Sometimes I am a little envious of my friends whose religions involve a year full of meaningful religious holidays that strengthen and define them both culturally and spiritually. Ramadan, for instance, is a sort of month-long holiday for Muslims, complete with special foods and lots of family time. When we lived in Tunisia, I was amazed at the community cohesiveness produced by a holiday that disrupted people’s lives so much for so long. Not much work of any kind was accomplished during the month of Ramadan, but family ties were strengthened, religious convictions deepened, and there was a palpable feeling that everyone was in this whole fasting thing together, and would help each other make it through. When I was growing up, our next door neighbors were Jewish, and sometimes invited us over to share their holidays with them. One of the most fun times I remember was eating potato pancakes for Purim, and then listening to the story of Esther, and all of us children stamping our feet and shouting to drown out the name of dastardly Haman. My Catholic homeschooling friends have a whole liturgical year of Saints’ days and other religious festivals, with their accompanying centuries-old traditions, that they work seamlessly into their curriculum. It seems to lend a sort of holiness to everyday life for them to always be remembering and commemorating saints and spiritual events.
Like other Christians, we Mormons celebrate Christmas and Easter, both lovely holidays (as well as the less lovely Halloween, which seems to always be especially liberally celebrated in my wards). But really our sole unique religious holiday is Pioneer Day. Perhaps this is reflective of our rather short history compared to faiths that have been around for thousands of years. When I lived in Utah, I remember parades and other activities in honor of Pioneer Day. Here in Florida, though, it passed without a blip. I don’t think we even sang any hymns about pioneers in church.
Some of the members I know fill the void by adding in Jewish holidays like Passover and Yom Kippur. I have a dear Mormon friend who celebrates all the Pagan holidays (like the equinoxes and solstices), and even throws in a birthday party for Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, just for good measure. Others like to augment their observance of Christmas by incorporating some of the Catholic traditions of Advent. Still others (like me) would never be organized enough to get around to celebrating a list of new holidays if it weren’t a direct religious imperative.
We do have another Mormon holiday of sorts, though: General Conference. Twice a year, we set aside a whole weekend to spend time with our families, reconnect with the global Church, and listen to a prophet speak. And there are some little rituals that go along with it. Back when we lived in Utah, we would often drive up to Salt Lake for Conference. In my early college days, I’d sometimes get there early to stand in line with my roommates in the hope of perhaps getting into the Tabernacle. By the time my husband and I were married with a baby, we preferred to just set out a blanket on the lawn outside and listen as the proceedings were piped out via loudspeakers. In the early days of the Church, the Prophet Joseph Smith often preached sermons outside, so in a way, I felt like listening to the words of the Prophet in the great outdoors connected us to those earlier Mormons. Especially when it was snowing and my feet were freezing in my high heeled shoes.
It’s been awhile since we’ve made it to Utah for Conference. In fact, during the past several years we’ve spent quite a lot of Conference weekends outside the United States. While abroad, hungry for something that made us feel connected to the rest of the Church, we got in the habit of watching the LDS News & World Report, aired between Sunday sessions. It’s always interesting to see which countries the Tabernacle Choir is touring, where the Church has sent humanitarian aid after disasters, or how progress is coming on the many temples under construction around the world. For me, the World Report has become an inseparable part of Conference, because it reminds me of my Mormon brothers and sisters all over the world, and how our beliefs and faith unite us.
Listening to Conference from the other side of the world presented its own particular challenges. My first experience with this was when I was on a study abroad program in Syria in 2001. A friend who owned a business offered to let us come sit in his office and watch Conference streaming on the internet. Considering the fact that our only other option would have been spending a fortune to sit for eight hours watching it in an internet cafe with loud music blaring in the background and smoke curling thickly in the air, we took him up on the offer. I had never lived abroad before, and after a few months of the pressures of trying to learn a difficult language, adjust to a new culture, and get used to the pervasively oppressive feeling of living in a police state, I was really looking forward to Conference.
It was one of the first years Conference was streamed over the internet, so we shouldn’t have been surprised when it almost immediately began freezing and skipping. Maybe it was technical difficulties on the Utah end, or perhaps our internet in Syria just wasn’t up to snuff (but at least the Church website wasn’t blocked by the secret police, like many other useful sites, including yahoo mail). There is something particularly aggravating about hanging on the every word of an apostle and then being literally left hanging. I think we got about halfway through one session before it completely froze up, and we were consigned to reading it in the Ensign in a month.
When we moved to Italy in 2008, Conference happened the week after we arrived. Car-less, isolated, and feeling a little lost, we pulled out our laptop and unreliable internet key, but we could only really manage a couple of sessions live. We hadn’t adequately considered beforehand the ramifications of the time difference on our Conference viewing experience. In Utah, Conference begins at the comfortable hour of 10:00 a.m., and even the Priesthood session is over at 8:00 p.m. In Italy, the sessions end up being at weird times of night, like midnight and 4:00 a.m. Which might be alright for the notoriously night owlish Italians, but for us with two toddlers lost in the chaos of jet-lag, it was a bit out of reach. At the time, sessions were available streaming live, but didn’t appear for download until days or weeks later. So we ended up catching the talks when we could, in printed form.
After we got settled in, our Italian friends appraised us of their clever system–preserving a normal church experience by watching the Saturday sessions at the Stake Center on Sunday morning. We duly drove an hour up to the Turin Stake Center and had a lovely picnic there, but technical difficulties in the Chapel prevented us from seeing Conference that time around, consigning us once again to figure out how to work it in later. In any case, it was always difficult to see all the sessions, since by the time they were showing Sunday’s sessions, it was time to go to work Monday morning. So I would usually watch the talks over the next several weeks while I folded laundry or washed dishes.
From one point of view, it was nice to spread it all out and have time to digest each individual talk. But I remember the excited holiday/holy day feeling of my childhood, and I’ve missed the “Conference Weekend” experience. So I’m enjoying being back here in the U.S., where we can watch all the sessions live during normal waking hours. Since it’s my “Mormon holiday” of the year, I want to make it a special time for my family. True to form, my attempts at holiday-making will probably be limited to cinnamon rolls and Conference bingo, but I’m curious how other people experience this uniquely Mormon event. How do you “celebrate” General Conference?