George and Miriam Jessop didn't celebrate Christmas growing up in Colorado City, Ariz. As members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), they had been raised to believe Jesus Christ was born on April 6, so instead of observing the traditional Christmas holiday, they celebrated only New Year's Eve.
But it wasn't that they didn't want to celebrate Christmas, Miriam says. "I've always loved the lights and the Christmas music, and I've always listened to it." But she knew lights were frowned upon, and she never listened to Christmas music when someone else might hear because she never knew who would report her to church leadership.
In February 2012, the couple left the FLDS Church with their 12 children. They weren't the only ones who left the church. Embattled by endless criminal and civil court cases, and after a decade of worldwide negative publicity—much of it focused on the arrest, prosecution and conviction of prophet Warren Jeffs for child rape—the FLDS Church's membership is dropping off. Former members allege the FLDS Church has pursued ever more punitive measures of control against its members.
"We decided we'd rather go to hell and be happy together," Miriam says, than become the latest victims of an ongoing drive by their faith's leadership to exile husbands and reassign women and children to other men.
While the Jessops have been out of the FLDS Church for almost four years, the couple has remained in Colorado City. "We were alone," George says. "We had nobody we could connect to. We tried to move away, but every time we tried, it financially crushed us. Our family was too big, our credit score too low."
That first Christmas of flying solo, free of the FLDS Church, the Jessops chose not to celebrate Christmas. "We were still sorting out, not knowing what we wanted to [teach] our children now that we had left traditions that we no longer agreed with," Miriam says.
By December 2013, however, George decided to defy his former church. He put up a Christmas tree.
In a town where Christmas has long been taboo, having a Christmas tree in your window and lights decorating your porch can mean far more than simply demonstrating festive good will. In the church, "Christmas lights are frowned upon," says former FLDS Church member and Colorado City resident Arnold Richter, whose own home at night resembles a brightly lit gingerbread house. "It's a sign you're buying into the complete commercialism of the Christmas ideas. If you had lights set up, you weren't loyal to the church there." Such was the antipathy toward Christmas lights, that some of the more zealous parents invoked a divine punishment straight out of the Old Testament: Namely, that people could be turned to pillars of salt just for looking upon them, he says.
The Christmas tree "is my signature for freedom," George Jessop says. At least one person rejoiced at the tree's appearance. For 18 years, the Jessops had a non-FLDS neighbor who kept to himself. When the tree went up, he knocked on their door and held out a bottle of Champagne. (While the FLDS Church shares historical roots with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, it does not prohibit alcohol consumption among its members as the modern Mormon church does.) "I've come to share your freedom with you," the neighbor told them.
In nearby towns such as Beaver and Hurricane, "Merry Christmas" banners hang across Main Street, while decorations festoon windows. But drive the streets and orange-sand pathways of Short Creek—as the adjacent border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., have long been called by residents—and there's little sign of Christmas cheer. The only evidence of the season, in fact, are lights that decorate a recently opened hardware store, the local community college and, scattered sporadically, the homes of former FLDS Church members.
The history of Christmas in Short Creek reflects the evolution of the long troubled and pilloried FLDS Church. The origins of the FLDS Church stem from the desire of polygamists in the late 1800s to continue living "the principle" of plural families in accordance with the practice and teachings of the LDS Church's founder, Joseph Smith, rather than follow the LDS Church, which abandoned polygamy in 1890, when church President Wilford Woodruff issued Official Declaration 1, aka "the Mormon manifesto," a proclamation instructing church members to obey anti-polygamy laws.
In the 1930s, polygamists settled in Hildale and Colorado City. The isolated rural location provided shelter from federal and state law enforcement seeking to prosecute polygamists for bigamy. The group established the United Effort Plan Trust to hold the land it acquired, in order to shield their homes from being seized by state or federal governments.
In the early years, members of the impoverished community, what was then called "The Work," turned to singing and exchanging homemade gifts to celebrate the winter season. While some regarded Christmas as a pagan tradition, church followers honored April 6 as Christ's birthday. Some celebrated only New Year's Eve, but others—including one of the first leaders, John Y. Barlow (according to his son, Alvin)—actually did celebrate the Yuletide. In other words, according to interviews with multiple former church members in Short Creek; St. George, Utah; and Las Vegas, Nev., in the first decades of The Work, there seemed to be sufficient freedom within the polygamous communities to celebrate Yuletide, or not, depending on people's preference.
