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A look into how Joseph Smith celebrated Christmas

Today is the Latter-day Saint prophet’s birthday

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“The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Vol. 13: August-December 1843” features 98 documents and was released on June 23, 2022.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Joseph Smith was born just two days before Christmas on Dec. 23, 1805, in Sharon, Vermont. Throughout his life, he celebrated several Christmases — some of which we have recorded.

The Latter-day Saint prophet celebrated Christmas in different ways. His writings also indicate that the holiday held meaning to him.

In 1978, Larry C. Porter wrote an Ensign detailing how the Prophet spent Christmas.

Joseph Smith’s 1832 Christmas celebration

One of the earliest Christmases where Joseph Smith recorded what he did was in 1832. On that day, he received some revelations, saying: “Appearances of troubles among the nations became more visible this season than they had previously been since the Church began her journey out of the wilderness. … On Christmas day I received the following revelation and prophecy on war.”

The revelation that he referenced is found in Doctrine and Covenants 87. This revelation predicts a war between Northern and Southern states. The Saints are instructed by God, “Wherefore, stand ye in holy places, and be not moved, until the day of the Lord come; for behold, it cometh quickly, saith the Lord. Amen.” He was in Kirtland at the time.

Joseph Smith’s Christmas party in 1835

A couple years later in 1835, Joseph Smith described how he spent his Christmas. He wrote, “Enjoyed myself at home with my family, all day, it being Christmas, the only time I have had this privilege so satisfactorily for a long period.” While he spent the day at home with his family, his evening was different.

That evening, he recorded that he hosted a lively Christmas party complete with dancing and singing. He said, “A large party supped at my house, and spent the evening in music, dancing &c., in a most cheerful and friendly manner.”

While we don’t know what exactly Smith ate at the time, there is some information about general food at the time period. According to the Food Timeline, “General popular Christmas foodstuffs of the period included roast beef, turkey, ham, potatoes, pickles, fine white bread, fruitcakes, cookies, pies. Oysters were treasured. Tinned oysters were available in some major cities but were expensive. Some families might have been able to afford them; others not. Chocolate, tea, and coffee were likewise imported and not always available.” It is unlikely that Smith’s favorite food (Johnny Cakes, according to Church News) was served for dinner.

A depiction of Christmas from the 19th century.

A depiction of Christmas from the 19th century from The Birds’ Christmas Carol (1888).

The Birds’ Christmas Carol, Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Smith’s loss in 1842

Christmas in 1842 was a difficult time for the Smith household. His entry for the day was about a son that his wife Emma Smith delivered, “She was delivered of a son, which did not survive its birth.” The Smith family was well-acquainted with loss throughout their lives.

Joseph Smith preparing for Christmas on his birthday

On his birthday in 1843, he wrote about how he was preparing to celebrate Christmas: “At home, counseling the brethren who called on me, and attending to my domestic duties, making preparations for a Christmas dinner party.”

The Christmas that we have the most information about incidentally was his last one. Joseph Smith was martyred on June 27, 1844, and so, his last Christmas was in 1843.

Joseph Smith’s last Christmas

He described how he was woken up on Christmas morning (very early!) by hearing Christmas music. According to the Ensign, he said, “This morning, about one o’clock, I was aroused by an English sister, Lettice Rushton, widow of Richard Rushton, Senior, (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.”

Norfolk Towne Assembly gives us an understanding of what Christmas hymns would have been sung during the 19th-century. “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Whilst Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night,” and “Joy to the World” are among some of the hymns that may have been sung.

The hymn that his neighbors sang was called “Mortals, awake!” The first verse of the hymn reads, “Mortals, awake, with angels join, And chant the solemn lay, Joy, love, and gratitude combine, To hail the auspicious day, To hail the auspicious day.”

Joseph Smith’s Christmas day was filled with feasting and friends. In the Ensign, Larry Porter wrote about how he spent another Christmas day dancing to music and enjoying the season. Suddenly, though, there was a man who entered the vicinity.

The Prophet wrote, “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 an 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.”

Only a few months after this Christmas celebration, Joseph Smith was martyred. From his writings, Christmas was both a day of celebration and sometimes an occasion for mourning.