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Thanksgiving, Mormons, Temples (Salt Lake City and Utah, Part I)

The goal of seeing at least 10 states in the US leaves plenty of room to see interesting places that wouldn't normally be on the tourist list for an overseas visitor. Today I'm writing about state #3, Utah, and its capital, Salt Lake City. I visited with my friend Tara over the Thanksgiving weekend.

State Capitol building; not the House of Congress!
Snow-capped mountains to the south east

Thanksgiving is the most important holiday in the US. Celebrated on the 4th Thursday of November each year, it was originally founded as a religious observance in the aftermath of the Civil War. The placement of Thanksgiving creates a six week long holiday period encompassing Christmas and New Year as well.

The week around Thanksgiving is the busiest time for domestic travel in the US, as people make their way back to their families. There are long lines at airports, flights become heinously expensive, and the roads become clogged. Don't travel to the States around Thanksgiving if you can avoid it! That being said, traveling on Thanksgiving Day was a relatively painless affair, with the main problem being a lack  of public transport at either end.

Thanksgiving Day is when the US shuts down. Having flown into Salt Lake City on that day, I was wandering around Salt Lake and marveling at how dead this city of 200,000 people was. Massively wide streets, with nary a car nor a soul in sight. I couldn't imagine Sydney, or even Newcastle (an equivalently sized city to SLC in New South Wales, Australia) ever being this quiet in the middle of town. Even on Christmas Day, there will still be people and bustle. Nothing quite like this.

Salt Lake City is very cold at this time of year, with night-time temperatures dropping to freezing, and daytime highs barely nudging 12 degrees celsius. There's a kind of bitter chill in the air that attacks any exposed skin: warm headwear and handwear is strongly recommended! Thankfully, the long johns that I bought myself in preparation for the trip weren't yet required - but I imagine that they would be welcome come January.

The Temple

The city is a major outpost of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormonism). The centre of the city is dominated by an enormous Mormon temple, office buildings, gardens, information centres, and function buildings owned and operated by the church. Indeed, the main streets of the city are the four which border the temple: North Temple, South Temple, East Temple, and West Temple.

As an aside, logical American street naming has decreed that North Temple runs east-west, along the north border of the Temple; thus, West North Temple is the western end of the street, and vice-versa for east. Similarly logic runs for the other three streets. Devout Mormons are expected to give 10% of their annual income to the Church as a tithe; and this explains how they can fund structures like the Temple.

Interestingly, the Temple is used primarily for Mormon marriages. Here, a helpful guide told us that the couple is married "for life and eternity", whereas a marriage in a regular Mormon church is only for life. Sadly, non-Mormons aren't allowed inside, and even Mormons require special permits in order to enter. We would only be able to observe the temple from outside.

Nowadays, 50% of the population of Salt Lake City is Mormon, and it sits in the "Mormon corridor" forged by widespread settlement activities in the 1800s. The Temple area holds two information centres, an enormous Church office building, a Tabernacle, a large conference center, extensive gardens and fountains, a hotel block-cum-function centre, and the world's biggest family history library (with over 2 billion people documented).

Inside the information centre
The Tabernacle organ

The information centres contained a wealth of information about Mormonism and the Book of Mormon. Followers believe the Book of Mormon to be another gospel, describing how Christ visited the Americas. There were many displays on the good charitable work done by the Church and its members around the world, and tributes to the Living Prophets (all caucasian men) who head the Church today. On a table sat copies of the Book of Mormon, translated into many different languages, and upstairs sat an ornate sculpture of Christ surrounded by flowers.

Holiday lights

Outside, the entire area was lit up with lights for the holiday season. There were people and families everywhere, braving the near freezing temperatures to enjoy the colours. Just across the road was the Deseret Book Company, purveyor of Mormon readings of all kinds. I hadn't realised that there was such a massive Mormon book business, but this store proved me wrong. Young adult fiction, historical fiction, religious texts, political analysis, contemporary non-fiction, all this and more was represented in this store.

I found out after the trip that Utah is the second fastest growing state by population in the US. I'm guessing that part of this is due to migration, but in Salt Lake City, we also saw many young families with two, three, four, even five children. During the night-time shopping sales, children far outnumbered adults on the streets. It was even unusual to see teenagers hanging out in groups of just one gender - just about everyone I saw of that age, be it in the streets or on the ice-skating rink, seemed to be paired up. I've never been anywhere quite like it. Salt Lake City is also overwhelming Caucasian (~75% of the population), which again is very different to almost every other city I've visited. Even in European cities, the sheer weight of tourists tends to ensure at least a facade of diversity (though Uppsala in Sweden comes close). I definitely felt a little out of place in the city, and I think I got a couple of puzzled looks and glances every now and again.

With that, I should bring this post to a close. The next one will continue the Utah adventure, featuring more of Salt Lake City, dinosaurs, bison, salt plains, and state parks!

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