But after the Hildale/Colorado City community shifted in the early 1980s from a seven-man-council leadership to a one-man prophet rule, everything considered frivolous was banned. Prophet Warren Jeffs, faced with a lawsuit by a group of ex-FLDS male youths who alleged they had been systematically expelled from the community, did nothing to protect the UEP trust, and the state stepped in to administer it. Jeffrey Shields with the Utah Attorney General's Office represents the state's interests in the trust. He notes that recently retired 3rd District Court Judge Denise Lindberg approved the distribution of 75 properties out of a total of 250 UEP trust homes in Hildale, most of which were returned to ex-FLDS members who had been kicked out of the church. The trust also has 500 homes in Colorado City. While FLDS Church members can take possession of properties if they apply to the trust and pay outstanding property taxes, the FLDS Church has ordered its followers to have no dealings with the trust, Shields says.
The ultimate goal, Shields says, is "to distribute all of these houses out to the people who deserve them most." What's more, Shields says, "Now, people don't have the fear of being evicted from their houses by a fanatic Warren Jeffs,"—a factor that might explain the community's emerging interest in Christmas. With Jeffs serving a life sentence in a Texas prison, the ghosts of Christmas past have given way to the first faltering steps of a resurgent Christmas culture—whether it's people who have recently left the FLDS Church who are experimenting with Christmas for the first time or returning ex-members celebrating the holiday unhindered.
Still, openly celebrating Christmas in Short Creek remains a contentious act, and some have found Christmas displays have been vandalized. One ex-FLDS woman recently found her tree lights were cut, while another apostate, as ex-members are termed by the FLDS faithful, had his lights stolen. Fliers put up around town for what was billed as "the first Christmas party" on Dec. 16, 2015, were repeatedly torn down, an organizer says. Not only is there resistance to the holiday spirit—there's also a lack of familiarity among those who want to observe the traditions. Some families who've recently left the church want to hold their first Christmas, but don't know how, so they ask outsiders or turn to the Internet—a technological innovation loathed by Warren Jeffs, who dubbed the web, "the devil's looking glass."
The FLDS Church does not have a spokesperson and its followers are under orders not to talk to outsiders, former members say. A City Weekly reporter sought comment on the towns' Christmas plans from city offices—two highly secure buildings with mirrored windows—which were staffed by women in traditional FLDS dresses, coiffed with "wet wave" hairstyles. Colorado City's city manager did not respond to an interview request. An unnamed male official at the Hildale office said that the city does not have a budget for Christmas decorations: "We leave the public to do what they want," he said.
But for those who put up lights on their homes—a reporter counted a dozen brightly lit homes one early December night—there's an unspoken reward that Arnold Richter identifies. "To me, putting up Christmas lights, it's a time that is cold, the trees are barren of leaves, there's little natural beauty left. The days are short and the nights are long, and the lights are something that brings beauty back," he says. Richter says some community members have told him that when they were still in a religion that deemed competition and entertainment subversive, driving by his house and seeing his lights brought them "a small amount of joy."
The roots of the FLDS' resistance to celebrating Christmas may lie in the founding of the LDS Church itself. Mormon historian, professor and author Patrick Q. Mason says that Mormons "would generally acknowledge and believe that Dec. 25 is not Jesus' birthday." In Chapter 20, Verse 1, of the LDS Church Doctrine & Covenants, Christ's birthdate is identified as April 6, the same date as the founding of the LDS Church 1,830 years later.
In a 1997 Christmas devotional, late LDS prophet and president Gordon B. Hinckley said, "While we now know through revelation the time of the Savior's birth (April 6), we observe the 25th of December with the rest of the Christian world."
