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July 23, 2020

Pioneer Day: A Holiday Unique to Utah

We moved to Utah on July 4, America’s Independence Day. We moved into our new apartment on Pioneer Day, July 24. 


“Pioneer Day?” I wondered, “What’s that? I have never heard of it before!” 


I heard there would be fireworks and a parade. We loved the 4th of July fireworks show we saw from Ensign Peak on Independence Day, so figured the fireworks display on Pioneer Day would be just as awesome (though, truth be told, I am not too much of a fan of fireworks). 


The first year we were in Utah, 2017, we experienced watching fireworks from our 6th story apartment balcony. In addition to the fireworks, we were able to attend the Days of ’47 (another name for Pioneer Day) Rodeo and other local rodeos in the area. 



Attending the Draper Days Rodeo
Jennifer, blog author, attending the Draper Days Rodeo.

In 2018 we were able to watch the Pioneer Day Marathon, experience seeing people camp along the parade route, and I myself got to see the parade and even see the ‘Utah Honda Girl’ providing live commentary to the parade. Again, we attended the Days of ’47 rodeo and got rained out near the end!!





In 2019, we got to attend the Float Preview Party in Sandy. That was loads of fun to see the floats up close and personal- to see how much work really goes into each of these creations. It’s amazing to note the creativity and team spirit of all the groups who put together their own parade tableau entry.





But, in 2020, due to the pandemic, of course everything is canceled. We found out about the cancelation back in April, I think. I thought that’d be a good reason enough to write this blog about it.


What is Pioneer Day?

Back in 1847 on July 24, Brigham Young led the Mormon Pioneers into what is now the Salt Lake Valley stating “This is the Place.” Some believe this day is the birth of Utah. While in some ways it may be (Brigham Young had initially marked out a huge territory spanning across what is today’s Oregon, California, Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona as the State of Deseret, which over the years was chiseled down to what is today’s Utah), Utah’s official statehood birthday is January 4, 1896; a full almost 50 years from the year the pioneer trek made it’s way across and down the Wasatch Mountains.


"Deseret Map" Courtesy kutv.com.
"Deseret Map" Courtesy kutv.com.

Where is Pioneer Day Celebrated?

Since today’s Utah is still mostly known for a Mormon population, most towns, cities and villages in Utah have some kind of celebrations. However, I have heard of celebrations in areas of Idaho and Wyoming as well. Some may or may not be affiliated to Mormonism.

When is Pioneer Day? 

July 24, every year since 1849. This is not treated as a floating holiday for those who celebrate it. Regardless if it falls on a Wednesday or Sunday, it's celebrated on the day it falls, and many local offices will have the day off. 

How do People Celebrate Pioneer Day?
Parades, re-enactments of the trek (in period wear – as seen below in the video from the parade in Salt Lake City), rodeos, cook offs (Dutch oven cooking contests), story telling, local native story telling and skits (the name Utah derives from the Ute tribes – Ute, Paiute, Goshute and others, that were the original inhabitants of this area of the world before it was settled by the Mormons and way before this land became part of the USA.).



Native Americans Of Utah - Map


A list of other activities include: old-west re-enactments, square dancing or family dances, mountain men cultural events (these are pretty interesting), car shows, singing contests, outdoor movies, class reunions, pageants, ice cream socials (drinking alcohol and caffeinated beverages is typically a no-no in Mormon culture, so many may resort to eating sweets and deserts, hence there are loads of bakeries, shaved ice and other sweets shops found throughout Utah), runs, bike races, trap shooting, horseshoe throwing, sporting events, church events, and flag ceremonies. 


Can I participate in these events if I am not a Mormon? 

Well, I am not a Mormon, and some of the events I had participated in as they are open to the community. Everyone will know it is going on and Pioneer Day is a day off of work for many Utahns (though it’s not an off-day for everyone). The events I attended tended to be secular in nature, but of course, attending the religious events are probably relegated to those who are a member of the church. 


What's closed on Pioneer Day?
What's closed on Pioneer Day - 2019?

It is noted that in the parade and during the Float Preview Party, one can see floats from community groups who are NOT Mormon. Some floats belong to different cultural or ethnic groups or even religious groups in Utah as seen below. And, yes for those curious, there are many other types of religions and religious buildings in Utah- not just Mormons or LDS (terms which are now outdated). (The entry from the Taiwanese Association of Utah was in the video above at minute marker 6 minutes 25 seconds.) 


Note: While the terms "Mormon" and "LDS" (denoting those who follow the faith) were noted by The Church to be replaced by “members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” or “Latter-day Saints,” in vernacular most people do not seem to have updated to the new terminology though it was changed in 2018.


Parade Entry for Sikhs of Utah, 2019


Parade Entry for Sikhs of Utah, 2019


It is noted that there is a counter to Pioneer Day known as Pie and Beer Day. This day, which has a large following among many non-Mormons and Jack Mormons, is as stated. On this day, those who prefer not to participate in Pioneer Day activities will go to bars and drink beer and eat pies. I don’t know how that works, really, as I have not participated in that. Though I have heard there are ‘tours’ on that day where groups will move from bar to bar drinking local brews and eating different kinds of pies at each establishment.


