Thursday, 10 August 1848 dawned warm and bright all over the Salt Lake Valley. After a harsh year, the prospect of a good harvest had revived the spirits of the Latter-day Saints, and everyone wanted to set aside a day for Utah’s (then called the State of Deseret) first Thanksgiving.
The festivities didn’t begin in the afternoon or evening, as they do now, but in the morning. Many children were up early. The girls helped their mothers prepare cakes, pies, and other pastries. The boys helped pull beets and carrots and cleaned cucumbers, radishes, and beans—all soon to be part of the wonderful feast.
Large baskets filled with pastries were placed under a large bowery (an open-sided building) on tables decorated for the feast. Fathers and sons proudly pulled carts heaped high with garden vegetables. Even the youngest Saints gathered at the bowery, each bringing so much food they almost couldn’t carry it all.
At nine o’clock sharp, a hush fell over the crowd. The festivities began solemnly, as a white flag was raised on a Liberty Pole decorated with sheaves of wheat, barley, oats, and a single ear of green corn. As the flag crept up the pole, a cannon was fired and the band began playing. When the flag reached the top of the pole, the people cheered loudly and cried out in unison, “Hosanna to God and the Lamb, forever and ever, amen.”
The Saints then stood and sang “Harvest Song,” written by Parley P. Pratt especially for the occasion. The voices of the Saints were strong and unified as they sang the chorus:
“Let us join in the dance, let us join in the song.
To thee, O Jehovah, the praises belong.
All honor, all glory, we render to thee;
Thy cause is triumphant, thy people are free.”
After the song, several prominent leaders took turns giving speeches about how the Lord had blessed them in allowing this joyful harvest. After the speeches, Elder John Taylor (who later became the third President of the Church) offered a Thanksgiving prayer of praise and blessing on the food.
At noon, a bugle sounded, and several hundred Saints sat down to a wonderful dinner of bread, beef, cheese, green corn, melons, lettuce, radishes, beets, onions, peas, carrots, cucumbers, parsnips, squash, and beans. After that, those who could find room enjoyed cakes, pies, and pastries.
At two o’clock, the bugle sounded again. The tables were cleared and the benches removed, making room for dancing. As the band played, as many as 50 couples at a time danced the Virginia reel and quadrilles (a kind of square dance).
The day had been such an enormously successful event, surely you would think that a grand tradition had been started. But, strangely, that wasn’t what happened. The quickly-growing population made it impractical to have another citywide feast. Three years after the first celebration, in the fall of 1851, President Brigham Young, then governor of the Territory of Utah, proclaimed 1 January 1852 a “Day of Praise and Thanksgiving.” President Young asked the Saints to spend the day as families, joyfully, thankfully, and prayerfully, “in response to the time-honored custom of our fathers at Plymouth Rock.” It became a day for Saints to share their hearts with one another and with God and share their substance with the poor. Today many people celebrate Thanksgiving in different ways and on different dates, but the spirit of love and gratitude celebrated by the early pioneers remains the same.