Ironically, the Mormon fundamentalists at Short Creek did celebrate Christmas in the first decades after polygamists settled there in 1935. John Y. Barlow was one of the founding figures of what was then called the Priesthood Work, or The Work. His 77-year-old son, Alvin S. Barlow Sr., provided a written statement to City Weekly about his recollections of Christmas as a child. When he was growing up in Short Creek, a windmill pumped water from a culinary well, there were no telephones and the only light came from gas or coal oil lamps.
Barlow recalls that in December 1949, his father was gravely ill in Salt Lake City. In Short Creek, he and his extended family of mothers and children "had a beautiful tree with homemade decorations and presents around the base." Family members drew names of those to prepare a present for. "No one was without," he writes.
Then 11-year-old Barlow woke up with his siblings to find not only stockings with an apple and an orange, but also a red wagon full of presents with a note, "To all the children, from Daddy." Several days later, a man traveled the rutted winter road from Hurricane to tell them John Y. Barlow had died on Dec. 29. "From that time on, we moved our gift-giving to New Year's and increased our focus on our Lord and Savior to April 6," Barlow writes.
Seth Cooke grew up in Hildale, near the red-rock mountains that cradle the community. He recalls pulling a name from the hat at the beginning of the year, so he had a little more than 11 months to decide upon a New Year's Eve present. He and his siblings made dolls, cribs, furniture and hope chests, "some of them as nice looking as anything I've ever seen," he says.
New Year's Eve presents were handmade, he says, because the leaders of The Work "didn't want people spending their money on Christmas. They wanted you to give it to them. Tithing was the bare minimum you could do."
An additional benefit for the frugally minded polygamist of New Year's Eve celebrations was that items such as wrapping paper, toys and Christmas merchandise were on clearance.
For some, though, growing up in Mormon fundamentalism without Christmas, particularly if you lived on the Wasatch front, was problematic. Former polygamist and longtime Short Creek resident Katie Cox recalls hearing about Christmas while attending public school in Farmington as a child growing up in a fundamentalist family. "Kids go to school, and they talk. We're supposed to be Christians, and yet we couldn't have Christmas." When she was 10 years old, she wanted a tree so badly. "I got a huge tumbleweed, sprayed it pink and put glitter on it, and used it as a tree," she says.
Lighting Up the House
Despite the preference for celebrating on New Year's Eve, several leaders nevertheless quietly observed the Yuletide holiday. Among those who were said to have both had trees and lights were "Uncle" LeRoy Johnson and "Uncle" Fred Jessop [uncle being a term of respect and affection reserved for the priesthood leaders]. Johnson held the highest position in The Work until his death in 1986 and was known as "God's mouthpiece on Earth," recall former members. Jessop, who died in 2005, was the man Johnson appointed to manage the community. As the community's "bishop," Jessop ran the storehouse and was responsible for building up the community coffers. Some members, noting their leaders' festive proclivities, followed suit with their own trees, even if the practice was frowned upon publicly.
Another way that Christmas entered the unpaved streets of Short Creek was through a non-FLDS neighbor's celebration. Connell Bateman is one of Short Creek's most passionate Christmas fans, a commitment the 69-year-old traces back to when he was 6 years old and, when, for one winter season, he milked the family cow at a nearby barn. On the way home, he'd pass the home of Homer Phelps, a local landowner who would later join the FLDS.
Bateman recalls that Phelps would put up Christmas lights and play seasonal songs on a phonograph. "He could see people needed something, needed some joy," Bateman says. Six-year-old Bateman would sit behind a tree near Phelps' home in the freezing cold, night after night, so he could listen to Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole croon Christmas standards.
Those winter nights had an impact on Bateman who, 60 years later, recalls, with deep anguish, his brain-injured father routinely abusing him, kicking him with sharp-toed cowboy boots. The lights and the music emanating from Phelps' house "gave me the will to live," he says. "I felt the joy. I went home and told my mother one day, 'When I get big and have my house, I'm going to light it up.'"
"One Big Happy Family"
Many of those interviewed said the 1960s were the golden years of Colorado City. But by the 1970s, former FLDS members say, a division emerged as one group pushed for the council to be replaced by one-man prophet rule. Council members were also trustees of the United Effort Plan Trust, which held ownership over all the properties where members of The Work lived.
