HILDALE — Christmas came early for hundreds of children in Hildale Wednesday afternoon; not only did it come early — it came for the first time for many of them.
Children and families from Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale — twin cities familiarly known as Short Creek — were treated to a holiday celebration called “The First Christmas,” so named because it was a first for many who are are former members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
The event started at 2 p.m. and was held in a large building at 170 Carlin St. that one of the residents called “the Primary Building.”
Event host Leona Bateman and The Girlfriend Club in collaboration with Christine Marie Katas, known as “Mrs. Gingerbread,” organized the event with support from four sponsors, specifically: Church for the Nations out of Phoenix, Sound Choices Coalition out of Utah, MoviesMakingADifference, out of Phoenix, and Voices for Dignity out of Las Vegas.
The families in attendance have separated from the FLDS church, Katas said. They have never had a Christmas tree, have never heard Christmas carols or even heard of Santa. Most have never wrapped or given presents and have no idea what a nativity scene is, she said, let alone what one looks like.
One reason for this lack of exposure is that the FLDS favor a more isolated community than most, so any exposure to outside influences is controlled and holiday celebrations are rare, Katas said.
“The First Christmas” was complete with all the trappings of the holidays. Clinton Barlow as Santa handed each child a stocking full of goodies as they sat on his lap – stockings filled by Sound Choices Coalition.
More than 1,000 toys and gifts for children and their mothers were provided by the four sponsors.
Thirty-two Christmas trees were donated by MoviesMakingADifference, a nonprofit organization out of Phoenix that makes socially conscious films with proceeds of the films going to help and benefit survivors of difficult situations like those leaving or forced out of a polygamous sect.
Thousands of craft projects were also provided by Sound Choices Coalition for the children and their mothers. Sound Choices, according to its website, is a nonprofit organization founded by former polygamist Kristyn Decker who aims to lobby lawmakers about the abuses of polygamy and benefit victims of polygamy, particularly children.
Katas, herself, is a former member of a polygamist sect distinct from the FLDS. When she separated from her sect, she said, she was left with nothing. But in that first year apart, she and her family were the recipients of a charity Christmas.
When she learned that many FLDS members have separated from the church, Katas said, she wanted to help them.
Toys had been banned from the community in 2011 by now-incarcerated FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, she said, which motivated her all the more. No toys were allowed in the town, she said, or the disobedient member could be banished from the church.
The polygamist settlement of fundamentalist Mormons known as Short Creek split into two municipalities on the Utah-Arizona border following what is known as the Short Creek Raid, a government crackdown on the community’s practice of polygamy in the 1950s. The FLDS sect emerged and, Katas said, somewhere along the line Christmas was lost.
But with many families in the area now separated from the FLDS church, Bateman and Katas took the opportunity to bring Christmas to those who have never experienced it.
Everyone came together and made something beautiful, Bateman said.
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Ed. note Dec. 18: CLARIFICATION: The report on first publication named two sponsors of the event. There were four primary sponsors and the report has been updated to include each of them and clarify their respective contributions. CORRECTIONS: The video and one photo attached to this report incorrectly identified a woman speaking for Church for the Nations as Lindsey Winebarger rather than volunteer Brianne Ellison, both have been corrected. The video mislabeled one speaker as Kristyn Decker rather than Diana Davis who is founder and president of Movies Making a Difference, that label has been corrected. Christine Marie Katas’s personal brand has been corrected, she is “Mrs. Gingerbread” not “Miss Gingerbread.”
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