Ask Us: Top Five Reference Questions about Christmas

by Emily Marie Crumpton and the Consultation Services Team
18 December 2020

Emily Marie Crumpton, a member of the library’s Consultation Services team, answers several of the most frequently asked questions about Latter-day Saints’ past Christmas celebrations, events, and traditions.

1. When did the First Presidency begin broadcasting annual Christmas devotionals and where can I find copies of past devotionals?

The First Presidency Christmas Devotional began as a yearly event to honor Church employees. The earliest record of it taking place is 1964; however, it was not broadcast until 1982. During the 1980s, the broadcast was televised in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. Due to increased popularity in the 1990s, the devotional began to be broadcast around the world. From 1984 to 2000, the devotional was held in the Salt Lake City Tabernacle at Temple Square. The devotional venue transitioned to the Conference Center in 2001.

A moment from the 2019 First Presidency Christmas Devotional.

From 1994 to 2013, all members of the First Presidency would usually speak at the devotional. From 2013 onward, however, only one member of the First Presidency was guaranteed to speak in order to allow other Church leaders the opportunity to share a Christmas message. For example, in 2015, members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Relief Society General Presidency, and the Presidency of the of Seventy joined the First Presidency as speakers.

The annual First Presidency Christmas Devotional is broadcast on the Church’s website, which also features an archive of past devotionals back to 2009. The Church History Library houses collection AV 977, which includes the audio and video of devotionals from 1964 up until two years ago.

2. When was the first Christmas lighting ceremony at Temple Square?

The Assembly Hall on Temple Square at Christmas, 1967 (PH 4618) (Photo credit: Deseret News)

At 7:45 p.m. on December 9, 1965, President David O. McKay flipped a switch that illuminated Temple Square with thousands of Christmas lights.1  The event had been eagerly anticipated by the community. One newspaper article promised, “Effect of the lights will be spectacular and is expected to draw thousands of visitors to the lavishly illuminated grounds.”2  It was the first time Temple Square was intentionally decorated in celebration of Christmas, and approximately 15,000 people attended the first lighting ceremony.3

Elder Richard L. Evans conducted the ceremony. President Thorpe B. Isaacson offered an invocation,4  then the Tabernacle Choir sang “Joy to the World.” After their performance, Elder Evans declared, “Let there be light,” which was President McKay’s cue to flip the switch.5  The sudden brilliance of 30,000 to 40,0000 electric bulbs elicited gasps of delight from the crowd.6  President McKay briefly addressed the audience, stating, “Our minds tonight should be on the Babe of Bethlehem whose coming into the world on Christmas morning reminds us that each one should have in his heart the Light of Christ.”7  Following President McKay’s short remarks, the Tabernacle Choir sang more Christmas songs under the direction of Richard P. Condie and with narration by Elder Evans. At one point, the audience joined the Choir in singing “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.”8

From 1965 until 1999, the Temple Square Christmas lighting ceremony was an annual event. The last lighting ceremony, on November 26, 1999, featured approximately 750,000 lights. The annual event was ultimately cancelled due to the exorbitant number of attendees and the attendant safety risks. An article in the November 21, 2000 edition of the Salt Lake Tribune explained that the “crowds got so large that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will turn on the Temple Square lights Friday without fanfare this year.”9  Another newspaper article cited “safety concerns” and difficulty with crowd control as the reasons the Church chose to cancel the annual ceremony.10 

Lighting ceremony or not, however, Temple Square is still decorated with lights every year.11

3. How did pioneers crossing the plains celebrate Christmas?

Pioneers descend through Emigration Canyon into the Salt Lake Valley (PH 508)

The east to west pioneer trekking season usually ended before December, so there are not many accounts of pioneer Christmas experiences on the plains. However, some pioneers chose to sail to California and travel to Utah from the Pacific coast; a few of these pioneers were en route along the southern (west to east) trails during Christmas and recorded their experiences. For instance, in 1857, while traveling from San Bernardino, California, to Utah, Henry G. Boyle recorded, “Today is Christmas. I don’t see anything going on in camp to mark it from any other day.”12  Christmas celebrations on the trail certainly lacked luster.

A map showing the pioneer route from San Bernardino, California to the Salt Lake Valley; note the thin black line running northeast from southern California to the Utah Territory. (917.9 E85c 1858)

The 1847 pioneers were the first Saints to spend Christmas in the Salt Lake Valley. In an article for the September 1920 edition of the Improvement Era, Levi Edgar Young explained, “The first Christmas spent by Pioneers in Utah was one of Thanksgiving.”13  Most found shelter within what came to be known as the “Old Fort,” a wooden stronghold that the pioneers built upon their arrival. (The fort stood on the spot now occupied by Pioneer Park in downtown Salt Lake City.) Supplies were scarce. People continued to work but found ways to engage with the spirit of the holiday. In her autobiography, Mary Jane Mount Tanner explained that her father laid the floor in their cabin on Christmas Day. She exclaimed, “It was indeed a time for rejoicing; we had been so long without a home and suffered so much living in a wagon during the cold weather, for we had no stoves and the only chance we had to warm was by the fire out doors which was also used to cook by.”

A log cabin finished on Christmas Day inside the “Old Fort,” where pioneers took shelter during their first winter in the Salt Lake Valley. (PH 7512)

Several surviving documents show that by the end of the next year (1848) living conditions had improved somewhat. One example is a letter written by Aurelia Spencer Rogers to Marion Kerr dated August 1916. In the letter, Aurelia recounted her memories of her first Christmas in the Salt Lake Valley, explaining, “My first Christmas dinner was partaken of in 1848 in the old Fort at my uncle Daniel Spencer’s table. It was customary for every family to cook the best they had on such occasions.” She went on describing the types of food that were eaten and the scarcity of sugar. Their evening was not without entertainment, however. Aurelia stated that “[o]ur amusements consisted mostly in dancing, and having concerts[.] These exercises were always opened and closed with prayer. We never lacked for music, or musicians, for we had both brass & martial bands.” Because money was scarce, presents were simple. There were some handmade gifts, such as crocheted or knitted gloves. For the children, Aurelia explained, “Rag dolls were made and dressed for the little girls, sleds & wagons, for the boys.”

4. Did Joseph Smith, Jr. record any of his Christmas experiences?

A portrait of Joseph Smith, Jr. (PH 3510)

Joseph’s journals include regular entries for Christmas Day. December 25, 1832 stands out; on that date, Joseph received a prophecy now recognized as Doctrine and Covenants 87. This prophecy foretold of the split in the United States over the issue of slavery. It is at the end of that revelation where the Saints are admonished, “Wherefore, stand ye in holy places, and be not moved, until the day of the Lord come” (Doctrine and Covenants 87:8).

Some Christmas entries in Joseph’s journals were short and reflected gratitude for simple things. For instance, in 1835, Joseph recorded, “At home all this day and enjoyed myself with my family it being Christmas day the only time I have had this privilege so satisfactorily for a long time.”

Many of Joseph’s Christmas journal entries mention attending dinner parties. In one such entry on December 25, 1843—the prophet’s last Christmas—Joseph recorded that he awoke to the sound of carolers, met with some brethren from the Morley settlement, was asked to solemnize Levi Richard’s marriage to Sarah Griffiths (which he delegated to Brigham Young), and then detailed the following event:

A large party supped at my house, and spent the evening in music, Dancing &c. in a most cheerful manner. 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 surprize [sic] 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.

Orrin Porter Rockwell’s safe return from Missouri was no doubt an unexpected and much appreciated Christmas gift.

Orrin Porter Rockwell, Joseph Smith’s friend. (PH 200)

5. Have Church leaders said anything about Santa Claus?

Santa Claus with a child in “Estelle letter to Susa Young Gates” (MS 7692)

Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas; regardless of his name, he has long been symbolic of the Christmas spirit in many Western traditions.

Church leaders have not shied away from the topic of Santa Claus. For a century or more, they have talked about the jolly, red-and-white-suited fellow and how he complements Latter-day Saint Christmas celebrations.

