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Southwestern States Mission: Christmas

By: Edje Jeter - December 23, 2012

Christmas was a big deal to missionaries in the Southwestern States Mission. Every missionary in this study wrote about Christmas (or Xmas [1]) at least once, which distinguishes it from other holidays. [2] Christmas stands out in the diaries for the degree that it involved missionaries, local Mormons, local non-Mormons, and missionaries’ friends and family back home. Like other celebrations in the diaries, Christmas experiences exhibited a rural / urban divide.

Christmas food figures prominently in the diaries, with emphasis on a Christmas meal eaten with family and friends. [3] The dinner was usually held on Christmas Day [4] and featured a variety of foods in large quantities prepared by women over multiple days. [5]

After food, gifts—such as handkerchiefs and cakes from home—received the most diary attention. Of course, Christmas mail sometimes took until the third week of January to find itinerant missionaries, but they ate the cake anyway. [6] Gifts were also given within mission boundaries. [7]

In cities with church groups, celebrations involving missionaries tended to be more formal and elaborate, with committees beginning work a few weeks prior. [8] Christmas Day observances in St Louis, 1904, included a “small organ for Sunday services,” singing by the children’s Sunday School class, recitations, speeches, and musical solos. [9]

Missionaries moving around the countryside tended toward simpler celebrations or made particular note of the lack of celebration. As itinerants, the missionaries generally did not know where they would be for Christmas. In some cases, their hosts insisted that the Elders not travel on Christmas Day. [10] In 1899 Elder Jones’s celebration was: “It being Christmas, we walked into town, stayed there a short time.” The following year Jones identified Christmas as an ineffective proselyting day, but some Elders (including Jones) mention preaching on Christmas Eve or Christmas, and two gave their topic as “the life of Jesus.” [11]

Overall, rural missionaries were more likely to record a “dull” Christmas season. Christmas travel and visitors made it harder to find a place to sleep, and illness and cold made for unpleasant holidays. [12] Travelling Elders were also more likely to wash clothes, bathe, and/or shave on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day than usual. [13]

Rural missionaries did get one treat the city Elders didn’t mention: “The people here have a great way of celebrating Xmas. They shoot away more [illegible: guns? fireworks?] than is shot on the 4th of July. We had plenty of it Christmas eve.” [14]

As Mission President Duffin’s mission progressed, he was able to visit his families more often. He stayed in the mission for the first three Christmases but spent Christmas in Utah with his first family in 1903 and 1904 and in El Paso with his second family in 1905. [15]



The “Southwestern States Mission” series (homepage) examines mission life in (mostly) Texas around 1900.

[1] Four of the eight missionaries in this study used “Xmas” in their diaries. Brooks and Folkman used both “Christmas” and “Xmas”; Folkman used both in a single entry (1901 Dec 25 Wed). Brooks, 1900 Dec 24 Mon; Folkman, 1899 Dec 24 Sun, 1900 Dec 24 Mon, 1901 Dec 25 Wed; Forsha, 1900 Jan 20 Sat, Jan 22 Mon; Carling, 1901 Dec 15 Sun p 88, Dec 17 Tue p 89.

[2] Easter, Independence, Pioneer, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s commemorations receive scattered attention in the diaries, relative to how consistently the diarists discuss Christmas. Elder Forsha did not mention Christmas in 1899, but noted on two different days the Christmas cake he received from home in late January. Duffin reports on six Christmases but left out 1900: he made no entries between 1900 Dec 03 and 1901 Jan 01.

Further, Sister Cluff, Elder Jones, and President Duffin identified Christmas as emotionally significant or used it as a time marker: “…tired Elder S. feels keenly this separation from his young wife, and the babe he has never seen” (Cluff, 1904 Dec 24 Sat); “ “Christmas day – The first in my life to spend away from my darling children. I hope they are happy today. … I will not think of home today more than I can possibly help for fear I lose control of my feelings. … Our guests remained for the evening and departed at a late hour, each wondering where we would be next Christmas. … So ends my St. Louis Christmas. So much in my life has been revolutionized in the last year….” (Cluff, 1904 Dec 25 Sun); “…this being the first Christmas that I spent in old Texas.” (Jones, 1899 Dec 25 Mon); “Christmas had come once more, my second one in old Texas.” (Jones, 1900 Dec 25 Tue); “Christmas had come once more and found me still in the land of Texas, making my third one here.” (Jones, 1901 Dec 25 Wed); “Six years ago to-day I spent in Dallas Co Texas washing my clothes. To-day I am spending it with those whom the Lord has given me.” (Duffin, 1905 Dec 25 Mon).

