Monday, December 23, 2013

“The Greatest Man on Earth”

Part of Christmas tradition is the carving of the turkey. Ramus, Illinois saint, Susan Martineau, recorded when she was a child that at one Christmas “the greatest man on earth” carved the turkey at her house. Who was this man?

a.      Santa Claus

b.      Brigham Young

c.       Her father dressed as Santa Claus

d.      Joseph Smith

Yesterday’s answer:

a.      Are we going to celebrate Christmas this year

“Shall we have Christmas?” was a question one Pennsylvanian asked in 1810. That same year the Philadelphia Democratic Press reported that few of Pennsylvania’s residents celebrated Christmas. The Quaker State was not alone in this regard. The question of whether to have Christmas, and then how to celebrate the day, challenged Americans throughout Joseph’s [Smith] lifetime. During this time, Americans slowly started elevating this day until it began to acquire prominence as a holiday in the 1840s. The increasing diversity of American culture also began to be reflected in their Christmas celebration.

Many of Joseph’s contemporaries experienced little of Christmas during their youth. Henry Ward Beecher knew virtually nothing of Christmas until 1843, when he was thirty. “To me Christmas was a foreign day,” he recalled. “When I was a boy I wondered what Christmas was.” Two other New Englanders, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Samuel Goodrich, recalled the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and “training day” for the local militia as the only “great festivals” of their early-nineteenth-century youths. In 1832 English actress Fanny Anne Kemble noted that Christmas in America “is no religious day and hardly a holiday with them.” Newspapers made little mention of Christmas. The only reference the Providence (Rhode Island) Gazette made to Christmas in 1823 was a note about prevailing disagreements over the exact date of Christ’s birth.

Couples frequently chose 25 December to wed. In the nation’s cities, Christmas differed little from any other workday of the year. One person reported attending court in 1823; another the official opening of a bridge in 1828. On the frontier, Christmas was more frequently celebrated. The tradition of a Christmas Day “turkey shoot,” popular in colonial America, continued in many parts of rural America during the first half of the nineteenth century.

In 1828 the United States’ first ambassador to Mexico, Dr. Joel Poinesett, brought back a native Mexican plant that the locals called “flower of the blessed night” because it resembled the Star of Bethlehem. By the time of this death in 1851, the poinsettia, named in his honor, had become a part of American holiday decorations.

During the 1840s, decorated Christmas trees began to appear regularly. In the 1820s, a number of Pennsylvanians’ German immigrants (“Deutsche” was mistranslated by Americans as “Dutch”) continued a tradition started by Martin Luther of decorating the trees surrounding their homes. In December 1842, a recently arrived political exile from Hesse is claimed to have been the first person in America to cut and trim an indoor tree. These same immigrants traditionally observed two days of Christmas, one devoted to religious sentiments, the other to more temporal pleasures.

Throughout this period, women’s magazines disseminated and popularized Christmas practices. They also helped convince many that Christmas could be both a holy day and a festive holiday.

In 1837, Louisiana became the first state to declare Christmas an official holiday; the following year Arkansas became the second. By 1860, fourteen other states had joined the list, but Illinois was not numbered among them.

Little reference is made to how Joseph Smith spent the majority of his Christmases. On Christmas Day 1832 while residing at Kirtland, Ohio, he received a revelation prophesying of “the wars that will shortly come to pass, beginning at the rebellion of South Carolina, which will eventually terminate in the death and misery of many souls.” The prophecy also spoke of a time when “war will be poured out upon all nations.” Nearly thirty years later, the prophecy began to be fulfilled when shots were fired at Ft. Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, in April 1861 to open America’s Civil War.

Concerning Christmas Day 1835 Joseph Wrote, “Enjoyed myself at home with my family, all day, it being Christmas, the only time I have had this privilege so satisfactorily for a long time.” Joseph’s 1838 Christmas, however, was not so joyful. He, along with other Church leaders, including his brother Hyrum, spent the day as they would every other day of December 1838, imprisoned in Liberty, Missouri. Emma, who had been permitted to visit Joseph a few days before Christmas, spent the day at Far West with their children. So also did Hyrum’s wife, Mary Fielding, and her one-month-old son, Joseph F. Smith.

In 1843 England was introduced at Christmas to a “Ghostly little Book” in which author Charles Dickens intended “to raise the Ghost of an Idea” and to put his “readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me.” Shortly A Christmas Carol would become a best-seller in America as well. Back in Illinois in 1843, Joseph Smith’s Christmas celebration reflected the “Christmas Present” activities of Ebenezer Scrooge’s nephew rather than those of the aging miser. However, like Scrooge, Joseph’s Christmas sleep was also disturbed, although the visitors he reported differed greatly from those that haunted Scrooge:

“This morning, about one 0’clock, I was aroused by an English sister, Lettice Rushton, widow of Richard Rushton, Senior, (who, ten years ago, lost her sight,) accompanied by three of her sons, with their wives, and her two daughters, with their husbands, and several of her neighbors, singing, ‘Mortals, awake! With angles join,’ &c., which caused a thrill of pleasure to run through my soul. All of my family and boarders arose to hear the serenade, and I felt to thank my Heavenly Father for their visit, and blessed them in the name of the Lord.”

The greater part of 25 December 1843 was a mixture of pleasure and business for Joseph. During the morning, several brethren from “Morley Settlement” sought his counsel. In the early afternoon “about fifty couples” shared a Christmas feast. Their meal was interrupted by a couple who had come to be married. Since Joseph was busy as host, Brigham Young performed the ceremony. Joseph also approved a plan that encouraged the sisters of Nauvoo to give “a small weekly subscription to r the benefit of the Temple” in the amount of “one cent per week.” In the evening, Joseph wrote, “a large party supped at my house, and spent the evening in music, dancing, &c., in a most cheerful and friendly manner.” The party was made even more joyful by the arrival of Orrin Porter Rockwell, who had spent nearly a year in a Missouri jail, where he had been held without a trial on the attempted murder of ex-Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs.

Orton, Chad M. and William W. Slaughter, Joseph Smith’s America (Salt Lake City: Deseret Books, 2005), 194-195.

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