Joseph Smith's birthday on dec. 23 often overlooked in holiday season

Falling as it does just two days before Christmas, the birthday of the Prophet Joseph Smith is often overshadowed for Church members by the festivities of Christendom's most widely celebrated holiday.

Yet the occasional commemorations of the Prophet's birth that have occurred after his death are likely more than were celebrated during his lifetime, according to historians. The reason for this is that birthdays were evidently not celebrated in rural America in the early 19th century as they are today.Poverty and frequent moves characterized the Prophet's life, along with the opposition he constantly faced. In addition, in his adult life he was preoccupied with the weighty matters related to the restoration of the Church. These factors may have contributed to the lack of any mention of the anniversary of his birth in the Church literature of his day.

At the time of Joseph's birth, his parents, Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith,lived in Sharon, Vt., where they rented a farm owned by Lucy's father, Solomon. Again, through their labors, they began to prosper.

It was here Joseph was born on Dec. 23, 1805. Little is known about his early life, however. In memoirs written after the Prophet's martyrdom in 1844-46, his mother Lucy recalled with an almost biblical simplicity that "I now come to the history of Joseph. . . . I shall say nothing respecting him until he arrived at the age of fourteen. However, in this I am aware that some of my readers will be disappointed, for I suppose, from questions which are frequently asked me, that it is thought by some that I shall likely to tell many remarkable incidents which occurred in his childhood; but, as nothing occurred during his early life except those trivial circumstances which are common to that state of human existence, I pass them in silence."

Certainly, however, the birth of Joseph must have been a joy to his parents and older family members. Perhaps they were even reminded of the sacred birth of the Savior observed two days later. (See "Christmas with the Prophet Joseph," by Larry C. Porter, Ensign, December 1978.)

History has recorded the activities of the Prophet on his birthday during many Decembers of his eventful life. A look at these Decembers provides a sketch of a few of the trials and joys of his life.

In 1823, the family was undoubtedly grieving following the death of his older brother Alvin, who died Nov. 19.

In December 1826, Joseph was likely filled with the expectation of marriage with Emma Hale, a ceremony that took place the following Jan. 18.

A year later, the young couple had moved to Harmony, Pa., where they lived with Emma's father, Isaac Hale. The following year the young couple had moved into a cabin of their own. This birthday season in 1828 was likely one of sorrow as their first child died, and 116 pages of manuscript translated from the Gold Plates had been loaned to and lost by Martin Harris.

Joseph's spirits were certainly higher the following December, in 1829, when the completed Book of Mormon manuscript was at the printer. Just a few months later, the Church was organized April 6, 1830. Unlike personal birthdays, the anniversary of the founding of the Church was an event often mentioned and celebrated in its early years.

In December 1831, Joseph and his brother Hyrum were preaching to the people of communities in Ohio. By December 1833, the Saints had been expelled from Jackson County, Mo., and his concerns were likely focused on that issue.

The December 1835 brought a brief respite. During this month, gifts were given to the Prophet, although not mentioned specifically in honor of his birthday or of Christmas. On Dec. 9 and 10, 1835, he wrote, "Elder Packard came in this morning, and made me a present of twelve dollars, which he held in a note against me. May God bless him for his liberality. Also James Aldrich sent me my note by the hand of Jesse Hitchcock, on which there was twelve dollars due. And may God bless him for his kindness to me. . . .

"My heart swells with gratitude inexpressible when I realize the great condescension of my Heavenly Father, in opening the hearts of these my beloved brethren to administer so liberally to my wants. I ask God, in the name of Jesus Christ, to multiply blessings without number upon their heads. . . . And whether my days are many or few, whether in life or in death, I say in my heart, O Lord, let me enjoy the society of such brethren." (History of the Church 2:327.)

On Dec. 23, 1835, his birthday, he wrote: "In the forenoon, at home, studying the Greek language. And also waited upon the brethren who came in, and exhibited to them the [EgyptianT papyrus. . . . (HC 2:344.)

The joy of that season soon ended. The next few years were plagued with persecution and troubles. In 1838, he spent his birthday and Christmas confined in the Liberty Jail. In December 1839, he and Elias Higbee were in Washington D.C. seeking redress for the grievances suffered by the Saints in Missouri.

The next two Decembers were absorbed by the founding of Nauvoo, Ill., and building the temple. In 1842, sadness again touched the season as on Dec. 26, he wrote of his wife, Emma: "She was delivered of a son, which did not survive its birth." (HC 5:209.)

His birthday of 1843, which was his last in life, was probably the happiest December of many years. His birthday entry reads, "At home, counseling the brethren who called on me, and attending to domestic duties, making preparations for a Christmas dinner party."

This Christmas began early, with the widow Lettice Rushton and her family singing carols about 1 a.m. "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."

That afternoon, he wrote that "fifty couples sat down at my table to dine. . . . A large party supped at my house and spent the evening in music, dancing, &c., in a most cheerful and friendly manner." (HC 6:133-34.)

Perhaps the greatest commemoration of the Prophet's birth was made on the 100th anniversary of his birthday. On Dec. 23, 1905, a massive granite shaft erected at his birthplace near Sharon, Vt., was unveiled and dedicated.

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