This article excerpt from BYU Studies was written by Larry C. Porter. We run it today both to celebrate Christmas and to remember Joseph Smith, who was born Dec. 23, 1805.
Christmas at Home
On one Christmas Eve, new convert Jonathan Crosby traveled to Kirtland to meet the Prophet. Joseph Smith invited Crosby to join an assembly of friends—Hyrum Smith, Reynolds Cahoon, Martin Harris, John Carl, and George A. Smith—for a “very plesant time” at the Smith’s home. The company “drank peper & sider and had supper.” The next day, Crosby was invited to a Christmas “feast,” where Patriarch Joseph Smith Sr. was giving blessings.7
As Joseph recorded in his journal, weather conditions on December 1, 1835, set the stage for a traditional season: “At home spent the day in writing, for the M[essenger] & Advocate, the snow is falling and we have fine sleighing.”8 This December proved to be a marvelous season for the Prophet. The true spirit of giving was manifest. During the course of the month numbers of Saints went out of their way to contribute of their temporal substance to the Prophet in order that he might have means to continue to do the Lord’s work. Reflecting on the goodness of the Saints he spoke of their kindnesses to him as noted on December 9:
My heart swells with gratitude inexpressible w[h]en I realize the great condescension of my heavenly Fathers, in opening the hearts of these, my beloved brethren to administer so liberally, to my wants and I ask God in the name of Jesus Christ, to multiply, blessings, without number upon their heads, and bless me with much wisdom and understanding, and dispose of me, to the best advantage, for my brethren, and the advancement of thy cause and Kingdom, and whether my days are many or few whether in life or in death I say in my heart, O Lord let me enjoy the society of such brethren.9
And on December 25, Joseph experienced the simple joys of Christmas as expressed in his heartfelt sentiment, “At home all this day and enjoyed myself with my family it being Chris[t]mas day the only time I have had this privilege so satisfactorily for a long time.”10
Christmas 1835 is the last account of a Christmas celebration in the Smith home until 1843. For the next eight years, Joseph seems to have been preoccupied with Church and other family issues during the holiday seasons. Returning to Kirtland on December 10, 1837, from a trip to Missouri, Joseph found that many members—some in high places—had turned against the Church.11 Some of the malcontents had leagued to deprive him of his presidency and, if need be, his life. By January 1838, Joseph, Brigham Young, and Sidney Rigdon had been forced to flee Kirtland.
December in Liberty Jail
By December 1838, the Church in Missouri had suffered a series of severe setbacks. A committing court at Richmond had found “probable cause” and charged Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Lyman Wight, Alexander McRae, and Caleb Baldwin with a multiplicity of crimes, including murder and “overt acts of treason.” They were imprisoned in Liberty, Missouri, on December 1, 1838.12 The prisoners found themselves in the crudest of circumstances—a fourteen by fourteen and one-half foot dungeon with only a trap door entrance from the main floor above. Their quarters consisted of a dirt floor covered with “worn out straw.” There was no stove for heating, and when they used an open fire the inadequate venting filled the room with insufferable smoke. There were insufficient blankets to keep them warm under freezing conditions, and the food was so foul as to be hardly palatable.13
Emma Smith made immediate arrangements to go from Far West to visit her husband on December 8. She brought her six-year-old son, Joseph Smith III, and was accompanied by Phebe Rigdon and her young son, John Wickliffe Rigdon. A Dr. Madish of Terre Haute, Indiana, loaned them a two-seated carriage “drawn by a beautiful span of cream horses” for the journey. John Rigdon recalled: “We started rather late in the morn & did not get to the jail til after dark & they would not let [us] go in till the next morn. After taking breakfast at the hotel we were taken to the jail & there remained for three days.”14
On December 16, the Prophet wrote words of comfort to the beleaguered Saints from his place of imprisonment:
Dear brethren, do not think that our hearts faint, as though some strange thing had happened unto us, for we have seen and been assured of all these things beforehand, and have an assurance of a better hope than that of our persecutors. Therefore God hath made broad our shoulders for the burden. We glory in our tribulation, because we know that God is with us, that He is our friend, and that He will save our souls. We do not care for them that can kill the body; they cannot harm our souls. We ask no favors at the hands of mobs, nor of the world, nor of the devil, nor of his emissaries the dissenters, and those who love, and make, and swear falsehoods, to take away our lives. We have never dissembled, nor will we for the sake of our lives.15
Emma was again at the jail on December 20, for a two-day visit. This time the wives of Alexander McRae and Caleb Baldwin went with her. In the midst of the sparsest of fare the hearts of the prisoners were made glad that dire Christmas season by the presence of these loved ones.16 It was only such visits as this and the kindness of friends and fellow Saints that made the prisoner’s habitation durable from December 1, 1838, to April 6, 1839, when a change of venue took them to Gallatin, Daviess County, Missouri.
