The traditions of Christmas run deep in Utah’s Dixie. The first wagon of pioneers arrived in St. George on November 25, 1861. Then on December 4, the main body of 378 men and 370 women arrived, setting up camp on what we now call the Encampment Mall on the campus of Dixie State University.
Pioneer leaders decided the people must have a break in their unceasing, back-breaking labor. Christmas was at hand and it seemed an ideal time for celebrating.
Leaders had acquired a big tent in which the entire group could gather for a service and a program. Afterwards, a fiddler could play and they would dance until dawn on the salt grass floor.
A drizzling rain began on Christmas Eve, but the hearty pioneers decided to proceed. Their leaders had a special Christmas treat for everyone. A large sack of potatoes had been brought down from Pine Valley and were to be roasted in the coals of the community fire and given to each person as they entered the tent. They would serve as hand warmers and later as a special Christmas meal.
Drizzles soon seeped through the roof of the big tent. Following the benediction and program, the pioneers decided to stay on and dance. Maybe they could move fast enough to keep warm. And dance they did! They only stopped to give the fiddler a rest and to eat their precious potatoes.
Then a catastrophe occurred. The enthusiastic fiddler had literally sawed through the strings of his fiddle and had no replacements. Fortunately, a sister in the company had, among her few earthly treasures, a spool of silk thread she had brought from the Old World. As a member of a handcart company, she had walked across the plains with this thread in her waist apron. She had been saving it for some special occasion, and decided nothing was more special than giving joy to these young people who had so little. The fiddler managed to contrive an acceptable substitute from the thread and the dancing continued.
Over the years, when recalling the events of that night, those early Mormon pioneers did not remember the damp discomfort of wet clothes and bedding, their inadequate shelter, nor the scarcity of food. Instead, they spoke of Christmas Eve 1861 as their best – their favorite – holiday celebration, because of the feeling of unity and love they enjoyed together on that first Christmas in Utah’s Dixie.