[3] I conjecture that part of the emphasis given to food in the diaries comes from the missionaries’ long-term food-insecure situations. An exhaustive (I think) list of food mentioned in connection with Christmas in the diaries includes: apples (5, green and non-specified), bon-jours (box of), bread, butter, cake (7, “two kinds of,” “Xmas cake,” chocolate, fruit), candy (7, [store-bought and homemade]), coconut (2), ham (boiled), jelly, nuts (3, unspecified, “of different kinds,” walnuts), orange (3), pecans, pickles, pie (4, custard (2), mince, sweet potato), potatoes (sweet, Irish, and non-specified), prunes, peaches, pudding (grape), raisins, roast pork, sauce, sausage, stuffing, sweet milk, sweet potatoes, turkey, “and everything nice” (Jones, 1900 Dec 23 Sun). The one reference to Christmas stockings put potatoes and apples in Elders’ socks (Cluff, 1904 Dec 24 Sat).

[4] In the diaries, “dinner” almost always indicates a mid-day meal. I find four instances of what seems to be “Christmas dinner” held on December 26 (Duffin, 1899 Dec 26 Tue, 1904 Dec 26 Mon; Brooks, 1900 Dec 26 Wed; Cluff, 1904 Dec 26 Mon). I do not discern a pattern, other than a possible avoidance of a Sabbath-day dinner, or any obvious connection to Boxing Day. One such instance was a police-sponsored charity dinner (Cluff, 1904 Dec 26 Mon).

[5] Elder Folkman describes one celebration: “Miss Mattie gave us a Christmas gift, an orange, candy, nuts and raisins and a little later, a nice peace of cake. Went to Bro. Crockett’s where we were to eat Xmas dinner. We had fresh roast pork, sauce, sweet potatoes, bread, two kinds of nice cake, sweet potatoe pie, custard pie and milk, which is a very nice dinner for this country and enjoyed very much. A while after dinner had green apples, candy, nuts of different kinds, and to wind up on some nice coconuts which were very nice. Supper at half past six and then singing untill bedtime” (Folkman, 1901 Dec 25 Wed). Note the, “a very nice dinner for this country.” “At night we had a fine supper on what was left of dinner, and then there was enough left for three days.” (Jones, 1900 Dec 25 Tue); In 1900 Elder Folkman was with the Findley family and Sister Findley was sick: “It seemed that [Sister Findley’s] pain would leave, but it would return. Christmas was very dull on account of it. There was some neighbors came over to dinner and they helped some to prepare it as Sister Findley is the only one that can cook. We had a lovely dinner as most of it had been prepared before.” (Folkman, 1900 Dec 25 Tue); See also: Cluff, 1904 Dec 24 Sat, for a relatively detailed description of a Christmas party.

[6] Some of the gifts are not labeled as “Christmas,” but their arrival seems suspiciously seasonal. “recd letter from home in which mother sent in $9.” (Duffin, 1899 Dec 23 Sat); “Last week I had a pleasant surprise and a very substantial present. The R.S. of Thatcher of which organization I am a member, sent me [illegible] as a token of good will and to assist me in defraying my missionary expenses…” (Cluff, 1904 Dec 20 Tue). Others were specifically labeled: “Recd a letter today from Sister Anna in which she sent me a dollar for a Christmas present.” (Duffin, 1899 Dec 25 Mon); “Got my Xmas present, a nice black handkerchief. Also got a Xmas cake for Elder Jensen. He wasn’t here.” (Brooks, 1900 Dec 24 Mon); “On coming home I was agreeably surprised to find a Christmas bundle from home, containing a new pair of shoes and other necessities for which I felt my appreciation. On top of all was a piece of mince pie my Nettie had shipped in and oh, it was so good. There was also a box of bon-jours which I passed to the Elders. … I have had letters from so many relatives and friends this week, and not a day has passed but some little token has reached me from some loving friend or relative.” (Cluff, 1904 Dec 23 Fri); “The door bell has been on a continual ring this whole day so we got to saying ‘another Christmas gift’, and all break for the door. …the Elders have received letters and tokens from relatives and friends and we are glad for we sympathize with them in their sorrow and their joy.” (Cluff, 1904 Dec 24 Sat). “Frank sent me a stick of candy for Christmas.” (Jones, 1902 Jan 03 Fri); “Received $5.00 from Margaret as a Christmas present.” (Folkman, 1901 Jan 12 Sat); “After Breakfast we went to Kountze after our mail. Received 6 letters and a Box of XMass Cake. …After traveling about a Mile we got off in the Timber and read our letters and sampled the Cake….” (Forsha, 1900 Jan 20 Sat); “…We went out in the woods and had a picnic. We had a coconut and some lovely Xmas Cake. So with the Milk-Coconut and Cake we had a feast.” (Forsha, 1900 Jan 22 Mon).

