What Are You Doing on December 23rd?

One interesting point from the Christmas Devotional a couple of weeks back which I’ve thought about a few times since then was that both Elder Faust and President Hinckley made particular note of the fact that Joseph Smith was born during the Christmas season–on December 23, 1805, to be exact. The way they drew attention to the birthday of Smith–who was, completely aside from the language in Doctrine & Covenants section 135, indisputedly the most important individual in the whole history of the church–reminded me of something an old friend of mine from Texas once asked me: why don’t Mormons celebrate December 23rd? This really got me thinking, since I take holidays quite seriously. Back in November Kaimi asked if there was, or ought to be, something formally “Mormon” about the way we celebrate Thanksgiving; I didn’t think much of that idea. In a few days I’ll probably post something on how Mormons celebrate (or don’t celebrate) Christmas, and how I think they should. But aside from all that–the idea of a purely Mormon holiday, one that would give us occasion to celebrate as well as teach about Smith’s life and mission, to commemorate as well as deepen our bond to his great works, in ways both personal and “public” (i.e., through our wards, stakes and perhaps even communities), strikes me as something definitely worth pursuing.

But how? Mormons basically only have one holiday which is their own: Pioneer Day, July 24th. It’s no surprise that this holiday has taken root in our teaching materials, lesson plans, stake calendars and cultural expectations; the church and the state of Utah both got behind it in a big way long ago, so that by the time the “Mormon diaspora” really began during the administration of David O. McKay, a great many Mormons had internalized it enough to want to keep it alive wherever they were. (I’m not sure if there are many communities outside of Utah or Southern Idaho where Mormons organize for parades and other public events; we did in Spokane, WA, when I was young, taking over the local fairgrounds for a few hours in the morning for races, a parade, a big pancake breakfast, water balloon fights, etc. But even without such outward forms, wards the world over still have their primary programs and youth activities.) Getting a new holiday going won’t be easy at this point (though obviously, frequent emphasis on the date by the church leadership would be a great help). What is needed are some basic rituals or activites to help us honor the day in the proper spirit (that is, one that contributes to rather than distracts from the already underway Christmas season) that can serve as a seed for other, further developments.

Unfortunately, the one which seems to me most appropriate to me is also no longer particularly feasible. Smith plays! Think about it: gathering at the ward building or stake center on a winter’s evening, for a presentation of some story of Smith’s life. It could be something to do with Christmas (though the holiday hadn’t really taken its current Victorian form at the time of Joseph Smith’s life…but then, who said it needed to be historically accurate?). It could be a story of Joseph and Emma. Maybe something dramatic about Zion’s March. And, of course, stories from Nauvoo, with the audience booing and hissing whenever Thomas B. Marsh appeared (twirling his mustache and laughing evilly, no doubt!). Like the Passion plays of old, which were timed to the religious calendar and climaxed at Easter, we could have a whole series of devotional and entertaining plays, climaxing with the martyrdom. There would be something deeply right, I think, with honoring December 23rd in this way, especially given the deep roots with the theater has in Mormon history.

The problem, of course, is that this idea is about 25 years too late. For numerous reasons, our collective involvement as Mormons in such forms of entertainment–particularly through roadshows, which I am just old enough to remember my mother being heavily involved in–has been decaying for decades, so much so that the church hasn’t even built stages in its buildings in recent years. (Speaking of which please read “Basketball Doctrines,” one of the best things Orson Scott Card has ever written: a touching lament for our disappearing youth activities, a proposal for renewal, and a vicious, dead-on polemic against the abomination which is “church ball,” all rolled into one.) But perhaps it could at least happen in families, or as part of primary programs. (I know my girls would adore the idea of dressing up and acting out stories from Smith’s day.) And that might be a good start.

Any other ideas? What should we be doing on December 23rd?

22 comments for “What Are You Doing on December 23rd?

