'Christmas With the Prophets': New book looks at how Mormon leaders celebrated holiday
"We all know President Monson as Mr. Christmas for all the service he has done at the holidays. He used to take time off work so he could get around to all the people in his ward," she says. But other presidents had traditions of service as well. "President Kimball often went to Primary Children's Hospital. Harold B. Lee, when he was a stake president during the Depression, found that half the people in his stake had no jobs. He made sure everyone had a good Christmas."It was interesting how consistently they reached out in love to others, she says. "The book becomes, in my mind, almost a primer of how we should celebrate, how we can have the true spirit of Christmas."
In looking at the holiday through the years, you also get a clear sense of how the celebration has evolved.
"In Joseph Smith's time, it was mostly a quiet holy day, a day to spend with the family. Wilford Woodruff was one who kept a detailed journal over a long period, and you see a lot of changes just in his lifetime."
Through the eyes of Heber J. Grant and George Albert Smith, we get a look at wartime Christmases.
"Many people don't realize that during the war, many cities imposed blackouts, where no exterior lights could be turned on. In Salt Lake City, even the floodlights of the Salt Lake Temple were turned off to observe the blackout."
The fact that the temple sat in the dark in the dark city was a symbol for the darkness of the war, she says. After the cease-fire in Europe in May 1945, a week before the death of Heber J. Grant, the lights were turned on again.
"That year for Christmas, George Albert Smith sent out a Christmas card showing the temple all lighted up, with the simple message, 'The lights are on again.' What a joyous message that would have been, especially when you think of the deeper meanings in that phrase."
Often, Willes says, "the experiences and messages of these leaders reflect the conditions affecting everyone in the world at the time and are little snapshots of history."
For Willes and her family, Christmas has always been a joyful time. "I remember being 4 years old and gathering with the family around the radio to listen to Scrooge. My father taught me to love that; he always got so enthusiastic."
She remembers going to the Christmas Parade that went down Main Street the day after Thanksgiving. It was always a family tradition to go see the lights on Temple Square. After she got married, "we loved to go cut our own Christmas tree — until we moved to Minnesota and then it was too freezing cold."
Traditions change, she says; "it's nice that we can adapt. You should do the things that mean the most to you, even if no one else does them."
But in all our celebrating, we should not forget the true meaning of the holiday, she says. That meaning is so clear in the lives of the prophets. "You get the feeling that they are celebrating the birthday of someone they really know. We can all find hope and inspiration in that."
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