Gifts might have arrived late due to the missionaries moving around, though one instance in the diaries suggests that sometimes they might have been late because sending gifts on Christmas Eve was part of the tradition. While visiting his first family in Utah, Duffin records on Christmas Eve that “Tonight I had the pleasure of distributing presents to the children, to Mary, and Hezekiah, my brother, also we sent some little presents to Amelia and Erma” his second wife and child in Mexico.” (Duffin, 1904 Dec 24 Sat).

[7] I find one explicit reference to Santa Claus. “Helped to prepare for Xmas. Killed a nice turkey while Bro. Findley had gone to town to buy Santa Clause. Had a bath, etc.” (Folkman, 1900 Dec 24 Mon). “Then Sister Boley and I went shopping in the rain which was not so pleasant, and bought a few gifts for the Elders and inmates of the house.” (Cluff, 1904 Dec 23 Fri); “At 10 a.m. we walked to the post office (McClanahan) and received a letter from the office, bought a coconut and some apples and brought back to Bro. Baker’s little girls. They were very well pleased with them.” (Jones, 1900 Dec 24 Mon); “Miss Mattie gave us a Christmas gift, an orange, candy, nuts and raisins and a little later, a nice peace of cake.” (Folkman, 1901 Dec 25 Wed); “Evening of Dec. 24 our entertainment was given in the office to the Elders, members of the church and friends. A program, consisting of speeches, recitations and songs was rendered and presents were given to all.” (Duffin, 1901 Dec 24 Tue).

Elder Jones and companion chopped some wood, presumably as a Christmas expression. “Bro. Huffman went into town to help in one of the stores”—presumably due to Christmas volume. “He told us to stay here with him, the weather looking very bad. While he was gone Elder Dean and I went out and chopped up his woodpile. When he came home he was quite surprised in seeing his woodpile all chopped up.” (Jones, 1899 Dec 23 Sat). Of course, the missionaries did household chores all year, so this might just be normal mission service rather than a specifically Christmas deed.

[8] On Dec 15, 1901, President Duffin “appointed commitees to get up a Christmas eve entertainment.” “The committee named was Elders John H. Wood, Josiah Howard, Sisters Sarah Giles, and Amelia B. Carling, lady missionaries, and Sister Estelle Milligan, President of the Relief Society” (Duffin, 1901 Dec 16 Mon). Sister Carling, a member of “the finance committe for our Xmas tree,” seems to have made considerable effort to get donations. “Brother Mahonri Steele, who is traveling in this part as government rural delivery mail inspector called and made us a visit. … I was appointed as one of the finance committe for our Xmas tree that evening so he gave me a dollar to help on the tree.” (Carling, 1901 Dec 15 Sun, p 88); “We girls did our washing, cleaning ect, then the Elders put our carpet down for us while we went on comitte business up to Sister Milligan’s and down to sister Smedley’s.” (Carling, 1901 Dec 16 Mon, p 88-89); “Tuesday were out on committee work all afternoon, but met with little success. We spent forty cents for car fare and only took in 15 cents on the Xmas tree fund. It was a cold trip but we felt we had done our duty and thus felt happy.” (Carling, 1901 Dec 17 Tue p 89). The last entry in Carling’s diary is 1901 Dec 17; I don’t know much of what she did thereafter.

[9] It is not clear to me whether there was a Christmas service during the regular meeting time followed later by “entertainment” or whether the “program” was part of the regular Sunday meeting. Since Sister Cluff had to awaken two children for the singing, I assume there was an evening program. Cluff, 1904 Dec 13 Tue; Dec 22 Thu; “Our meeting and exercises were very successful. The little ones did very well in their part of the program. I had to waken Bernie and Charlie who had fallen asleep in their chairs. Their singing was very good indeed. Sister —, Elder Wootton, talked on why we celebrate Christmas, Elder — sang “Kind Words”, Sister Cluff recited “Jamie”. Sister P. read and altogether we had a very enjoyable time.” (Cluff, 1904 Dec 25 Sun). Sister Cluff also describes various preparations, decorations, gifts, cards, etc, as part of her Christmas experiences.

In 1901 in Kansas City, a Christmas Eve “entertainment was given in the office to the Elders, members of the church and friends. A program, consisting of speeches, recitations and songs was rendered and presents were given to all.” Christmas Day, Mission President Duffin “gave a Christmas dinner, to all the missionaries laboring in the city, at the office.” Duffin, 1901 Dec 24 Tue – 25 Wed. When Duffin writes, “I gave a Christmas dinner,” I don’t know what he means in terms of cooking, serving, cleaning, etc. I presume he paid for it, but doubt he did much, if any, of the actual work.