What are some Utah symbols?

When one attends the parade, many will see Utah and Mormon symbols on the floats including: the Temple at Temple Square, Church symbols (I do not know what all those are, really), bees and beehives (the Utah symbol, which is also on the Utah flag, on state highway signs – as below, and on state buildings), the Sego Lily (state flower), the Delicate Arch, hoodoos, red rocks, the state shape, and others. Some are shown below in the pictures of some of the floats from previous parades I have attended.


Utah State Highway Signs Use the Beehive Symbol- A State Symbol
The Beehive is seen on the State Highway signs. Route 12 is one
of the most scenic byways of Utah in the Escalante area.
The Delicate Arch and Bryce Canyon Hoodoos Symbolize Utah
The Delicate Arch and Bryce Canyon Hoodoos Symbolize Utah as
seen on this parade float.
Blog author, Jennifer, and her husband at the Delicate Arch in Moab, Utah.
Blog author, Jennifer, and her husband at the Delicate Arch in Moab, Utah.

Other Notable Tidbits

There are many hiking trails and treks around Salt Lake City marked at the Pioneer Trail or the Mormon Pioneer Trail, while others will have historical markers to highlight the historical aspects of the trail, which are related to the settling of Utah. We have been to a few of these trails as noted and chronicled below.


Ensign Peak

Ensign Peak is a .8 mile round trip hike (others call stroll) up a hill overlooking Salt Lake Valley. This short thigh burner for those of us not used to walking up rocky hills has a 375 feet elevation gain. Don’t forget to bring water and good shoes, you will need it. This trail is in a residential neighborhood and overlooks not only Salt Lake City, but Capitol Hill. It’s a wonder to be there at sunset to see the city all lit up. One can see the straight, grid street pattern set up by Brigham Young. It is said that Young wanted all the roads in Salt Lake City to be very, very wide (remember this is back in the 1800s) so that when one had to make a U turn with their horse cart, they would not have to swear! And, now a days, it’s very common to see people make U turns in their vehicles at any part of the street- at the intersection, mid street, basically almost anywhere in the city (not highways) is fair game for making a U turn. The 30 second walk signal is typically not enough time to cross these wide streets and avenues even if you are a brisk walker! Note that Ensign Peak is not only a trail used frequently by locals, but is a tourist attraction of sorts and gets super busy during tourist season. This may be because it’s free! No need to pay to use the trail or park – unless you park after hours. Keep your eyes on the parking sign boards as tickets for parking violations here are pretty steep (as we unfortunately found out).


View of the Salt Lake Valley from Ensign Peak.
View of the Salt Lake Valley from Ensign Peak.


Utah Historical Marker at Ensign Peak
Utah Historical Marker at Ensign Peak

Little Mountain Summit Trail

This trail, which is in Emigration Canyon was, in my opinion a 'little boring,' but maybe that’s a good thing as at least when we went in winter, it was not at all crowded. (People in Utah love to hike and all the trails are crowded. The amazing thing you will see is parents carrying babies up the mountain on their backs, shoulders or in their arms!) As this trail was part of the original pioneer trek, there was a historical marker at the trail head which stated that the first Mormon Pioneer party that came into [what is known today as] Salt Lake City came to this summit on July 21, 1847 (a few days before Pioneer Day). From here, it was all downhill. Interestingly, it took them three more days to make it from this point to the "This is the Place" place where Brigham Young apparently said, "This is the Place" - the mouth of Emigration Canyon that looks into the Salt Lake Valley. The road that connects this marker to the This is the Place Historical Park is about 8 miles from this trailhead. But, this road did not exist in 1847, so I wonder what path they actually took. (The elevation of this marker is 6232, the elevation of the This is the Place park is about 4900.) Take a look at the video I made of that trek.


Our trek of the Little Mountain Trail at Emigration Canyon.


Interesting Utah Cultural Facts/Utah or Western US Culture vs. East Coast Culture

Utah certainly has a different culture than New York State. Many from India who want to work with Utahns have reached out to me for ideas on how to strike up relationships with born and bred Utahns. Of course, I am no born and bred Utahn, I am a transplant, so I did ask around and learned a little about the culture by just living here. Though, I have to say, that living in downtown Salt Lake City is pretty unique. Here, there are more transplants (out of towners, out of staters and expats) than even a few miles outside of the city. Most of the people we meet downtown are not from Utah! But, when I have interacted with Utahns, I have learned the following:

  1. In general, Utahns are very friendly. They will help you with directions. People smile and want to make small talk with you. And, just to be clear, I have not been approached by a Utah Mormon to be converted (I only say that as many people have asked me this, so I am addressing it here).
  2. Utahns, unlike those from ‘back East’ (like me) are more relaxed about time. If a meeting is supposed to start at 2, it may start a little after 2. Some professional events I have been at have even started up to 15-20 minutes after the start time, which would be very strange in New York State.
  3. Utahns make small talk in a different way than in New York. And, transplants here also pick up these habits, to some extent. Local Utahns, when they meet each other in professional events ask each other which high school they graduated from. If they meet a woman (typically I have seen this between two women), they may ask her maiden name (that would be a big no-no in New York!). And, yes, some may ask which church they go to (meaning Mormon church). While I have heard of such a question being asked in south eastern states, in Utah, it may be even more direct, such as “Are you LDS?” I have had many (both Utahns and transplants) ask me that.
  4. One may wonder how in the world does a Utahn know I am not a Utahn? Well, I guess it’s my accent that gives it away. Right off the bat, many think I am from Minnesota or I think I even got North Dakota as a guess once! Utah and especially Salt Lake City is known for one of the most neutral accents in the US (hence there were a lot of call centers in this area for the longest time). In fact, when Utahns hear me speak, sometimes to start the conversation, they will ask me about my accent. While asking about a foreigner’s accent can be problematic, I don’t mind these questions at all. It helps me understand the local culture. I have been asked about my accent in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and surrounding areas. It’s very rare that anyone places me in New York, which I find fascinating.
  5. As noted earlier, Utahns may experience life with a different (relaxed) approach to time as compared to East Coasters. So, due to this, some Utahns we have met are so relaxed. I have never met such relaxed people. It’s just such a unique and rare trait that as a born and bred New York Stater, I can’t explain at all, but I really like it and wish I could have that approach to life!
  6. Because of the different approach to time and relaxed attitude people in Utah (Colorado, Wyoming, and the Intermountain West) are typically known to work to live and not live to work like East Coasters. In fact, when Utahns meet me and I stop and talk with them, and they somehow find out I am from New York State (not the City, thank you very much!), they often comment, “How are you so friendly? You actually don’t seem to be in a rush and impatient!” We then share some stereotypes we have of our own cultures within the US. 
  7. Be on alert that if and when you meet your Utah business partner in person, and want to take them for drinks or food, to be on the safe side, if you don't know their religion, take them to a place that has a wide range of drinks (not just caffeine or alcohol, assure there are non-alcoholic or non-caffienated options). I know from experience, and made this mistake. Fortunately, my business partner understood and was able to get herbal tea. I think most people understand, especially those in Salt Lake City as they realize many do drink sodas and coffee. Though, take note there are many old fashioned soda shops in Utah and Idaho that make non-caffeinated sodas. These are really tasty. Some coffee shops also make these kinds of drinks as well - often called Italian sodas. 

A menu in a popular Utah soda shop
Above - A menu in a popular Utah soda shop.
Below - Soda shop building - in Idaho.
Authentic Journeys is not promoting this
shop. This image and any mention of a company is for descriptive purposes only.
Soda shop in Idaho


As a side note, another interesting piece of information I learned after talking with Utah Mormons about their culture is that it is felt that Mormons outside of Utah think Mormons in Utah feel they are superior (hence, there is actually a term ‘Utah Mormons’ to describe this). While Utah Mormons don’t feel this way, it seems that [some] Mormons outside of Utah may feel this way. I grew up in upstate/central New York. Near Rochester, New York is a small town called Palmrya, the birthplace of Joseph Smith a founder of the Mormon religion (I am writing as I talk, so I may need to be corrected here), so I grew up going to school with Mormons. My classmates who were Mormons did not drink soda (unless it was orange or root beer – which is also pretty popular in Utah – root beer floats are the BOMB in Utah), and they often (especially the girls) dressed more conservatively than the rest of us. While I was a little bit aware of the Mormon religion in New York State (we also have attended the pageant in Palmyra- what an event!), one really learns more about it in Utah where many claim the link between church and state has not been severed. So, due to that Utah culture may be heavily influenced by The Church, where as Mormons living in other states in the US may not see [as many of] their values reflected in the local laws or approaches to life.


I enjoy learning about different cultures, trying to understand how different people tick and some of their mannerisms, cultural traits and ways to approach life. Living in Utah has helped me to see a different view of the world than living in New York State or even India has. I wish to live in other states in the US to learn other local cultures. Maybe, someday later, we will get a chance to live in Louisiana to understand and learn more about the Creole culture, where, like Utah, a religion may play more of a prominent role in day to day life and policies, and, also like Utah, Louisianans have a regional holiday (Mardi Gras). 


I hope you enjoyed this article. I am Jennifer Kumar. I currently live in Salt Lake City and provide cross cultural training to virtual teams working across global borders. Hope to be in touch with you! Happy Pioneer Day to those who celebrate! 


Related Posts:

10 Things To Do on Pioneer Day (after the Pandemic!) 

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Authentic Journeys: Bridging Culture on Virtual Teams

We help build effective, culturally competent global teams with focus on the cultures of the USA and India. Jennifer Kumar, Managing Director, an American citizen, has almost 10 years experience living, studying and working (owning a business) in India. Authentic Journeys Consultancy is registered as a Private Limited in India (Kerala) and an LLC in the USA (Salt Lake City, Utah). We provide onsite and live-online instructor-led courses, facilitation and corporate coaching.