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Potatoes and Dancing on the First St George Christmas

St. George and Christmas are both steeped in tradition.

The first pioneer wagons arrived in the area now known as St. George on November 25, 1861.  A week later on December 4, the main body of 378 men and 370 women arrived at their destination here in Southern Utah, setting up camp on what is called today, the Encampment Mall on the campus of Dixie State University.

The people were weary-to-the-bone after weeks of travel from the Valley of the Great Salt Lake and in looking around what was then a vast empty red rock desert, saw only a future of more unceasing, back-breaking labor, but Christmas was at hand and pioneer leaders deemed this an ideal time for celebrating.

A big tent was set up, where the entire group could gather for a service and a program, a fiddler would play and they would stay warm dancing until dawn on the salt grass floor.

A drizzling rain began on Christmas Eve, but – undaunted – 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.

The downpour soon seeped through the roof of the tent but following the benediction and program, the pioneers decided to stay on and dance.  And dance they did stopping only long enogh 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 the pocket of her apron.  She had been saving it for some special occasion, and decided nothing was more special than giving joy to these people who had so little. With her precious gift, the fiddler contrived an acceptable substitute sing for her fiddle 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.

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