Question: What culinary Christmas traditions were brought by immigrants gathering to Zion?
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Immigrant Culinary Christmas Traditions
Just like today, no Christmas celebration in pioneer times was complete without a feast even when families had no means to provide gifts they went to great lengths to procure extra food to make the holiday special. Like the Cratchits in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Latter-day Saint families felt to thank God for even a small feast when they had little more than each other. Mormon immigrants from across the world carried their culinary Christmas traditions with them when they gathered to Zion.
Scottish Saints made shortcake for their holiday celebrations, while Danish Saints supped on “sweet soup made of rice and fruit juice.” Plum pudding was the season’s delight for British settlers in Utah. Ann Mailin Sharp, a handcart pioneer of 1856, made due with what she had to make this holiday concoction with “flour, suet molasse, dried ground cherries, ground cherries, and a few dried wild currants.” The ingredients, “sewed up in a white cloth,” were “kept boiling for hours in the kettle hanging over the fireplace.” When the pudding finished cooking, a small amount of brandy was poured over it and lit with a match. The blue flame rising from the pudding may very well have reminded British converts of the Christmases of their past and given them hope for a bright future in Christ.
Many Scandinavian immigrants ate their celebratory dinner on Christmas Eve. On Christmas and New Year’s Day, Scandinavian Saints looked forward to rice mush cooked in milk and sweetened with cinnamon and sugar. Even the animals in Scandinavian homes received an extra share of food to commemorate Christmas Day. Here is Julia’s account (a Scandinavian immigrant) of how badly she wanted their traditional rice dish:
“Christmas Eve came. This was our first Christmas in the new land. Of course we expected to keep it as best we could. According to our custom we felt that we had to have rice mush with sugar and cinnamon. This was our main Christmas dish in the old country, as much the rule as plum pudding in this country. But where to obtain the milk in which to boil the rice? “Where Shall I go?” I asked. “To folks that have cows,” I was answered. So I went to David Holiday’s. Why he had a whole corral full of cows!
I knocked at the door. “Come in,” they shouted in chorus. When I entered they asked me to sit down, but as I was in a hurry I said, “I only came to ask if you can sell us some milk.” At this for some reason an amused grin lit up each face. They all burst out laughing, and not knowing what they were laughing at I hurried and left. I came home and handed Father back the money. He asked where I had gone to find milk. When I told him he also laughed and said, “I’m not surprised you weren’t able to get any milk there.”
I was wondering how we could ever live through a Christmas without rice cooked in milk. Just then came Brother John Peterson from Spring Lake with a little gallon keg of milk. He had walked a distance of three miles bringing it. Said he, “My wife and I were thinking you wouldn’t have much of a Christmas without milk.” Before Brother Peterson left us that afternoon he arranged that I should go to Spring Lake twice each week for a bucket of milk. I was so glad to have found someone who had cows with milk! Many years later I knew why that milk couldn’t be found in the corral!”
Which of these culinary traditions will you give a try for fun this year?
Richard Ian Kimball, “All Hail to Christmas”: Mormon Pioneer Holiday Celebrations found in BYU Studies 40, no.3 (2001).
Kate B. Carter, Our Pioneer Heritage – Vol 15, p. 198. “Julia’s Christmas” from Christian Olsen family records.