This article originally appeared in the Winter 2000 issue of Pioneer Magazine
By Shirley Hatfield
As the last stars faded in the slowly lightening sky and the smell of wood smoke filled the frosty air on a typical christmas morning, the first sounds one heard might be the jingle of sleigh bells and the voices of children calling “Christmas gift! Christmas gift!” This was the signal that the holiday had officially begun. In many homes, family members competed to be the first to shout “Christmas gift!” The prize was usually very small, maybe a piece of candy or a lump of real white sugar, but to the victor, the reward was very sweet indeed.
In the pioneer towns of Utah, “Christmas gift!” meant it was time to show one’s friends what Santa had brought during the night- Boys and girls rushed from their houses clutching their stockings and whatever meager gifts they had received. A few of the more fortunate may have had fatter stockings than their friends, but on the whole the gifts were simple and useful, and the children didn’t begrudge each other their small happiness; some even shared their treats, a few raisins or a piece of molasses candy. Only a few years earlier, it had been a hardship for parents to provide even the most basic needs for their children, let alone Christmas presents.
In December 1847, the Mormon pioneers spent their first Christmas in a harsh country located between the craggy peaks of the mountains and a desolate salt sea. It took everything they had to survive that first winter. Holiday celebrations were not a high priority. Elizabeth Huffaker, a pioneer of that year, wrote:
“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 ploughs were used nearly the entire day Christmas was on Saturday.” But the next day on the Sabbath, the people gathered around the flagpole in the fort and sang praises to God and spoke words of “thanksgiving and cheer.”
The children played in the enclosure, and later that night, everyone gathered around a sagebrush fire to sing songs. No gifts were exchanged, but as Elizabeth remembers:
“We ate boiled rabbit and a little bread for our dinner. Father had shot some rabbits, and it was a feast we had. All had enough to eat. In die sense of perfect peace and goodwill, I never had a happier Christmas in my life.”
For the first few years, the majority of Christmas gifts were homemade. The Salt Lake Valley was so removed from the rest of the country that supplies and store goods from the East were hard to come by. Brave freighters, with their heavy wagons and yokes of sturdy oxen, were the only way to get goods in the years before the railroad. Freight across the plains cost twenty-five cents per pound, which was quite expensive. There was no other choice but to “make it do, or do without”.
When there were no store-bought gifts or candy to be found, pioneer mothers did their best to fashion some little toy or treat for their children. Drawing on their own ingenuity and the memories of homes left behind, these loving mothers created something from almost nothing.
The lack of sugar or other sweeteners was often a dilemma. Molasses was more common than white sugar, but when even that was not available, a mother might boil down a squash or carrots or even beets to make a slightly sweet syrup. Mixed with flour to form a stiff dough, she would fashion cookies in the shapes of animals and little people. Raisins and currants also provided a bit of sweetness.
Many of the settlers were immigrants from Europe who brought with them the Christmas traditions and recipes of their homelands. English plum pudding was popular if the ingredients could be found. The Scots made shortbread; the Germans loved gingerbread men with raisins for eyes. Danish families ate rice soup sweetened with fruit juice.
Regardless of their nationality, everyone agreed that it simply wasn’t Christmas without the traditional foods of childhood.
Alice M. Hansen’s mother had to make do one Christmas when her father was late coming back with the Christmas barrel of presents, fruit, and clothing her grandparents sent each year. Alice wrote:
“Mother made a few cookies with raisin faces and hung them on the tree. Then she covered walnut shells with a few bits of tinsel she found. She cut raisin boxes in half and covered them with bits of crepe paper and wall paper and hung them on the tree. In each stocking, she put a cookie or two and some covered walnut shells.”
Father made it home with the barrel a few days after Christmas, and Santa made his delivery on New Year’s Eve. It was a Christmas Alice would never forget.
Homemade gifts were usually useful items that a child needed, such as mittens, stockings, scarves, and clothing. To fulfill a child’s yearning for playthings, simple toys were fashioned from available materials. Mothers saved every scrap of fabric, sometimes even using yardage from their own dresses if no other fabric was handy. Most early dolls were rag dolls, but with a little creativity a doll could be made from dried apples, wood, and even bread dough. Elizabeth Terry Blair, who lived in St. George, used to find a dough dolly in her stocking every Christmas when she was a girl. Her girlfriends got one as well. They played with them all day, took them visiting, and when they became grimy, ate them happily. A girl might also find a little willow chair or a wooden doll cradle near her stocking if she were lucky.
