There are few details about the Christmas in the early days of the Church.
Christmas in early Church was not celebrated in the traditional gift-giving manner like today. It wasn't even a particularly festive occasion. It would be many years before English immigrants would introduce carols, yule logs, and presents into the Puritan like tradition of members of the Church.
Early American settlers were strongly against the “impure” practices of European sects - including Christmas celebrations. Massachusetts, in 1657 imposed a fine of five shillings or a jail term for idleness, feasting, or participating in any Christmas festivities. Even mince pies were prohibited in Connecticut because of the dish’s association with the Christmas season.
Members of the Church with mostly Calvinist and Methodist backgrounds did not totally abandon their religious upbringings, and thus there is no mention of Christmas in the “Journal History” of the Church until 1841. The first Christmas of the Latter-days was in Nauvoo at Willard Richard’s home. The Church recorder made this entry for December 25:
“Being Christmas, Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Orson Pratt, Wilford Woodruff, John Taylor and their wives, and Willard Richards spent the evening at Dr. Richard’s home; and after supper, Mr. Kimball gave each of the Twelve Apostles a fractional lot of land lying on the west side of his second addition to Nauvoo.”
The first recorded glimpse of a Christmas celebration was written on Christmas Day in 1843 by the Prophet Joseph Smith. The entry marks a new outlook among Latter-day Saints towards the day:
“This morning, about one o’clock, I was awoken by an English sister, Lettice Rushton, … accompanied by three of her sons, with their wives, and her two daughters, with their husbands, and several of their neighbors, singing, ‘Mortals, Awake With Angels Join,’ which caused a thrill of pleasure to run through my soul. All of my family and boarders arose to hear the serenade, and I felt to thank my Heavenly Father for their visit, and blessed them in the name of the Lord. They also visited my brother Hyrum, who was awakened from his sleep. He arose and went out of doors. He shook hands with and blessed each one of them in the name of the Lord, and said that at first he thought a cohort of angels had come to visit him, it was such heavenly music to him.”
Later in the day the Prophet wrote the following took place:
“A large party supped at my house, and spent the evening in music, dancing, etc. in a most cheerful and friendly manner.”
Since that time many of our traditions associated with Christmas bring to mind special foods that are served to friends and relatives. Yet there is no record that the Saints in Nauvoo prepared any uniquely Yuletide treats. Most likely a Christmas dinner would have consisted of the same items available during the rest of the winter. Households usually had in supply flour, sugar, potatoes, beans, corn, salt, and dried meats and fruits. Lacking precise measuring utensils, the housewives of Nauvoo were accustomed to adding a “pinch of salt” or a “handful of sugar.” Oven temperatures were tested by the feel of heat upon the hand, and baked bread had a certain look as well as texture when ready to be removed from the oven. A big favorite of early members was ice cream that they made from snow, sugar and a little flavoring. Candy was made from molasses; and currants were worked into delicious jellies and jams.
The Nauvoo Neighbor, the Saint’s weekly newspaper, ran recipes for such favorites as Admiral Peacock’s Pickle for Meat (“The beef, after lying in the pickle for ten weeks, has been found as good as if it had been salted three days and as tender as a chicken.”) Information on how to salvage frozen potatoes, the best method for fattening turkeys (they should be fed “soft bricks broken into pieces, with charcoal also broken and with six grains of corn per day”), and ways to preserve hams, apples, and sweet potatoes were popular front-page articles.
Citizens were also told correct cow milking procedures: “If you would obtain all the milk from the cow you must treat her with the upmost gentleness; she must not stand trembling under your blows nor under your threats. She may at times need a little chastisement, but at such times you need not expect all her milk.”
Other “recipes” included in the paper were intended to cure ills of the temperament:
“A complete cure for a terrible disorder of the mouth commonly called ‘Scandal’ :
“Take a good nature, one ounce; of an herb called by the Mormons ‘mind your own business,’ one ounce, to which add of the oil of benevolence, one drachim and of brotherly love, two ounces. You must mix the preceding ingredients with a little charity for others, and a few sprigs of ‘keep your tongue between your teeth.’ Let this compound be allowed to simmer for a short time in a vessel called circumspection, and it will be ready for use.
“Symptoms: The symptoms are a violent itching in the tongue and roof of the mouth when you are in company with a species of animals called ‘Gossips.’
“Applications: When you feel a fit of the disorder coming on, take a teaspoonful of the mixture, hold it in your mouth, which you must keep closely shut till you get home.”
In a more traditional sense citizens in Nauvoo might be treated to recipes such as potato pancakes, applesauce cake, ginger cookies, and rusk, a cornbread cereal. All recipes require the basic ingredients common in Nauvoo homes and have been adapted to modern-day ovens for New Era readers. However, today’s grocery prices may not correspond with those listed in the Nauvoo Neighbor. The going rates in St. Louis included cornmeal, 25 cents per bushel; ginger, 11 cents per pound; lard, 3 1/2 cents per pound; and dried apples, 50 cents per bushel.
Extra gingery cookies, very taterish pancakes, surprisingly moist cake, and super crunchy cereal will invoke the pioneer spirit in you, your friends, and your family.
Written by Mary Stout