Tait will shine light on early-Utah Christmas traditions
While many people flock to department stores or log onto various websites to buy gifts, there’s a good chance they don’t think about what the holiday season was like in Utah from 1847 to the early 1880s.
Lisa Olsen Tait, historian and writer the Women’s History team at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints history department, would like to shed some light on that time period.
To do that, Tait will give a free Utah History lecture titled “Christmas in Early Utah,” from 4-5:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 22, the Park City Library’s Jim Santy Auditorium.
She’ll talk about the 20 to 25 years after the first white settlers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley.
One of the points the historian will address is that Christmas traditions in throughout the country weren’t fully established at that time.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that most of what people think of as Christmas traditions now were really just coming into being in the United States in general at this time,” Tait said. “It’s not just the settlers here in the frontier didn’t have the resources to have the kind of Christmas they would have had back East. It’s that even back East the traditions didn’t fully exist.”
The early Utahns developed their traditions alongside the same traditions with the country’s population at large, according to Tait.
“Any assumptions we had about the primitive conditions at that time on the frontier are only part of equation,” she said. “But within that, it’s fair to say, Christmas does run deep in Western culture — the Mormons, the other settlers, people from Great Britain and other countries, those who settled in the South — all have some sense of Christmas celebration and observance.”
“It’s not like these things were created out of scratch. They all had some traditions they brought to Utah with them, but there were a lot of variety.”
One of those traditions included St. Nicholas.
“Yes, Santa Claus was alive and well at that time,” Tait laughed. “And food was a very important part of the tradition.”
The Transcontinental Railroad also created a paradigm shift in Christmas celebrations in Utah.
“When the railroad came in 1869, things changed because it brought many more consumer goods to the territory,” Tait said. “There was a big change in the economy and society after that.”
Even back then, however, Christmas was a social event.
“While that’s still true today with our parties and other events, I think for people at that time, when there were fewer ways of celebrating, the community aspect of celebrating together was so much more important,” Tait said. “In the case of the Mormons, social Christmas gatherings reflected in their commitment to build a community.”
This is what set the Mormons apart from other settlers at the time.
“The pattern of settlement of the frontier was more individualistic when compared to the Mormons,” Tait said. “The Mormons transplanted a whole community from the East to the Intermountain West, so it seemed more important to them to do this.”
Tait will include traditions of other groups in addition to the Mormons in her talk.
“I am trying to bring in material from ‘gentiles’ or non-church members in the area, but there weren’t very many,” she said.
One of the other groups that settled in Salt Lake Valley were members of the Catholic church.
Reverend Stan Herba of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Park City, said Christmas is a festive time for members of the local parish.
“We have very beautiful traditions and the colors for Christmas are bright,” Herba said. “The light colors are like joy.”
Catholic church members prepare for Christmas over a period of four weeks, Herba said.
“They call that time ‘advent,’ which means coming,” he said. “We use that time to prepare for the coming of the Savior.”
Part of that preparation is setting up a nativity scene at the base of the church’s altar.
“We put in statues of Mary and Joseph ahead of time and then put in the baby Jesus in on Christmas Eve,” Herba said.
Two weeks prior to Christmas, St. Mary’s presents a Christmas pageant.
“The pageant involves about 200 kids who do a presentation,” Herba explained. “They dress like shepherds and animals. It is most beautiful.”
Mass is another Christmas tradition, and there are many held in Park City.
St. Mary’s holds two Christmas Eve masses at the Eccles Center at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. and then two more at 9:30 p.m. and midnight at the church, 1505 White Pine Canyon Road.
“The mass at 9:30 is in Spanish and the one at midnight is in English,” Herba said.
Christmas day masses are held at 8 a.m., 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. at the church.
“The one at 10 is our children’s mass and the one after that is in Spanish,” Herba said. “At all the masses we sing beautiful carols.”
Historian Lisa Olsen Tait will present the next Utah History Lecture at 4 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 22, at the Park City Library’s im Santy Auditoirium, 1255 Park Ave. The event, which will include refreshments, is free and open to the public, but RSVPs are required. To RSVP, contact Katie Madsen at email@example.com.
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