Gifts for a pioneer boy might be a new pair of suspenders, a barrel hoop to roll, or a crude sled. A little wagon was made by sawing thin rounds from a small log for wheels. Crosspieces joined the wheels, with a stout stick added for a tongue. On this frame, a little box would be built with small scraps of lumber salvaged from the sawmill. If a father was a good whittler, he might make a menagerie of small wooden animals for his young Noah, who could spend many happy hours herding them into a makeshift ark.
Elizabeth C. Parrish recalled that she used to believe that all of her gifts had been made by her parents. She said, “It didn’t seem strange to us then that all the neighborhood children had exactly the same as we did, but years later we learned that the fathers and mothers of the neighborhood exchanged the gifts they could make best for the things others could make.”
Barter was often used to provide a wider variety of foodstuffs and other goods. An expert carpenter could trade items he’d crafted tor fruits, nuts, and molasses from a storekeeper, and a mother might trade eggs and blitter with a neighbor who was a good seamstress.
Certainly one of the most unusual “homemade” gifts of all was the one Rose Ann G. Hafen received when she was seven years old. She told her mother, “I want a real live doll, one that can walk and talk and run over to Leda’s. Will you get me one?”
Rose Ann was surprised when her mother calmly agreed. She was even more surprised a few days before Christmas, after “a long night filled with strange noises” to be called to her mother’s bedside. “Well, Rose, here is your real live doll!” It was a baby brother they named Emil.
Even though store-bought toys became more readily available in Salt Lake City and some of the larger towns with the coming of the railroad, in the smaller, more remote Mormon settlements, people had to depend on less-frequent shipments of goods. “Homemade’’ was still the word describing a territorial Christmas.
One year, the news spread quickly in Lucy Potter Blackham’s community that she had received a real store-bought doll from a favorite aunt in Provo. Only a few children had found anything in their stockings that year, so all were eager to catch a glimpse of Lucy’s prize. Her little brother wanted it badly. He cried and cried, but Lucy was feeling selfish. She hid it in the oven of their old-fashioned stove. Even the worst fortuneteller could have predicted what happened next. Her father made a big fire in the stove, and you might say Lucy’s doll helped make Christmas dinner that day.
COMMUNITY CHRISTMAS TREE
Not many homes had Christmas trees in those days. Those who were lucky enough to have a tree decorated it with strings of popcorn and rose hips, paper chains, and pieces of pretty paper saved during the year. Some tied cookies and small wax candles to the branches. But virtually every town had a community Christmas tree. These trees were often put up by the Sunday School and were the center of a big Christmas party for the entire community.
The happiness reflected in the eyes of the children when they first entered the building and beheld the Christinas tree must have gladdened the hearts of their parents. Placed in the branches of the tree among the popcorn strings and glowing candles were toys and gifts, one for every child. The parents had traded goods or a few cents per child so that each might receive a gift from the real Santa Claus, who was certain to arrive before the party’s end.
Many pioneer journals mention a certain toy or doll that a child would see among the branches of the tree and set his or her heart upon. Usually a china doll with golden curls and a fine dress was the most coveted prize. These same journals recalled what a disappointment the child felt when the doll would go to someone else. But childish hearts more often were glad for the gift received, whether it be a tin horn, a penknife, or a tiny beaded purse.
Santa would arrive with a hearty “Merry Christmas!” for all. Dressed in boots and fur coat and draped with sleigh bells, he distributed the gifts among the children. The children were too excited to notice that Santa’s sparse beard was stuck on with molasses. However, if that same beard should catch fire from the Christmas tree candles, they might discover that jolly old elf, once doused with the fire bucket, to be none other than the bishop himself in disguise.
In this highly technical, computerized age, the sweet simplicity of a pioneer Christmas touches the heart with feelings of nostalgia. The word “homemade” contains within it the word “home”. Home is the center of our lives. It is the place to which we always return in our hearts and our dreams—especially during the holidays. When someone makes a gift by hand, they arc making it with the heart and giving a piece of themselves.
May all gifts this holiday season be “homemade.”
Shirley Hatfield, pioneer descendent and Utah history buff lives in Highland, Utah.
Carter, Kate B. comp, Heart Throbs of the West, 12 vols., Salt Lake City: Daughters of the Utah Pioneers 1939-51.
Carter, Kate B., comp.. Treasures of Pioneer History, Salt Lake City: Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, to 1957.
Carter, Kate B., comp, Our Pioneer Heritage, 20 vols. Salt Lake City: Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, 1958-75.
Daughters of Utah Pioneers, Lesson Committee comp.. An Enduring Legacy, 8 vols., Salt Lake City, Utah, to 1985.
Wild, Jennie Adams, Alpine Yesterdays: A History of Alpine, Utah County, Utah, Blaine Hudson Printing, 1982.