  1. I like it.

    Way back when, Pioneer Day used to be closely linked to Joseph Smith. The Mormon Exodus was closely tied in the Mormon mind with the muder of Joseph and Hyrum, and July 24th was an opprotunity to wave the bloody shirt and remind Mormons not to get too comfortable with America. For example, the Nuavoo Legion used to march through down town Salt Lake carrying a painted banner showing Joseph Smith in his temple robes. The banner is still in the Church collections.

  2. Nate, that is so cool. I never knew that. I always thought July 24th was very much a post-statehood, “differentiate-ourselves-within-the-American-context” sort of holiday. I had no idea it was much celebrated by the State of Deseret.

  3. If there is going to be a Mormon holiday, it should be April 6th. I don’t think celebrating JS birthday is a good idea, neither for what it represents to outsiders, not for what it represents for insiders. For outsiders, we already catch too much flack for elevating the importance of the prophets, especially JS. For insiders, I think that holidays for particular saints has too much Catholicizing potential, blurring the lines between veneration and worship.

  4. I’m with Taylor on this one, at least for an Institutional festival. There’s nothing wrong with families sitting down and talking abotu JS because it’s his birthday, or some other kind of tradition etc. It’s something I plan on doing with my own family to instill a kind of historical consciousness in my kids minds, Jewish-style. “Why is this day different from all other days?” Because today is JS birthday, or the 4th of july or Endowment day (May 4)…

  5. Taylor,

    Regarding outsiders, is it really appropriate to figure out how to best inculcate and celebrate the faith by reference to the amount of “flak” we might receive?

    Regarding insiders, do you really think it would be so difficult to theologically preserve the distinction between honoring and worshipping, between celebrating and invoking?

  6. Russell,
    For outsiders- I think we construct ourselves all the time. I also think we are conscious of how we are perceived all the time. The new church logo is a good example. While it certainly has the effect of emphasizing an important part of our identity, I am quite sure that it was done to emphasize that part of our identity to outsiders. Besides, as long as we are a missionary church, our interest in “outsiders'” perception of us will remain crucial.
    For insiders- yes, i do. If we celebrate JS’s b-day, what exactly are we celebrating? His birth? His mission? His prophethood? Holidays are nothing without ritual. What sort of ritual practices would we observe? IMO, these are the some of the sorts of things that led to the increased importance of saints in Catholic Christianity (along with inherited paganism), something that I think we can do without.
    It seems to me that religious holidays should remember a divine event. Personally, I don’t think that JS’s birth qualifies.

  7. “It seems to me that religious holidays should remember a divine event. Personally, I don’t think that JS’s birth qualifies.”

    And Pioneer Day does?

    I’m not talking about a “holy day” (though in some ways I think it would be a good thing if we had some). I’m talking about a Mormon holiday: similar, but not exactly the same. What’s wrong with that?

  8. I never defended Pioneer Day as a religious holiday, but I think it could defintely be an Exodus event with religious significance. It represents the establishment of the LDS people as any other single event. The annual parade resembles the pioneer trek as a procession. Sure, this could be a very good religious holiday.
    Also, I do think that having a Mormon holiday would be a good idea, but I said that I think it should be April 6th, not JS birthday.

  9. A few thoughts:

    1) Why should Mormons celebrate Christmas? We know the pagan origins and elements of the holiday. We know Jesus wasn’t born on December 25. By the time Christians began celebrating Christ’s birth in meaningful numbers, they were well on their way to apostasy. So why hang on to an apostate holy day?

    2) I don’t mean to suggest that there’s anything wrong with commemorating Jesus’ birth. But wouldn’t it make more sense to do so on, say, the date of His birth? As Mormons have traditionally believed that to be April 6–a date that also has enormous significance as a founding moment of the modern Church–shouldn’t we celebrate then?

    3) What about December 23? It’s close to Christmas, of course. Scandalously close. “Outsider” reaction would be quite predictable. So what? “Outsiders”–the vast majority of whom never make the least effort to inform themselves–already maintain all sorts of false and ridiculous perceptions about who we are and what we believe. How would celebrating Joseph Smith’s birth change that? (Even if it did provoke new reactions, that would mean more missionary opportunities.) As for “insider” dangers, I’m not terribly concerned. If we can sing “Hail to the Prophet” without lapsing into idolatry, I think we can manage commemorating the guy’s birthday.

    4) Martyr’s Day–June 27. While I wouldn’t mind celebrating Smith’s birth, I think it makes more sense to commemorate his death–the sealing of his testimony with blood. The day needn’t be confined to the Smith brothers, but all martyrs of this dispensation.


  10. Scott,

    Well, as you can imagine, I’m a big fan of Christmas, complete with its pagan and “apostate” heritage. I think there are numerous important goods–spiritual, artistic, civic, cultural–associated with the day which are not transferable to another date, however strongly we might insist on April 6th. As for Martyr’s Day, I like that idea a lot: maybe more than Smith’s birthday. It’d fit in nicely with my “Smith ‘passion’ plays” idea as well; I could see the development of a lot of historical lessons and dramas and songs, all centering around the murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith (and, as you say, by extension, all those others murdered for their faith in the early day’s of this dispensation).

  11. My concern with a holiday for JS birthday is about its meaning. What would it mean that we celebrate his birthday? What would we do on that day? What sorts of rituals would be associated with it? The difference with “Haid to the Prophet” is that it has no ritual attached to it.
    I guess another difficulty I have with it is that I see JS message as one of democritization of spirituality and prophethood. I fear that institutionalizing his memory in ritual observance would reverse that.

  12. what would we do?

    hmmm. i dunno. but the kids would love it. remember when you were young, in grade school and all the muslim and jewish kids had these cool holidays when you had to be in school? then they got to celebrate all of the christian holidays, too?

    that’s what having our own holiday is all about: expanding our religious rights and making the neighbor kids jealous.

    as for how we actually celebrate it, i suggest something like how most people currently celebrate president’s day: sleep in and be lazy! at night, one might perhaps sit down with the family for a meal featuring traditional mormon foods such as jello and funeral potatoes. light on the ritual! heavy ritual made peter priesthood a dull boy!

    now, i don’t mean to be too lighthearted about this. i am in awe of the amazing events of the restoration and grateful for joseph smith’s mission. and celebrating the holiday would be cool. just, there are some humorous implications.

  13. Tangentally related, I suspect that there will be a shift from the process of the past 30 years of “assimilation” and building on common ground with other Christian churches. I say that in part due to the slowing of church growth to basically effective zero growth in places like the United States.

    At a certain point this worrying about being different which started in the 1890’s but really became strong from the 70’s on, will reverse. I have no idea what we’ll focus in on. But I recall even in my youth a tendency to not believe something just because Evangelical Protestants did. (Robert Millet discusses this in his work on Grace) I think that tendency incorrect, obviously. But it does highlight the changes that really became dominant in the 90’s. I think it was a good thing to do, btw. I even think the Olympics was a good idea from a religious perspective. But eventually other things will become important.

    I also recall various prophecies about Missionary work and the idea that we’d become strong in most regions of the world but that missionary work would someday falter as well.

  14. I think that Taylor is right to be concerned about what nonmembers think. How many nonmembers would be frightened away from the church because of a holiday that elevates the birth of a single man to that of Jesus? What other religious holiday do we celebrate in honor of one man? Just Easter and Christmas. Jesus, as the Son of God, rightfully deserves our full attention on these days. Giving JS his own holiday would give credence to some critics’ false claims that we worship JS. While JS was an important man and arguably the most important man in the latter days, he wasn’t Jesus. I think that is an important distinction. I also think that it a distinction the church itself has made with the new logo.

    On the other hand, how many nonmembers would investigate the church because of an interesting (and non-threatening) holiday they’ve never heard of that (if they were a member) would give them one more excuse to miss work? Missionary potential, right there…

  15. Jan,

    You ask, what other religious holiday do we celebrate in honor of one man? If by “we” you mean “Mormons,” then the answer is none. That’s kind of the point. Catholics (who happen to constitute the majority of Christians) honor the memory of numerous men and women other than Jesus (e.g., apostles, saints, martyrs, etc.). So commemorating the birth (or, as I would prefer, martyrdom) of Joseph Smith would not be anything too wild in the context of Christian worship, collective memory, and ritual. (And who said anything about elevating the birth of a single man to that of Jesus? No one here.)


    What kinds of rituals would be observed in connection with such a day? I don’t know. Maybe we’d light a candle. Maybe we’d participate in or watch pageants, as Russell suggested. Maybe we’d come together as families or congregations and read JS-H or attend a special church-wide fireside. What are the odds that we’d come up with any ritual elements as unrelated to and distracting from the event commemorated as, say, flying reindeer, oviparous rabbits, or scary-faced, internally-lighted gourds?

    As for the claim that commemorating Smith’s birth would undermine his message of “democratization of spirituality and prophethood,” I just don’t see it. (Of course, I don’t think Smith’s message was radically democratic. Order was preserved in practice and principle.) What, specifically, do you have in mind?


    I knew you wouldn’t give up the Santa suit. But, since you’re on board with the Martyrs’ Day concept, I’ll let you be on the planning committee. I’m in charge of the parade, which will commence outside the Governor’s Mansion in Springfield, IL, just after dark. (Does anyone know where we can get some torches on the cheap?) Given your literary talents, perhaps you can put together a booklet explaining the holiday to novices. I’ll expect a first draft of “Fox’s Book of Martyrs” in my in-box by February 1.


  16. Scott,

    “I knew you wouldn’t give up the Santa suit.”

    That’s because there IS a Santa. Sheesh, do we have to go through this argument every year?

    “I’m in charge of the parade, which will commence outside the Governor’s Mansion in Springfield, IL, just after dark. (Does anyone know where we can get some torches on the cheap?)”

    Hmm, possible problem. Didn’t President Hinckley visit the governor of Illinois and receive an official apology sometime in the 90s? I thought I heard something at the time about a curse being lifted. Might make things kind of awkward.

    “Given your literary talents, perhaps you can put together a booklet explaining the holiday to novices. I’ll expect a first draft of ‘Fox’s Book of Martyrs’ in my in-box by February 1.”

    On a serious note, does anyone know of any such list of Mormon martyrs, whether official or unofficial, from any date? Surely someone, somewhere, must have written down the names of those slaughtered at Haun’s Mill. And did no enterprising grad student in history ever go through pioneer diaries, and come up with a list of all the deaths along the Mormon trail? It seems to me that such documents must have been of interest to at least a few historians.

  17. Russell, you ought to compile a list of Mormon martyrs. You could publish it and call it Fox’s list of martyrs.

    (Google it for those who don’t get the joke)

  18. I love martyr’s day. June 27, you say? Hmm. I think that harmonizes a lot better with our history than a JS birthday does. You’ve got D&C 135, you’ve got ‘hail to the martyr, ascended to heaven . . .” We could burn Gov. Ford in effigy, sort of a Guy Fawkes thing, hold Nauvoo Legion re-enactments, sing the suppressed verse of the Star-Spangled Banner for good measure (“their blood shall wipe out their foul footstep’s pollution”)

    Deseret nationalism, here we come.

  19. I take the unpopular stance that there’s too many holidays already. We have an opportunity to reflect on our prophets every Sunday.

    I like Christmas. But I don’t like the lack of emphasis on being charitable the rest of the year.

    My husband and I don’t really give each other big gifts for birthdays or anniversaries. We do that type of stuff throughout the year.

    It might sound hokey to some, but when everyday is considered “special”, you don’t need to wait for an annual event to remember, reflect upon, and commemorate people.

  20. Not to change the subject, but I really miss Boxing day which was fairly big in Canada. In Canada it was the big day of sales in stores (as here). However it also was the remnant of a tradition from the aristocracy in England where the leftover expensive food and many unwanted gifts were given to the servants. This took on the tradition of baking goods and so forth and delivering it to friends or the poor. We used to bake quite a few goods and go to the homes of all the people we knew in the ward along with those who may have been having a hard Christmas. Because it was the day after Christmas things were a little more mellow than those days before Christmas.

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