[10] “At 9 o’clock we got ready to commence our labor, but Bro. Baker insisted on us staying until after Christmas with him.” (Jones, 1900 Dec 24 Mon); “we remained with Sister Aron all day the next day was Christmas day and they would have us Stay and Spend the day with them So we did and had a good dinner and felt good.” (Clark, 1900 Dec 24 Mon). In a related pattern, Elder Folkman arrived at the Findleys’ on 1900 Dec 18 and found them ill; on Dec 20 they decided to “stop untill after Christmas.” (Folkman, 1900 Dec 20 Thu).

[11] Jones, 1899 Dec 25 Mon; “As we were not able to do much on a holiday…” (Jones, 1900 Dec 24 Mon). The diaries don’t give enough detail to be sure, but Christmas meeting attendance might have been prompted more by desire for a “Christmas sermon” than interest in Mormonism. In 1899 (the admittedly laconic) Elder Clark merely noted that it was Christmas, with no mention of special observance. “Monday the 25, Christmas day. Had a good dinner held meeting in afternoon. No. persons present 15” (Clark, 1899 Dec 25 Mon). “At 2 o’clock we held meeting, in which Pres. Ash and Hunsaker took up the time, having a very good time. The people being desirous of hearing us again, we appointed another meeting for night. The people around close came in. All four of us spoke a little, having a very good time, this being the first Christmas that I spent in old Texas.” (Jones, 1899 Dec 25 Mon); “Bro. Huffman received an invitation from one of his daughters to come up and take dinner with them, so he asked us to come and go along with him. We walked over to the place, about 4 miles. They were very glad to see us. They sent word around to their neighbors to come up to their place for preaching. We partook of a nice dinner and at 3 o’clock we took up our meeting, preaching about one hour and a half….” (Jones, 1899 Dec 24 Sun); “at night we held Services with the Family and Sang Some Songs and Elder Marshal Spoke a Short time then Elder Clark Spoke on the life of jesus. after that we talked Some then we all retired to Bed.” (Clark, 1900 Dec 24 Mon). President Duffin was not a traveling Elder, but he did preach and perform ordinances on Christmas. “Sunday, Dec. 25} Provo, Utah } Had the pleasure this p. m. at two o’clock of speaking in the tabernacle, on the life of the Saviour. In the evening I was the speaker in the third ward meeting house on the subjects of the life of the Saviour and Joseph Smith, the Prophet.” (Duffin, 1904 Dec 25 Sun); “I spent Christmas with the saints at the Jay branch and on that day, 25th I ordained Elijah N. Adams and William Hasty Priests.” (Duffin, 1902 Dec 31 Wed).

[12] “We had quite a time getting a place to stop that night. The houses were quite a distance apart and the people were in an uproar about Christmas. We were refused three times” (Brooks, 1899 Dec 23 Sat). “Very dull Christmas. Hardly anything going on that I heard of. We had a pretty good dinner at Bro. Thorne’s. In the afternoon Bro. Thorne hitched up his mules and we went and visited a man that was sick. That just about ended our Christmas.” (Brooks, 1900 Dec 25 Tue). “At four in the morning, we were called up to administer to Sister Findley who was taken down with severe pains in her system. They were releived some by the administration and we retired again and at five we were called again. It seemed that the pain would leave, but it would return. Christmas was very dull on account of it. Their was some neighbors came over to dinner and they helped some to prepare it as Sister Findley is the only one that can cook. We had a lovely dinner as most of it had been prepared before. (Folkman, 1900 Dec 25 Tue).

