Utah: A very Mormon Christmas

By Sam Wetherell

Sam Wetherell finds himself an object of curiosity - and possible conversion - in Utah.

The turreted Mormon 'Conference Center' dominates Salt Lake City's skyline.
The turreted Mormon 'Conference Center' dominates Salt Lake City's skyline.

When I arrived in America for the first time I felt a jolt of weirdness every time I walked outside. Everything from the numbered streets to the green dollar bills felt like expensive props for an impossibly high budget movie whose set I had just wandered on to.

Unfortunately, as every expat knows, this sense of wonder has a very brief half-life, and after a few years in the States I have been forced to look further and further afield for cultural thrills. It won't be long before I'm participating in high-speed police chases or ordaining marriages in Vegas - just to rekindle that first feeling of strangeness.

I got to experience something new by spending Christmas with Mormons, on a two-week break in Utah as a guest of my friend Tim Wright.

In brief, Mormons believe that in 1820, somewhere in the pioneer fringes of upstate New York, a teenager named Joseph Smith was greeted by a vision of Jesus who told him the location of a new biblical testament written in an ancient language on golden plates buried underground.

The plates were apparently written by one of the last survivors of a lost tribe of Israel which somehow found its way to America. The tribe managed to jot down for future generations that they had been visited by Christ who appeared to them after his second resurrection.

The religion soon did the 19th century equivalent of going viral and recruited tens of thousands in its first few decades. The believers drifted from state to state, forced into itinerancy by repeated expulsions and minor pogroms until they settled by the Dead Sea-esque salt lake in Utah and set about building a promised land out of temples and strip malls.

On my first morning in Utah, Tim took me to his local church which was clean and perky and smelt slightly of bleach and baby oil.

It looked like it had just been assembled from an Ikea flatpack. Its corridors were lined with straight-faced oil paintings of a pallid glowing Jesus and non-ironic sentences about the importance of family cross-stitched in enormous lettering, an interior design quirk which, as I would soon learn, was ubiquitous throughout the state.

We were there for a Christmas Eve breakfast, which every single person in a 10-block radius seemed to be attending, having driven there in cars the size of master bedrooms - luckily the church had ample parking.

It's hard to imagine anywhere else in the Western world where almost the entire population of a neighbourhood would voluntarily gather at 9am on Sunday morning to eat troughs of bacon and eggs and drink watery hot chocolate (Mormons are notorious for abstaining from both alcohol and caffeine) as if some enormous natural disaster had displaced them from their homes. I thought longingly about the small jar of instant coffee I had brought with me in my rucksack, and watched Tim deftly field questions about why he wasn't yet married at the ripe-old age of 25.

During the breakfast, I was told that every Mormon after finishing high school is compelled to go on a two-year overseas mission, in a location selected for them seemingly at random by the church authorities. For this reason, almost everyone I spoke to was proficient in a comically obscure language - Tim was fluent in Norwegian and his twin brother spoke Serbian.

Christmas Day was lively and almost disappointingly mundane. At church, dressed in an ill-fitting suit hastily assembled from the wardrobes of various family members taller and more angular than I, no one seemed to mind that I turned down the sacrament (a lukewarm cup of tapwater in lieu of wine and some wafers that looked like they were purchased in bulk at the local supermarket).

With no alcohol or caffeine to act as kindling for the kind of three-round family fights that are the trademarks of Christmases elsewhere, the day passed in a wholesome and loving blur of presents, musical recitals, and tactically yet respectfully played board games.

As an outsider to the community, drinking coffee and clumsily ordering beers, I was instantly recognisable. For T's less cosmopolitan family members I was a source of fascination. At one point T's middle-aged brother snuck into my bedroom, carefully shut the door behind him and started asking me questions about alcohol - what was being drunk like? What did it feel like to be hung over? Had I ever smoked weed?

He talked about his own faith and about his proclivity for science blogs and the extent to which the two contradicted. I was pleased to find myself an object of curiosity rather than a potential convert.

Despite this experience I found it difficult at times to reconcile the relative normality of Tim and his family members with the bizarre excesses of the Mormon Church. In recent years the religion has drawn flak from many Americans for its eccentric practices which range from the ominous to the absurd.

The belief that the souls of the dead can still be saved, for example, sounded like a sweet idea until the church started retroactively baptising Holocaust victims (including Anne Frank) in the 1990s. Believers are required to wear "temple garments", a special and uncomfortable-looking kind of underwear, the donning of which is necessary for entrance to a Mormon temple.

In their more cultish moments, church members refer to fellow believers as "brother" or "sister" (as in "Brother Wetherell got in trouble in the mid 1990s for baptising dead Jews").

The Mormons I met in Utah, however, were generally shy and sweetly apologetic about some of these more strange aspects of their faith.

This curtain of relative normality was at times swept suddenly aside particularly after, later in the week, we had left the bustle of Salt Lake City and set out into the emptier southern expanse of the state.

On the way we passed some of the few remaining polygamous Mormon communities that remain scattered throughout the Utah desert. Tim explained to me that the identical and suspiciously large houses were perfectly symmetrical, a design that allows each wife to occupy her own wing.

Elsewhere, Tim showed me the high-fenced compound in which Mormons in Utah are trained to go on their overseas mission. He was unsure, when I asked, whether the high fences were there to keep outsiders out or insiders in.

On the last day, Tim and two of his brothers took me to the Mormon 'Conference Center' in Salt Lake City. Built just a few years ago, this austere building dominates the city's skyline.

Inside, the Center felt like the lobby of a five-star hotel, replete with both beautiful water features and the by-now familiar portraits of Jesus hanging out with Native Americans ("Mormon realism", as Tim called them).

The tour-guide pegged me as a potential convert after Tim and his brothers told him they were all church members apart from me. He spent most of the tour standing uncomfortably close to me and mixing theological points with impressive construction facts.

His pitch was at times a little underwhelming, veering from "we are the true followers of Jesus Christ" to "we have more than 10,000 parking spaces in our basement".

Later, we visited the Church History Museum where Tim and I were hounded by two elderly employees who, given the slightest second of feigned interest, talked in a rapid-fire monotone about the sinister looking objects from the Church's past ("numismatists have said these are some of the ugliest coins in America, but we think they're great!").

As we walked out of the museum into the middle of Temple Square and stood amid the straight-faced neoclassical church buildings, we watched a different newlywed couple every 10-minutes trickle from the Mormon Temple down the gully between the 'Zions Bank' skyscraper and the Latter Day Saints Visitor Center.

I found it impossible not to be struck by the material consequences of this enigmatic religion. While the golden plates probably never existed, what do exist are millions and millions of Mormons, in a vertical corridor from Canada to Arizona, running their own banks, their own vast, gated communities, their own universities and high schools, sending tens of thousands of teenagers every year to remote corners of the world to manufacture yet more Mormons.

Indeed, the world will be paying increasingly more attention to this surreal and hastily built mecca in the middle of the American West as the American people gear up to decide whether they want to elect Mitt Romney to be their first Mormon President.

Time will tell, meanwhile I needed a double espresso and a stiff drink.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to Los Angeles and San Francisco from where its code-share partner United connects to Salt Lake City.

Further information: See ldschurchtemples.com for more on Utah's Mormon community and DiscoverAmerica.com for more on visiting Utah.

- NZ Herald

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