In the face of the looming shadows of discord over The Work's future, in 1977, the late Don Cox decided to put on Strings 'n' Things, a three-hour Christmas extravaganza.
According to Cox's second wife, Katie, he had always celebrated Christmas with gusto in Salt Lake City, where he lived with his two wives and nine children. His passion for music defined the plural family's holiday experience, whether he was playing festive songs by ear on the piano, or recorded carols on a record player.
"When we moved down here, [the community] was one big, happy family," Katie recalls. "Everybody waved to each other; they were friendly."
Don Cox had been encouraged by one of the council members to live in Short Creek because they needed an electrician. But Don and his plural family's arrival in the Creek put him in conflict with Fred Jessop, who not only had his own protégé electrician working in the town, but also ran the local musical and theatrical productions.
In 1977, Don "decided he wanted to do a Christmas party for the community," Cora Fischer recalls. Fischer was the first person evicted from her home by the church's leadership. She recently returned to take possession of her former home. Don did not seek permission from the priesthood council to put on the show, she says. Fischer volunteered to paint a backdrop of pine trees and frosted mountains with blue sky and nailed pine branches to the frame. Don put a fake-snow machine on top of the stage.
Any concerns about a backlash were pushed aside. "Don felt there was enough people who loved music that would support him in it," Katie says. While there was growing unrest as people sided either with the pro-council group or the one-man rule group, Don drew "people from both sides together to put on this production," she recalls.
Don pulled together a polished country and Christmas talent show around his large, musically talented family, his first wife playing the drums, his second wife (Katie) playing the vibraphone and the marimba, and Don and his sons on guitar. Many members of the community joined the Cox family in singing various numbers onstage. Don introduced each of the songs perched on a barstool, sporting a different, tailor-made shirt for each night. The songs ranged from Christmas classics ("Christmas Can't Be Far Away," "Jingle Bell Rock," "Silent Night") through romantic ballads ("Strangers in the Night," "Are You Lonesome Tonight?") to period hits (Nana Mouskouri's "A Place in My Heart").
Katie Cox provided City Weekly with an audio recording of the 1977 concert, which was popular with Short Creekers who returned every night to join standing-room-only audiences. Unlike later shows put on during the Rulon Jeffs administration that included lengthy references to Mormon scripture, rarely does the fundamentalist setting intrude—except perhaps in an a cappella version by three young men from the community of "I Believe," their performance shimmering with conviction. "Well, I think that's a pretty good philosophy," Don told the audience about the song's lyrics. "How about you?"
The three-night show remains for many a highlight of their time in the community. "The town's reaction was just shock," says Seth Cooke. "It was beautiful, something I'd never heard of." Cooke believes Don "was just trying to instill something besides work and drudgery in the group. To him it was happy, good times. That was my take on it."
Don "was making a stand for Christmas and a stand for music," daughter Trudie says. "It's something that everybody remembers, it was so huge, we never had anything like that here," before or after.
But in the days after the show, the displeasure of the leadership "filtered down in ugly rumors," Katie says. "The music was too loud. Uncle Fred didn't like it."
The next Sunday, at the priesthood meeting, the leaders told the men not to repeat the show. "Everybody got chastised for it," Seth Cooke says. "They said it wasn't done under the direction of the priesthood and not to do it."
Fred Jessop took a particular dislike to Don playing the guitar in the show. "The best pitch for the guitar is out the window," several ex-members remember him writing in the Twin Towns Courier, the local paper.
As the tensions over which direction The Work should go erupted into a power struggle in the early 1980s, it drove a wedge between Don and many of his friends in the community. People who had performed in his extravaganza turned away from him. "He felt betrayed," Katie says, and he bitterly regretted bringing his family down to a community that did not live up to its claims of equality: "This place was not what it was portrayed to be."
Defending the Lights
On Nov. 5, 1986, following the death of leader LeRoy Johnson, Rulon Jeffs took over control of The Work. Rulon Jeffs sent out letters to everyone living in a UEP Trust home in Hildale and Colorado City that they could be removed at any time.
