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Candlelight Christmas

Old Deseret Village simulates fontier Noel, circa 1868

In crisp December night air, at its bench location overlooking the urban lights of downtown Salt Lake City, Old Deseret Village every year simulates a Christmas celebration from 1868.

Accented by kerosene lamps, home on Main Street is decorated for the holidays 1860s style.
Accented by kerosene lamps, home on Main Street is decorated for the holidays 1860s style. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

"Candlelight Christmas," presented Dec. 13-22 this year in the village, which is a living-history attraction featured at This Is The Place Heritage Park in the mouth of Emigration Canyon, where Brigham Young and the pioneers first entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.

Something is offered for all five of the senses, as visitors envision what Christmas might have been like for pioneers in 19th Century Utah communities. Bagpipers greet visitors walking into the Visitors Center at the entrance to the village. Carolers sing at the inn, organ music plays in the Pine Valley Chapel and revelers dance The Virginia Reel in the John Pack home. Puppet shows are presented at the schoolhouse. "Father Christmas" roams the streets. At the ZCMI store, pioneer-style toys are demonstrated and sold. At the Deseret News building, visitors are invited to turn a hand-cranked press to print their own Christmas cards, and children make Christmas tree ornaments from paper scraps. Carts offer hot cocoa, alcohol-free wassail and freshly baked cookies. Everywhere, the air seems to be pervaded with the aroma of cinnamon and other spices.

In evoking an 1860s Christmas observance, some extrapolation — indeed a bit of make-believe in some instances — has gone into the mix for "Candlelight Christmas."

For example, at the Social Hall, actor Michael J. Bennett twice nightly presents his portrayal of Charles Dickens reading from "A Christmas Carol," Dickens' famous 1843 novel of the miser Ebenezer Scrooge who is reformed by visits from the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future. In reality, the British novelist never visited Utah Territory, although he did come to the United States on a public appearance tour. In the Bennett portrayal, Dickens is introduced as having come to Salt Lake City at the invitation of apostle George Q. Cannon whom he met in London. (In Dickens' Uncommercial Traveler, the Mormon emigrant agent with whom he conversed is understood by historians to have been Elder Cannon.)

Deseret Village
Deseret Village Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

Still, Christmas definitely was observed in pioneer Utah.

"Christmas dinner was pretty universal," said Paul Smith, a faculty member at the Institute of Religion adjacent to the University of Utah and a volunteer at the park. People would often travel to or arrive at destinations on Christmas Day, he said. "And people got married on Christmas."

Christmas gifts might have consisted of a single apple or a molasses cookie, he said, although children did hang up stockings. "Serenading choirs happened on occasion. In one community, children went from house to house chanting 'Christmas gift,' in hopes of being rewarded with an item at each house." That custom, as others, might have had its origin in Europe from where many of the pioneer Latter-day Saints had emigrated, he surmised.

An interesting Christmas time story took place in the pioneer community in St. George, Utah, in 1869, Brother Smith noted. There John Menzies Macfarlane, who had moved from Cedar City at the behest of apostle Erastus Snow, had the task of coming up with something original for the choir to sing for Christmas. It was getting near the time when he was to have a piece of music ready, and nothing had occurred to him. Finally, in the middle of the night he awoke and sat down to the pump organ in the family parlor. There he dictated both words and music as his wife wrote them down.

By daybreak, the song was ready with four verses. It has become familiar today among Latter-day Saint and other congregations around the world. Its title: "Far, Far Away on Judea's Plains." (Hymns, 1985, No. 212.)

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