How many children did the Apostles bless during the General Conference on Christmas Day, 1837?
D Come, Come, Ye Saints was not a Christmas song
Mary Pratt Parrish was nine years old when she learned that the hymn, “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” was not a Christmas song. In her home, singing this hymn on Christmas morning was part of her family’s tradition. First the family would get up and gather together and her father would retell the story of the birth of the Christ Child. The family would then join him around the piano while he accompanied them as they sang all four verses of “Come, Come, Ye Saints.”
Even at a young age, Mary felt that his was a song of dedication to the Lord whose birth they were celebrating. Only after the music was finished could the family sit down to eat a special breakfast and then open presents or check their stockings to see what Santa had left for them.
Mary thought that all of her friends’ families sang that same song as part of their holiday celebration. However, one day before Christmas, she found out that it was not the usual thing to do. Mary was at school when her teacher selected her from among all the other students to choose a Christmas song the class would sing before dismissing for the Christmas holidays. Mary chose “Come, Come, Ye Saints.” Her classmates burst into laughter. They lived in a small community where everyone knew the song and could sing it from memory.
“Come now,” the teacher said, “you know that is not a Christmas song! Let’s sing ‘Jingle Bells’ or something else instead.” Although the attention moved away from Mary, the overwhelming embarrassment of being laughed at stayed with her throughout the afternoon.
Mary tried hard to hold back her tears until the end of the school day. Running home as fast as she could, she fell into her mothers’ arms crying. Finally she was able to control herself enough to blurt out the hurtful question, “Come, Come, Ye Saints,’ is a Christmas song, isn’t it, Mother?”
“Yes,” her mother answered. “It is a Christmas song, and had been to our family since the first Christmas in the Salt Lake Valley. That was when your great-great-grandmother sang it around the flagpole in the center of the old fort. Her name was Mary Wood, and she was born and raised in Inningham, Lincolnshire, England. There she met and married Paul Littleton.
“Two missionaries came to Inningham and taught them the message of the restored gospel. Two months after they were baptized, Mary and Paul and their children sailed for America so they could join the Saints in Nauvoo, Illinois. They arrived in New York December 20, 1844.
“Mary’s first Christmas in America was spent on the road in a stagecoach traveling to Nauvoo. Mary determined that from then on her family would celebrate Christmas much as they had in England with wreaths, Yule logs, Father Christmas, and Christmas carols.
“Great-grandmother Mary’s second Christmas in America was spent in a wagon box over which Paul had built a roof and placed a small fireplace at the end. They had fled from the mobs in Nauvoo and were traveling west for safety. ‘Next year,’ Mary said, ‘Christmas will be different.’
“Their third Christmas, however, was spent in Winter Quarters. Mary and the family celebrated Christmas without Paul. He was walking west with the Mormon Battalion. She and the children had no caroling and no Father Christmas. Instead there was fasting and prayer. The Littleton’s eight-year-old son was near death with black canker, a form of malnutrition. He lived, but many others died in Winter Quarters that winter.
“Finally, on the fourth Christmas in America, Mary and her family celebrated Christmas together in relative peace. Even then it was not the kind of celebration she had envisioned, one based on English customs. That would come later.
“The Littleton family were once again together living in the Old Fort in the Salt Lake Valley. The day began with a thunderous BOOM! From the old cannon that had been pulled across the plains by the first company to enter the valley. It had been placed in the middle of the fort. The day was treated much like any other Saturday workday.
“Throughout the rest of the day, parents and children, neighbors and friends greeted each other with warm smiles, handshakes, and the jovial words to the cannon’s roared message: “Merry Christmas,’ Other than that people labored to complete the north addition to the fort that families could have shelter, and to do other necessary work.
“It was the next day, Sunday, December 26, when the people more properly celebrated Christmas in 1847. Early on, the people gathered to the flagpole. Prayers were offered. Words of thanksgiving and praise were pronounced. They sang songs to praise God, including a heartfelt rendition of ‘Come, Come, Ye Saints.’ This was a song written on the trail which had become an anthem to them. From then on the song was a traditional favorite at Pioneer Christmas celebrations.
“Mary desired to hold fast to the time her heart felt the gladness of that first Christmas time in the valley. To that end, she established the custom of beginning each Christmas day by bringing her family around her and relating to them the story of Christ’s birth. Afterwards, Paul would tell the story of their first Christmas in the valley and the singing of their special hymn. ‘Let us sing it now,’ he would say, ‘and let us sing it reverently and with feeling-that the Lord will know we are singing a song of dedication to Him.’
“Yes, my dear,” Mary’s mother said, “To members of our family, ‘Come, Come, Ye Saints’ is a very precious Christmas song. But to people outside of our family, it is just a song that is sung in Church. That is why your classmates laughed. They thought you were playing a joke on them.
“Families often have something special at Christmas that is their own. Some have a special wreath to put on their door’ other a special dinner, or a special dessert, still others a special decoration for their Christmas tree or a special story that they like to tell.
“We have a special song. This has been so ever since that first Christmas celebration in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake.”
To this day, we are told, the descendants of Mary Wood Littleton and Paul Littleton perpetuate this custom. They call it Mary’s Traditional Christmas.
International Society Daughters of Utah Pioneers, Museum Memories (Talon Printing: Salt Lake City, 2011), 3: 226-229.