Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Scandinavian Christmas in Utah Territory

Denmark in Wintertime

About half of my ancestry is from the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. These ancestors joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the mid-1850s and made their various incredible journeys to the United States and eventually Utah.

I have thought of the first Christmas celebrations my ancestors held after arriving in Utah. I wonder if the Christmas traditions they enjoyed in their home countries were similar after coming to a new land?

People in Denmark, Sweden and Norway each celebrated Christmas a little differently from one another, but many things were similar.

Before Christianity took a hold in Scandinavia, a gnome or elf was given particular attention. It was believed that elves protected the farmer's homes, children and kept families from misfortune.

After the introduction of Christianity into Denmark, Sweden and Norway, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ at Christmastime was most important, but the tradition of the elves continued. On Christmas Eve the elves were left a bowl of rice pudding as we might leave cookies for Santa Claus today.

Rice pudding seemed to be a constant in the Christmas celebrations of all three Scandinavian countries. The pudding was mixed with whipped cream and eaten with a warm fruit sauce or in the case of the Danish, cooked in a fruit juice.

After arriving in Utah, the Scandinavian saints prepared early for Christmas and went to great lengths to procure extra food to help make Christmas special. Even the animals received an extra share of food. The Scandinavians celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve with gifts and feasting. Christmas feasting was almost always followed by dancing

The Deseret News, a Salt Lake City newspaper, printed a story about Christmas dancing on 25 December 1861 stating that "every nation, kindred, tongue and people have traditions peculiar to themselves." But dancing had been adopted by almost every nationality as their principal amusement.

Because the Christmas season in Scandinavia was celebrated in the darkest and coldest time of the year, families were always together and celebrated with one another. That tradition was carried on as much as possible in the Utah Territory.

Christmas' in Utah changed after a few decades. The traditions of the different cultures seemed to mix together even in the small community of Ephraim, Utah where those of Scandinavian descent were the majority of the population in the late 1800s. Parents began telling their children of a Santa Claus who was much like their Nisse or Tomte of Nordic folklore--and yet different. 

An advertisement printed on 16 December 1891 in the The Ephraim Enterprise, a newspaper printed in Ephraim, Utah, made it seem as though one would not be able to enjoy Christmas without a Santa Claus. And sadly that tradition has not changed much today.

In my family I cannot think of any specific Scandinavian Christmas traditions which have been passed on to me. We do enjoy much feasting, but we've never eaten rice pudding. Maybe this year we should include it.

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