Elders Forsha and Folkman had a rough go of it in 1899: “December 23, 1899. Saturday. Left Shepard. Walked 8 miles to Trinity River, crossed on the railroad bridge, then 2[?] miles to Goodrich, then 5 miles to Drew’s Landing. Took dinner with a friend, Measles by name, a very nice man and a Baptist by bluf [bluff? belief? birth?], then we walked to a place called Knight and tryed seven places to get entertainment and could not. We come to a little school house and we went in there and layed down on two benches and we nearly froze. Then we went out, found a pine knot and we only had one match and we had to make a sure thing of it, so we lit the knot and used it as a torch and we found some wood and made a fire and sit around the stove all night and then nearly froze. Saturday Dec. 23, walked 25 miles.” (Folkman, 1899 Dec 23 Sat); “December 24, 1899. Sunday. Started from the school house at 7 o’clock and we had not had anything to eat since dinner the day before, then we went on through the woods untill twelve o’clock when we come to a house and they gave us dinner. Then we jorneyed on, very tired and sore when two men overtook us. They had been camped at Knight and there horses got away and they was going home after them. We joined them in there walk and at four o’clock we reached there home and we stayed with them and had our Xmas Eve this way. We sang a few songs then we retired for the night. We walked Sunday the 24th 20 miles. This man’s name is Powell.” (Folkman, 1899 Dec 24 Sun); “December 25,1899. Monday. Christmas. We left Mr. Powell’s and walked 20 miles to a place called Batson Prayerie where we stayed with a family named Jordans. Talked with them on the Gosple for a short time then retired for the night. The weather this day was very warm.” (Folkman, 1899 Dec 25 Mon). “23rd We Started on our Journey. went through. Shepherd. in San Jacinto Co. from here we followed. the RR [railroad] track 8 miles arriving at Goodrich in Polk Co. From here. we went to a small town called Knight[?]. There was seven Families lived here. and we were refused. entertainment at every house. it was then about 9 O’clock. and we had walked 25 Miles through Mud. ankle deep with the Exception of the RR Track. for 8 Miles and we went on. south until we came to an old School house. without any windows in it and. laid down on the Benches and Stayed there until 6 O’clock on Sunday. Morning. 24th We After walking until about 12 O’clock. had breakfast went on and walked 3 Miles when we Met a Doctor whose name was Powell. He took us to his home. and we stayed there all night.” (Forsha, 1899 Dec 20 Wed); “Monday Morning 25th we had a lovely breakfast Started on our Journey about 9 O’clock. walked to Batsons Prairie about 18 Miles South East. Stayed all Night with a Mr Jerdain were treated [?] fine [/?] after talking on the Gospel a short time. Had a few words of prayer. and went to bed.” (Forsha, 1899 Dec 25 Mon).

[13] Only once were these labors described as specifically part of Christmas preparations: “Went to Bro. P. Odom’s. I half-soled my shoes and shaved and got ready for Christmas.” (Folkman, 1901 Dec 24 Tue). “when we came Back I Packed water a quarter of a mile to wash with and Elder Marshal done the washing.” (Clark, 1900 Dec 24 Mon); “After dinner we asked for the privilege of bathing our bodies and washing our clothes, which privilege was granted us. By 4:30 we were through with that work. Took a shave.” (Jones, 1901 Dec 24 Tue); “The biggest part of our Christmas was spent out in the woods studying and eating haw berries . We were on a little stream. I decided to wash my garments. That was my first time. I got pretty tired of it before I got through.” (Brooks, 1899 Dec 25 Mon); “This being Christmas we could do but little visiting, so we returned to Bro. Grasham’s, where we did our washing, Sister Grasham not being at home.” (Duffin, 1899 Dec 25 Mon); Washing clothes on Christmas seems to have been significant to Elder Duffin; six years later he recalled it as he spent Christmas with one of his families: “Six years ago to-day I spent in Dallas Co Texas washing my clothes. To-day I am spending it with those whom the Lord has given me.” (Duffin, 1905 Dec 25 Mon).

[14] Brooks, 1900 Dec 24 Mon; “After they got through with their work they shot off their gun a time or two and the little girls fired their Roman candles.” (Jones, 1900 Dec 24 Mon); “We shot Roman candles and at 10 o’clock we bid the folks goodnight and retired.” (Jones, 1900 Dec 25 Tue).

[15] 1903 was “the first Christmas for four years that I have been at home” (Duffin, 1903 Dec 25 Fri). Furthermore, “This morning at two o’clock I arrived in Provo. Was met at the station by Clarence and Stanley. A surprise awaited me at home. When I arrived Mary, my dear wife was in bed and by her side a fine boy born at three o’clock this morning. I did not know anything about it until I stepped into the room, for we were not expecting baby for several days yet. Dr. Taylor waited on Sister Duffin, and she got through her confinement very well. This is our ninth boy and we have two daughters.” (Duffin, 1903 Dec 19 Sat). Christmas 1904 was “the first Christmas dinner in six years that we have all eaten together. I should be very thankful if the rest of our family could be with us” (Duffin, 1904 Dec 26 Mon). Going back to the mission was difficult: “The parting with my wife was very affecting, as our long mission is becoming very trying to her, with other trials she has to bear. But I pray my Father in heaven to bless her that she may be comforted and that we may be enabled to remain faithful in His work.” (Duffin, 1904 Dec 29 Thu). I don’t know why Duffin went to El Paso: at the time his second family was living in Arizona and they met him in El Paso. Duffin spent Thanksgiving 1905 with his Utah family.

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