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Spending 'Christmas With the Prophets'

Published: Friday, Dec. 10 2010 6:30 a.m. MST

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 President Howard W. Hunter talked about going "hookybobbing" with his sister by affixing a sail to their "pushmobile." And how President 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.

"We all know President Monson as Mr. Christmas for all the service he has done at the holidays," Willes says. "He used to take time off work so he could get around to all the people in his ward."

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 Presidents 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 President 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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