A 21-strong group of Short Creekers, including Cora Fischer, Don Cox, Connell Bateman and Seth Cooke, sued the trust in 1987 petitioning a federal court to "determine their rights in the property," according to a 1996 Utah Supreme Court ruling that found the plaintiffs should be allowed "to remain on their land for their lifetimes."
While social events under the Rulon Jeffs administration became ever more somber, some tried to keep the spirit of Christmas alive, even if it wasn't named as such. One such devotee was Kathy Jessop, whose daughter—ex-FLDS member and St. George resident Shirlee Draper—recalls as "really outspoken, intelligent: one of those wild women who wouldn't buckle under to do what she was told." Kathy Jessop built a reputation for performing music, teaching and giving singing lessons. She listened to the radio—something highly unusual in the community, Draper says—and enjoyed everything from opera and rock to Dave Brubeck and Meat Loaf.
After Kathy Jessop put on what she called "winter programs" for the community, which included a few Christmas songs, she was asked to take her choir to St. George to sing to patients in care facilities. For the next five or six years, Draper says, her mother would take her choir caroling around Short Creek. "We'd drive around town in these caravans, people would hop in and join us." While some residents would not allow them in to their houses, Fred Jessop would usher them into his home and serve them hot chocolate. "There was no tree or presents," Draper says with a smile, but as far as her mother was concerned, "by God, there'll be music."
If Don Cox and Kathy Jessop led the fight for Christmas through music, Connell Bateman was the defender of Christmas lights. Much like Strings 'n' Things, driving by the Bateman's house in the 1990s burns brightly in people's memories.
Seth Cooke recalls that "everybody loved their lights, they just weren't supposed to. You'd see cars drive by one after the other, parents taking their kids."
Bateman recalls emulating Phelps and playing Christmas music as cars rolled by his brightly lit home. He'd sit by a tree in his garden, watching the smiles of people he'd grown up with and called family friends, but who shunned him as an apostate after he joined the UEP Trust lawsuit. He'd wipe away tears as children would roll down their parents' car windows and crane their heads out so they could hear.
The Batemans didn't see themselves as rebels. "It was the pure feeling of Christmas, the warmth," wife Trudie says in the living room of their reclaimed home, a Christmas tree by the window, a Yule log burning on the flat-screen TV. Connell adds he wanted others to experience what he had felt with Phelps' generosity as a child. "That's not rebellion, that's love."
A Hollowness Inside
After Rulon Jeffs had a stroke, his son Warren took over. The few celebrations that were left, such as fourth of July, Harvest and birthdays, were banned. "In Warren's day, they told us to treat birthdays as nonexistent, to use money to build up the kingdom," says one man who recently left the FLDS. That included the prophets' birthdays—be it Warren's on Dec. 3, Rulon's on Dec. 6 or Joseph Smith's on Dec. 23. "Warren wanted us to fast on those days. It was all just a hocus-pocus lie," he concludes bitterly.
In 2000, after Warren Jeffs told the community to pull their children out of school, Shirlee Draper recalls leaning forward in church "and looking around, seeing all these pious faces, and then I looked at the side doors. 'This is where they're going to trot in the Kool-Aid,'" she recalls thinking. "It's time to drink this and die."
Draper left with her children in 2003 and celebrated her first Christmas a year later in St. George. "I went all out, I spent $1,000 on each of my kids, got two trees 15 feet tall." Trees and a multitude of presents were "how I imagined Christmas is supposed to be."
But after her children opened up the gifts, she recalls thinking, "'This is pretty damned hollow.' To me, I was creating this consumerism in them—that it was all about 'stuff.' It felt really empty." The following year, she had her children draw a sibling's name and encouraged them to think about giving.
O, Christmas Tree
Some women who have left the FLDS Church are intent on helping families as they leave their former faith. One of them is a former City Weekly cover subject, Margaret Cooke, who, over the years, has collected a number of Christmas trees, donated by family and friends. One early December 2015 afternoon in Colorado City, she delivered a pre-lit tree as a surprise gift for a mother and her eight children. Photos of Fred Jessop and LeRoy Johnson adorn one wall of the mother's home, symbols, for some, of a better time at the Creek. Such portraits stand in marked contrast to the houses of FLDS Church members where pictures of Warren Jeffs are prominent, say recent ex-members. "This community's Christmas tree is Warren Jeffs," says one former member.
