Roger A. Hendrix, teacher support consultant, Church Educational System, Southern California; member of Palos Verdes California Stake presidency:
Through the years there have been varying thoughts on the fragmentary information we have on the subject. Elder James E. Talmage suggested the possibility in Jesus the Christ that the Savior was born on April 6, 1 B.C. He based his conclusion on the understanding that the Savior was born in the spring and in Doctrine and Covenants 20:1, which speaks of the Church being organized “one thousand eight hundred and thirty years since the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the flesh.” April 6 was the day of the formal organization of the Church.
On the other hand, Elder Hyrum M. Smith wrote in the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants Commentary: “The organization of the church in the year 1830 is hardly to be regarded as giving divine authority of the commonly accepted calendar. … All that this Revelation means to say is that the church was organized in the year commonly accepted as 1830, A.D.” and President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., in Our Lord of the Gospels stated that he could not yet propose any date as the true birth day of the Savior.
If one needed encouragement against becoming too involved in the issue, Elder Bruce R. McConkie noted in The Mortal Messiah: “We do not believe it is possible with the present state of our knowledge—including that which is known both in and out of the church—to state with finality when the natal day of the Lord Jesus actually occurred.”
Why then do we celebrate the traditional Christian Christmas?
Actually, according to historian Daniel Boorstin, Christmas in the early 1800’s was simply a time for “folksy conviviality” and not much more. It was this kind of Christmas that Joseph Smith and many New England Saints were familiar with in their day. In all likelihood, because Christmas was more of a folk holiday than a religious one, the early Saints probably would not even have thought of creating an alternate holiday.
Yet there is evidence that by mid-nineteenth century Christmas was beginning to take on religious significance. The Prophet was awakened around 1:00 A.M. on 25 December 1843 to the caroling of some members who were English immigrants. Apparently, Europeans in general had been transforming Christmas into a religious holiday, and these immigrants merely had brought that tradition with them to Nauvoo. The Prophet responded favorably to the occasion, recording that it “caused a thrill of pleasure to run through my soul … and I felt to thank my Heavenly Father for their visit, and blessed them in the name of the Lord.”
Today, Christmas is recognized around the world as a celebration of the Savior’s birth. It is appropriate that we join with our fellowmen in that celebration. In Mormon Doctrine, Elder Bruce R. McConkie has written: “The saints … join in the wholesome portions of the Christmas celebration. Christmas becomes to them an ideal opportunity to renew their search for the true doctrine of his birth as the Son of an Immortal Father, a fact that enabled him to work out the infinite and eternal atonement.”
With that understanding, what really matters is that we celebrate the birth of the Savior. It is not uncommon for secular or religious events to be celebrated on a day other than when they actually occurred. For example, people in Utah celebrate July 24 as the day the Pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley. Actually, the first of the Saints arrived on July 21; July 24 was the day the prophet, Brigham Young, arrived.
Should revelation ever direct us to celebrate the birth of Jesus on a specific date, we would gladly do it. But until that occurs, the celebration of the traditional Christian Christmas with others in the world serves a most useful purpose.