The 200th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Smith has focused attention not only on his work and his message but also on his personal life. As the holidays approach, some may wonder what the Christmas season would have been like for the early church prophet.
As a great-great-granddaughter of Joseph Smith, Gracia N. Jones has both a historical and a personal interest in that question. A few years back, as she was researching the lives of her ancestors, she began to ponder the holiday connection. "I wondered what Joseph and Emma did at Christmas. In doing my earlier research, it seemed that Joseph was seldom home, so they had very little family time and certainly not much uninterrupted family time because people came constantly to see Joseph, and he never turned anyone away. I wanted to know how this affected their Christmases.
She also wondered if any of the traditions in her own family had been handed down from those earlier generations (her family line comes through Joseph and Emma's son Alexander).
The results of her research ended up in a little book called "The Holidays With Joseph and Emma" (Covenant, $12.95).
Jones discovered that in Joseph's day, Christmas seemed to be one of the lesser holidays. More attention was paid to Easter, birthdays and the Fourth of July than to Christmas. "The Fourth was their greatest holiday. They had parades and flags and big celebrations."
So, what was a typical Christmas like in the Smith home? "I don't think there was a typical one," said Jones, who now lives in St. George but recently was in Salt Lake City to talk about her book. "There were no electric lights and no Christmas trees. They had a feast, if they had access to a goose or venison more than likely that was the main course."
There might have been vegetables, such as potatoes and carrots, that would have come from Emma's garden. "She made wonderful puddings, as well as bread, cheese, pies, cakes and cookies."
In addition to the feast, "Joseph loved social gatherings," so there were likely some friends and neighbors gathered for the occasion.
They enjoyed sleigh rides, weather permitting. "There are many references in church history to Joseph and Emma sleigh riding for entertainment, as well as travel." One of Jones' treasured possessions, in fact, is a single sleigh bell that once belonged to her great-great-grandfather. "There would have been a whole string of them. But I just have the one."
In 1835, Joseph's diaries talk of a heavy snowstorm early in December, so he took his wife and children to nearby Painesville, Ohio. (They were living in Kirtland at the time.) "Had a fine ride," he recorded. "The sleighing was good and weather pleasant."
A few days later he wrote, "Enjoyed myself with my family, it being Christmas day, the only time I have had this privilege so satisfactorily for a long time."
By 1837, turmoil was widespread in Kirtland. Joseph Smith III was 5 at the time and later remembered that he had been promised a little wagon, probably for Christmas. It was being built by a wagonmaker not far for their home, so he slipped away one day and went to look in the shop. Joseph Smith III's memoirs record: "I saw the wagon nicely painted red and awaiting the finishing touches before it was to be delivered. Strange to say, I have no recollection of ever having used it."
What is likely, says Jones, is that the wagon was never purchased by the Smiths. "Money became nonexistent with the financial crash that occurred that winter."
By 1843, the Saints had moved to Nauvoo. That would turn out to be the last Christmas that Joseph and Emma spent together. His "History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" records that on Dec. 23, his 38th birthday, he was "at home making preparations for a Christmas Dinner party."
On Christmas Eve that year, after they had retired for the night, they were awakened by a group of people singing under their window. Joseph recorded their names and noted they were "singing 'Mortals, awake! With angels join,' etc. which caused a thrill of pleasure to run through my soul."
Joseph and Emma entertained guests throughout Christmas Day. Joseph wrote in "History": "At two o'clock, about fifty couples sat down to my table to dine. While I was eating, my scribe called, requesting me to solemnize the marriage of his brother, Dr. Levi Richards, and Sarah Griffiths; but I could not leave. I referred him to President Brigham Young, who married them."
Another interesting event occurred later on: "A large party supped at my house, and spent the evening in music, dancing, etc., in a most cheerful and friendly 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 . . . when to my great surprise and joy untold, I discovered it was my long-tired, warm, but cruelly persecuted friend, Orrin Porter Rockwell, just arrived from nearly a year's imprisonment, without conviction, in Missouri."
"Holidays With Joseph and Emma" is the third book Jones has written based on her research into the lives of her ancestors. Her own trip back into the fold is equally interesting.
"Alexander was 6 at the time his father was murdered, so he had little memory of him. He grew up and got married and had nine children. The youngest was my mother's mother." The family eventually moved to southern Idaho and then, in the 1930s, to Montana. Jones' mother married a member of the Flathead tribe, and the family settled on the reservation.
Jones' grandmother was a member of the Reorganized LDS Church, but her mother was never baptized into it. "I was raised without any knowledge of the church, and although I knew I was related to Joseph Smith, my mother admonished me not to tell anyone. She was afraid I would be teased."
In the 1950s, there was a lot of prejudice against the LDS Church in that area, Jones says. When she was a senior in high school the family moved to Conrad, Mont., and there Jones ended up getting a baby-sitting job for a woman who was a member of the LDS Church. "Despite my mother's advice, I told her about my connection to Joseph. She introduced me to the missionaries and gave me a Book of Mormon. I began to read it, and it was a marvelous experience."
Jones' parents were "less than pleased. I had to wait until after I was 18 and had left home to join the church."
Since then, she has spent a lot of time tracking down other descendants of Joseph and Emma.
Since then, too, she has realized that she does have a rich heritage that has been passed down through the family.
"I think what Joseph and Emma passed on to our family was a matter of attitude." Jones grew up in a family that was never well-to-do, so they had to make do with less in material gifts than some people they knew. However, "we were always told we had an abundance and we believed it. My mother learned that from her mother, Emma's granddaughter, who learned it from her mother, Emma's daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Kendall, who was raised among the Smiths and married Alexander."
For the holidays, says Jones, "Mother always managed to make homemade gifts and obtain maybe one special family gift."
Her book talks about other precious gifts that have come because of Joseph and Emma gifts such as knowledge, hope, humility and faith. She also hopes the book will help people "feel closer to them in a very concrete way, that they will realize they were real people with real feelings and hopes and dreams, many of which were set aside in this life so that we can have what we have today."