The mother arrives with six children, the oldest in her early 20s. The children at first stand a little away from the tree, as if uncertain of what to do. A 16-year-old girl with a long single braid of blond hair down her back says Christmas "means giving and sharing." Then she adds, "The tree's really cute, though."
The mother has been out of the FLDS Church for four years, but until now, she says, was "kind of scared" to celebrate the holiday. "For one thing, we don't know how." Her 12-year-old points to a large box of ornaments. "Are those to hang?" she asks. The 16-year-old points to the top of the tree. "So what goes right here?" Cooke says she can put a star, a bow, a snowflake or an angel.
The mother compiles a present list at Cooke's request. Each child requests one item, "arts and crafts, cowboy stuff, boots, hats," the mother says. The 16-year-old asks for makeup. "I always look so pale I could fake sick," she says with a laugh.
She shows Cooke a photograph of herself standing beside Santa Claus at the Colorado City-based Mohave Community College. "I didn't dare sit on his lap because, you know," she says, drawing out the last word with a roll of her eyes intimating there were lascivious Santas, an expression that has the adults dissolving into laughter. She looks at the tree as her sister puts on ornaments. "It's so dang cute," she says.
Light Up the World
Life in Short Creek has "improved a lot," says Katie Cox. "Since Utah took over control of the UEP Trust, people are able to worship and believe how they choose without fear of eviction."
The Batemans got back their house in 2014 through the state-controlled UEP Trust 14 years after hostility from the FLDS led them to move to Las Vegas. There, they have a home that is given over to Christmas with a seasonal toy train and decorations year round.
This year, the Batemans put their lights back up, only for someone to steal a string of lights running along Bateman's front picket fence the same night he turned them on. "Somebody has got it hanging on their wall as a trophy," Connell says. "I'm going to move it inside the fence."
Vandalizing lights is something that former FLDS member and security chief Ron Rohbock experienced after his lights were taken down and dumped in his driveway. Rohbock was also charged with disorderly conduct by pro-FLDS local police because he was playing Christmas music on his external sound system. The Creek doesn't have a noise ordinance, but after his ticket was pleaded down from a class C misdemeanor to a parking ticket, Rohbock paid it.
The Bateman's are unfazed by such harassment. Years ago, Connell says, he realized something: "I am a simple man, but I can light up the world."
Others also seek to bring Christmas to Hildale and Colorado City, including Christine Marie Katas, an advocate who helps people leaving polygamy build new lives. The Las Vegas puppeteer's stage name is Mrs. Gingerbread, and on Dec. 16, 2015, with the help of local and out-of-state nonprofits and churches, she organized the first Christmas party for the community that anyone can remember. She says over 1,000 women and mostly children, many in FLDS dresses, attended. She and other volunteers had to repeatedly educate the children and their mothers, and even the former FLDS man who volunteered to be Santa Claus, what the traditions of gift giving involved. In a second private event the same day, attended by 42 local women, all "refugees," Katas says, from the FLDS, one attendee held up a gift and said, "I'm 37 years old, and this is my very first wrapped Christmas present."
Katas says ex-FLDS members repeatedly stressed that, for them, the party revealed something that their former church had told them never to do, namely to trust outsiders and understand that people beyond Short Creek can and do care about them.
Celebrating Christmas in the Creek is ultimately not only about giving, but also freedom of choice and sharing. Out of the FLDS Church for nearly four years, George Jessop says he's "not obligated to shun and hate anybody," a requirement within the church that he found a heavy weight. "The greatest freedom that I have and the greatest freedom I feel is the power within myself to express friendship and kindness to others."
Three years on from their first Christmas, Miriam Jessop says their tree has evolved into a symbol of invitation. "Now it's more like I want people to look in that window and wish they were in here and want to be a part of whatever is going on in that house because it looks so bright and inviting. That's the feeling I would get from a home with a light inside."
"It's all about freedom," George Jessop says. "That's my expression, what I'm saying with that tree. I'm free to do as I damned please."
Visit CityWeekly.net to hear music from Strings 'n' Things.