Can you imagine going to school on Christmas? What about having Christmas without trees, lights, Christmas cards, or even presents? Although Christmas without these things seems hard to imagine, this describes Christmas Day for the early members of the Church living in Nauvoo.
The Prophet Joseph Smith was born December 23, 1805, just two days before Christmas is celebrated. There is no record of any specific ways the Prophet celebrated his birthday, but in 1843, on the Prophet’s 38th birthday, he recorded that he spent the day preparing for a celebration—a birthday celebration of sorts, but not his own. Rather he spent the day preparing for Christmas, the observed birthday of the Savior.
“Saturday, December 23, 1843—At home, counseling the brethren who called on me, and attending to my domestic duties, making preparations for a Christmas dinner party” (History of the Church, 6:133).
When America was first settled in the 1600s, most of the early settlers did not believe that Christmas should be a time of festivity. They avoided the “impure” Christmas traditions of England. For Joseph’s family and many of the other Saints with New England backgrounds, Thanksgiving was traditionally more celebrated than Christmas. But during the lifetime of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Christmas Day gradually became recognized as a day of celebration as well as a sacred day.
Christmas was still much less festive in those days than it is today. Records show that the Latter-day Saint children in Nauvoo even attended school on December 25th because Christmas was not a legal holiday in the state of Illinois. Christmas trees were not common, and very few of the Saints gave Christmas gifts or cards. Rather than focusing on giving and receiving gifts, the Saints in the 1840s spent Christmas evening with family and friends enjoying good food and sometimes festive music and dancing.
Although there is no record of what the Saints in Nauvoo served at these dinner parties, the dishes likely contained ingredients used throughout the rest of the winter—flour, sugar, beans, corn, salt, dried meat, and dried fruit. Christmas celebrations also probably included some of the Saints’ favorite sweets such as ice cream made from snow, sugar, and flavoring; candy made from molasses; and cookies made with dates or figs.
In the Journal History of the Church the Prophet did record some memorable Christmas celebrations. These records show how much the Prophet enjoyed the Christmases that he could spend with family and friends. One such entry is on Christmas Day of 1835.
“Friday, December 25, 1835—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” (2:345).
Eight years later, on Christmas Day of 1843, the Prophet recorded another memorable Christmas. The celebration began quite early in the morning when carolers serenaded the Prophet’s home around 1:00 A.M. This surprise visit made the Prophet very happy; he recorded that the singing “caused a thrill of pleasure to run through [his] soul” (History of the Church, 6:134).
The day continued with a large party. That afternoon Joseph and Emma hosted about 50 couples for dinner, and Joseph recorded the following about the gathering:
“Monday, December 25—A large party supped at my house, and spent the evening in music, dancing, &c., in a most cheerful and friendly manner” (History of the Church, 6:134).
Even though Christmas for the Saints in Nauvoo seems to have been very different from Christmas today, the purpose was the same—to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. And few men understand the glory of that birth as did the Prophet himself. For Joseph had seen the Savior, “even on the right hand of God,” and had borne witness through personal knowledge “that he lives” (D&C 76:22–23).