If Mormons Don’t Drink, How Do They Party?

Jan. 11 2012 6:10 PM

“The Dancingest Denomination”

How do Mormons celebrate?

Mitt Romney
How might presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a Mormon, celebrate his primary victories without alcohol or tobacco?

Photo by Justin Sullivan/AFP/Getty Images.

After a big win in the GOP primary in New Hampshire Tuesday night, Mitt Romney declared, "Tonight we celebrate. Tomorrow we go back to work." Mormons are told not to drink or smoke, and so aren't supposed to pop a bottle of champagne or smoke a victory cigar. How do Mormons celebrate?

With dancing and sugary treats. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are known for their work ethic, but they also have a proud tradition of exuberant celebration. A typical Mormon party is likely to involve sugary refreshments (often served potluck), music (especially church hymns, though secular music is acceptable if the lyrics are clean), and lots of dancing. Foods like Jell-O and ice cream are particularly popular at Mormon gatherings, while punch and sparkling apple cider might be used in place of champagne. (Especially conservative Mormons might avoid Martinelli’s, known as “Mormon champagne,” as it can give “the appearance of evil.”) In support of their boisterous gatherings, Mormons can cite pioneer leader and early church president Brigham Young, who counseled, "If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.”

The earliest Mormons of the 19th century loved parades, processions, long speeches, and spoken poetry, but members of the religion have been known most of all for their dancing. Even church founder Joseph Smith was known to host dance parties at his house, sometimes lasting till the morning, and many of those outside the fold were astonished by the Mormon proclivity for shaking a leg. One early critic of the church complained that “Almost every third [Mormon] is a fiddler, and everyone must learn to dance. … School-houses occupied by the classes during the day, are turned into dancing academies in the evening.” A U.S. military officer who witnessed a party while visiting Mormon pioneers on the Missouri River in the 19th century observed that “a more merry dancing rout I have never seen. … To the canto of debonair violins, the cheer of horns, the jingle of sleigh-bells, and the jovial snoring of the tambourine, they did dance! … French fours, Copenhagen jigs, Virginia reels, and the like.” However, early church leaders were not fond of all types of dances, and Brigham Young in particular was an enemy of waltzes, which he compared to “brothel-house dances.”

Church dances continue to be an important feature of church social life, and they’re held regularly for both teens and single adults. LDS members even hold Mormon dance festivals, which can draw thousands. One Mormon dance festival held at the Rose Bowl in 1985 sold more than 80,000 tickets. Even Mormon missionaries, who must follow a particularly strict code, have been known to dance, while recently Mormons have won both Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance. In 1959, Time magazine called the LDS Church the “dancingest denomination.”

Mormons celebrate most of the same holidays as other Christians, including Christmas and Easter, and in mostly the same manner. (One small difference: Mormon church services are held only on Sunday, with no exception for holidays.) Mormons, especially in Utah, also celebrate Pioneer Day, commemorating their 1847 arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, with parades, fireworks, and reenactments. On particularly sacred occasions, such as the dedication of a new temple, LDS members may also raise a “Hosanna Shout.” Mormons repeat “Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna, to God and the Lamb” three times, sometimes accompanied by the waving of white handkerchiefs.

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These days, Mitt Romney, like most strict Mormons, follows the church’s health code closely, but Mormons haven’t always been such teetotalers. In the religion’s early years, even the most faithful Mormons were known to have a drink now and again, and Brigham Young is even reported to have had his own whiskey distillery. In his book The Angel and the Beehive, sociologist Armand Mauss suggested that the suspension of polygamy led Mormons to abstain from alcohol and cigarettes more strictly, as a means of setting themselves apart. Romney himself admitted to People magazine that “I tasted a beer and tried a cigarette once, as a wayward teenager,” but these days he indulges in little more than chocolate milk. Asked about how his family celebrates Election Day, Mitt Romney’s son Tagg joked, “We’re all going to get wasted.”

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Explainer thanks Joanna Brooks of Religion Dispatches, Terryl Givens of the University of Richmond, and Laurel Ulrich of Harvard University.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer.