feet,” according to a Deseret News article published on Dec. 24, 1995. “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 and where mice were a constant challenge. 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 they talked of earlier Christmases, unrestricted by poverty.
No stores for shopping, no electric lights to delight the eye, no gifts to distribute among their children, no traditional Christmas feasts to fill their tables. Only the bare necessities to sustain life and faith in a hopeful future.
Their cabins were located near the former Rio Grande Railroad depot on Third West between Third and Fourth South Streets — the current site of the Rio Grande Café.
When Christmas 1847 arrived, Elizabeth Huffaker, a young girl in residence at the fort, left this account.
“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. Christmas came on Saturday. We celebrated the day on the Sabbath, when we all gathered around the flag pole in the center of the fort, and there held meeting. And it was a great meeting. 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. After the meeting, we all shook hands with each other. Some wept with joy. The children played in the enclosure, and around the sagebrush fire that night, we gathered and sang…in the sense of perfect peace and good will, I never had a happier Christmas in all my life.”
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 meal.
Rebecca Riter, 32 years of age and another pioneer who migrated to the valley at the time, also spent Christmas 1847 in the Old Fort.
“The winter was cold,” Riter 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 the following year.
For the group he left behind in the valley, it was a holiday to remember.