In November 1839, Joseph led a small delegation to Washington, D.C., to obtain redress through the United States Congress for losses in real and personal property suffered by the Latter-day Saints. While awaiting a decision, Joseph visited Philadelphia from December 21 to December 30, 1839. He preached to the Saints during this Christmastime in the “City of Brotherly Love.” On December 16, 1840, the Prophet welcomed passage of the act chartering the City of Nauvoo.17 In December 1842, Joseph was concerned for Emma, who was soon to be delivered of a newborn. The infant arrived the day after Christmas, and Joseph made this simple entry: “She was delivered of a son, which did not survive its birth.”18
Christmas with a Beloved Friend
Perhaps no Christmas was more pleasant in the span of the Prophet’s lifetime than his last earthly celebration on December 25, 1843, in Nauvoo (fig. 1). All the ingredients of what might be regarded as a traditional observance of that day were present. Joseph and Emma had just occupied the hospitable quarters of the newly constructed Mansion House. In the early morning hours, the household was awakened to harmonious strains of beautiful music. The Prophet recorded:
This morning, about one o’clock, I was aroused by an English sister, Lettice Rushton, widow of Richard Rushton, Senior,19 (who ten years ago, lost her sight,) accompanied by three of her sons, with their wives, and her two daughters, with their husbands, and several of her neighbors, singing, “Mortals, awake! with angels join,” &c., which caused a thrill of pleasure to run through my soul. All of my family and boarders arose to hear the serenade, and I felt to thank my Heavenly Father for their visit, and blessed them in the name of the Lord. They also visited my brother Hyrum, who was awakened from his sleep. He arose and went out of doors. He shook hands with and blessed each one of them in the name of the Lord, and said that he thought at first that a cohort of angels had come to visit him, it was such heavenly music to him . . .
At two o’clock [p.m.], about fifty couples sat down at my table to dine. . . .
A large party supped at my house, and spent the evening in music, dancing, &c., in a most cheerful and friendly manner. During the festivities, a man with his hair long and falling over his shoulders, and apparently drunk, came in and acted like a Missourian. I requested the captain of the police to put him out of doors. A scuffle ensued, and I had the opportunity to look him full in the face, when, to my great surprise and joy untold, I discovered it was my long-tried, warm, but cruelly persecuted friend, Orrin Porter Rockwell, just arrived from nearly a year’s imprisonment, without conviction, in Missouri.20
This rare, yet unexpected gift closed the activities of a beautiful Christmas Day. The Prophet must have felt all the warmth engendered by a lasting friendship between the two, which had spanned the years from the earliest days of the Restoration in New York. Joseph wrote the following day, December 26, “I rejoiced that Rockwell had returned from the clutches of Missouri, and that God had delivered him out of their hands.”21
Joseph was not privileged to see another Christmas season. Enemies from within and without the Church deemed otherwise. Even as he contemplated the new year and prospects of his 1844 U.S. presidential candidacy “for conscience sake,” the Prophet’s antagonists planned his destruction. He and his brother Hyrum were mortally wounded at Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844.
For this entire article which looks at how many Church presidents celebrated Christmas, click here.