In 1920, John A. Widtsoe stated, “There are men who object to Santa Claus, because he does not exist! Such men need spectacles to see that Santa Claus is a symbol; a symbol of the love and joy of Christmas and the Christmas spirit. In the land of my birth there was no Santa Claus, but a little goat who shoved into the room, carrying with it a basket of Christmas toys and gifts. The goat counted for nothing; but the Christmas spirit, which it symbolized, counted for a tremendous lot.”14

David O. McKay echoed Widtsoe’s sentiment. In an editorial for the December 20, 1923 edition of the Millennial Star, McKay wrote:

St. Nicholas had the true spirit of Christmas and went about giving comfort to the people, and making children happy. He gave gifts, but concealed the identity of the giver. It is a glorious thing to have St. Nicholas in our hearts and in our homes today, whether he enters the latter through the open door or creeps down the chimney on Christmas eve. To bring happiness to others without seeking personal honor or praise by publishing it is a most commendable virtue.15

While not commentary from a General Authority of the Church, F. Howard Forsyth’s article in the December 1933 Improvement Era took a unique approach to discussing Santa Claus. Titled “Is There a Santa Claus Really?,” Forsyth’s article addresses how our Christmas experience changes as we get older, saying, “[As you got older,] you had to move from a receiving-philosophy to a giving-philosophy, or at least to a Golden Rule attitude . . . and in doing it you discovered Christ.”16 Forsyth also discusses the historical Saint Nicholas, saying that “there really is, or was a Saint Nicholas, if we can trust very insistent legends. He was an exceptionally good man.”17

F. Howard Forsyth’s article from the December 1933 Improvement Era.

At a BYU Devotional in 1972, Howard W. Hunter commented, “The legend of Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, the decorations of tinsel and mistletoe, and the giving of gifts all express to us the spirit of the day we celebrate; but the true spirit of Christmas lies much deeper than these. It is found in the life of the Savior, in the principles He taught, in His atoning sacrifice—which become our great heritage.”

Former Young Women General President Ardeth G. Kapp shared some of her Christmas memories in the 1988 December New Era. She spoke of a tradition her family established, inspired by her niece who once asked her mother, “Is it okay if I believe just one more year?” President Kapp expounded:

Since that memorable happening, our family has established a family tradition. Each Christmas Eve, we gather together around the tree. With the lights low and the fire burning in the fireplace, we ask the question once again, the most important question of the year, ‘Is it okay if we believe one more year?’—not only believe in the traditions of childhood with Santa Claus and reindeer, but more importantly in the message of the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, whose birthday we are celebrating.

The December 1994 Ensign featured an article by Jeffrey R. Holland that addressed the true meaning of Christmas. Toward the end of the article, in reference to the night of Christ’s birth and the evolution of the Christmas holiday, Elder Holland mentioned, “Later yet the memory of that night [in Bethlehem] would bring Santa Claus and Frosty and Rudolph—and all would be welcome. But first and forever there was just a little family, without toys or trees or tinsel. With a baby—that’s how Christmas began.”

In 1998, at the annual First Presidency Christmas Devotional, James E. Faust gave a talk titled “The Man Who Would be Santa.” He described Santa Claus and his attributes:

First of all he’s a joyous individual. People are attracted to joyous individuals as filings are attracted to a magnet. Next, Santa Claus is interested in making others happy. He increases the happy moments in the life of everyone he meets. He loves his work; he gets fun out of his job. He is childlike, simple, humble, sincere, and forgiving. Finally, he is a giver. His philosophy is to give himself away in service. He is a friend to everyone. He smiles.18

President Faust then advised the audience, “Perhaps you and I could attain greater happiness if we emulated Santa Claus a little more, for his way is the way of the Infant Jesus also.”19

Emily Marie Crumpton has degrees in history and is working on a degree in library science. She leads the content management of the Pioneer Database. Her research interests include 19th-century media, mortality, and gender.

Top Image: The Salt Lake Temple at Christmas, 1967 (PH 4618) (Photo credit: Deseret News)