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A pioneer Christmas tradition was the festive holiday greeting “Christmas Gift!” On Christmas morning, children and adults rushed to see who could be the first to wish another a “Christmas Gift.” Sometimes going to great lengths to hide in strange places, climb secretly into windows, or jump off of rooftops. The one with the fastest mouth received a piece of candy for his or her speed of tongue.
Here are two pioneer journal accounts recounting this:
Sarah Jane B. Hill fondly remembers …..”When I was a little girl two years old my mother passed away. I went to live with my grandmother, Jane Ann Bown. “Ma,” as I called her lived next door to her sister, Eliza, and her husband John Bartholomew. They were affectionately called “Uncle John and Aunt Lizzie.”
It was coming Christmas and Uncle John was determined to get the greeting of “Christmas Gift” off first on Ma. In the earlier days this was the greeting that was always used. He had boasted to Ma that he was really going to put it over for sure this time.
Christmas morning came around. Ma kept peeking out of the window to see if she could see Uncle John coming. She said to me, “You, Sarah Jane, sit by the window and keep a good watch.” We didn’t see a sign of Uncle John anywhere. Ma started to prepare breakfast. The cook stove was near the bedroom door. All of a sudden she heard a noise in the bedroom. She opened the door quietly and looked in. There stood Uncle John. She called, “Christmas Gift,” before he had time to open his mouth. To gain entrance to the bedroom he had stood on a broken chair on the outside, but, when he crawled through the window he landed on an old, squeaking bed that made an awful racket.
Ma was really laughing when Uncle John finally came into the kitchen. He was out of patience when he said, “Aunt Jane Ann, why don’t you throw that old rattle-trap bed out?” She told him she would, but she wanted it back by next Christmas so she could hear him when he came to pay her his Christmas greeting.”
From Alma D. Chambers journal, who came to Ogden, Utah in 1869 it states: “Christmas in the early days was very different from what it is today. There were no gifts – only candy and that was usually home made molasses candy or hard tack or stick candy. The children enjoyed calling “Christmas Gifts” to members of the family, friends or neighbors, whereby the one calling it first received a piece of candy. The day was usually spent at home, and mother prepared a good dinner for us. Very often the Sunday School gave a dance for the children in the afternoon and the day ended with a dance in the evening for grown ups. Though we did not have very much, we were happy and a spirit of love and peace prevailed.”
This pioneer tradition harked back to an earlier European holiday tradition that permitted peasants, apprentices, and servants to request gifts from their patrons in exchange for their goodwill throughout the year – similar to our contemporary Halloween. The social hierarchy was temporarily upended to allow the peasant to become the lord of the manor – to drink the lord’s best wine and eat his finest foods. Even if the greeting recalled the earlier tradition, the salutation “Christmas gift” implied no social inversion to the pioneers, just a way to add some Christmas fun.
Why not try this now lost tradition in your families this Christmas? See if you can be the FIRST to surprise others with a greeting of “Christmas Gift!”
Richard Ian Kimball, “All Hail to Christmas”: Mormon Pioneer Holiday Celebrations found in BYU Studies 40, no.3 (2001).
Kate B. Carter, Heart Throbs of the West – Vol. 2, p. 341. “Ogden’s First Christmas” from Alma D. Chambers
Kate B. Carter, Treasures of Pioneer History – Vol. 3, p. 177-178. “Christmas Gift”, from Sara Jane B. Hill