'Christmas With the Prophets': New book looks at how Mormon leaders celebrated holiday

Published: Saturday, Dec. 11 2010 3:00 p.m. MST

Author Laura Willes says "Christmas With the Prophets" is almost a primer on how we can have the true spirit of Christmas.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

If you look at anything through the eyes of 16 people, you will get varied and contextual responses, particularly if those people live at different times and in different places. But you will also get a richer, more comprehensive and exciting look at whatever thing it is.

So it is with Laura F. Willes' book, "Christmas With the Prophets" (Deseret Book, $21.99), which looks at how LDS Church leaders have celebrated Christmas for some 200 years. The book gives insight into the lives of these men, and readers get a sense of how the holiday has changed over the years.

A lot of the stories in the book have been printed and told before, Willes says. "But they were scattered all over the place, in talks and magazines. We thought it would be nice to bring them all together into one place."

Through the course of her research, she also found new stories.

"Some are real gems," she says.

The idea for the book came when Willes was working as a docent at the Church History Museum a couple of years ago.

"Someone came in at Christmastime and wanted a tour of the church presidents exhibit, but they wanted to know about Christmas with the prophets," she says. "I told them we didn't really have a tour like that. I knew a few stories I could tell them, but I got thinking it would be fun to have more."

Willes has written a couple of other books, "Minnesota Mormons" and "Community of Faith." This one, she says, was "very fun to do."

"I learned so much about these great men," she says.

For example, "I learned that Brigham Young loved to dance. He carried all his people's burdens and said he loved to kick them off his toes as he danced."

In 1856, he held a ball at the newly completed Lion House. "Two young girls were invited to attend, but they had nothing to wear. So, they took the wagon cover off the wagon they had come across the Plains in. Apparently they were too poor to have a canvas cover, and so used several layers of unbleached cloth. They dyed it and turned it into a beautiful brown for their ball gowns.

"I'm sure they always remembered that Christmas ball," Willes says.

Another of her favorite stories involved George Albert Smith. "He loved to hang up a Christmas stocking, and always got the biggest he could find. But on Christmas morning it was always filled with vegetables and onions and coal. The family always laughed."

That practice continued until President Smith had grandchildren. One year, he not only found a big sock, but he cut the toe out of it and brought in a coal bucket to place under it. "His grandchildren were impressed with how smart he was. But on Christmas morning, when his stocking was again filled with vegetables and coal, one little granddaughter felt so badly about it that she started to cry. He had to explain that a big part of Christmas was about not being greedy."

Willes also loves that Howard W. Hunter talked about going "hookybobbing" with his sister by affixing a sail to their "pushmobile." And how John Taylor was once so pleased to get knitted stockings to keep his "tootsie wootsies warm."

Finding these stories, "was like finding pure gold," Willes says. "You see such a personable, human side. They are so endearing."

But as much as the stories show a light and celebratory side to the men, there are also many, many examples of giving service, helping the poor and sick and needy, of remembering just whose birthday is being celebrated.

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