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Poetry by early Latter-day Saint women on the true meaning of Christmas

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Heartfelt poems connect Christmas with the cross, and bring perspectives on Mary that only women can.

In 1881, an author identified only as Annie wrote the following in the Latter-day Saint journal Woman’s Exponent as part of her column on celebrating Christmas: “Let us pause in the midst of our fun and rejoicings, and spend a few moments in sweet thanksgiving for this blessed day. We will think of Him who gave us light, who brought the pure knowledge of Christianity, and of the One who was crucified to redeem the world.”1

I came across this quote while doing research on how female members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, writing between 1870 and 1970, perceived the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. One aspect of their writing that has really touched my heart was their Christmas poetry and how it was focused on Christ in ways that are perhaps not quite as common today.

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In 1904, a panel of judges, including James E. Talmage, awarded Kate Thomas first prize for her poem “For Christmas.”2 Her poem poignantly describes Mary’s feelings at both the birth and the death of her son and then expresses how contemporary women feel when they see their own children struggle:

O beautiful mother Mary, O mother of croonings low,

Did you know more bliss in each fond kiss

Than we common mothers know?

His baby step she taught him, she put him gaily down

And laughed with pleased, low laughter when his fingers clutched her own.

She taught him his first ‘Our Father,’ and as he lisped the prayer,

She bended her face till her lips found place In the soft sheen of his hair.

O beautiful mother Mary, O Woman of women wise,

Did you see the End? Or did Father send

A kindly veil for your eyes?

She watched him grow into boyhood, with innocent eyes like his own

That wept when He came into manhood and the Load He must carry alone.

For the way of the Hill was heavy, and the Cross on the Hill was high

And ’twas hard to look where whose sins He took were lusting to see Him die!

We see our children bleeding; we see our sons go wrong

We sense our own soul’s weakness and pray to be made strong.

And so when the holly reddens, and the white on the brown earth lies

And Christmas cheer is in the air, The mother in us cries:

O Son of beautiful Mary, O JESUS of Galilee,

Let her spirit pure in our hearts outpour That our babes may grow like Thee!3

It’s striking to me that this Christmas poem focuses so heavily on Mary and her feelings about Jesus Christ. Kate Thomas’s prose highlights Mary as a mother and the tender experiences she had with the Savior throughout her life. Perhaps because the events of Christ’s birth and death are so familiar to us, it’s easy to glide through them without really contemplating what Mary and others must have felt.

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Kate’s poem also includes a focus on the death of Christ and how Mary must have felt at the cross. Other poems described the death of Christ and its importance during the Christmas season. For example, in 1917, Ila Fisher wrote a poem called “My Christmas Prayer,” published in the Relief Society Magazine. In part, it reads:

Christmas spirit, breathe upon us all abundantly; for while the carols ring

Rest and quiet stills our surging souls, and we remember Christ. the Master King.

How void of earth’s vain glory was His birth! His life, how full of suffering and care!

His death—dear Lord, the thought of Calvary Makes our afflictions easier to bear.4

I typically view Christmas as a time to think about the birth of Christ. Remarkably, Ila connects the Christmas spirit with the death of Christ and its ability to ease our afflictions. Perhaps we can relate this to President Gordon B. Hinckley’s teaching that “there would be no Christmas if there had not been Easter.”5 To this Ila might add that without Christ’s Crucifixion, there would be no Easter and therefore no Christmas!

I’ll conclude by sharing a poem called “Our Christmas Tree,” authored by a woman identified only as Hope. Hope shows how Christ’s Crucifixion can be a central element of the Christmas season:

Time’s curtain backward rolls and we can see

How He too gave to us our Christmas Tree,

Himself the gift—love’s offering to the world,

Redemption’s banner His dear hand unfurled.

And from that tree the lamp of life burned high,

But oh to light that lamp the Christ must die!

Must drain for man the deepest cup of woe,

Must feel the keenest pain mortals can know….

Bright shines the memory of that far off time,

And Christmas trees now live in every clime,

Bearing love’s gifts to friends and kindred dear

While merry bells are ringing far and near.6

Like all poetry, this poem has multiple ways it could be interpreted. I read Hope’s words as implying that in a sense the Christmas tree represents Christ’s cross. Christ’s hand unfurled connotes the stretching out of limbs on a cross, and the lamp of life burning high on a tree suggests Christ being lifted up on the cross. While there are other ways this poem could be read, I think that Hope is suggesting that when we see a Christmas tree, we can consider Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary, which makes the joy of Christmas possible.

This Christmas our focus will be on the birth of Jesus Christ—but perhaps, like our spiritual forebears, we can take some time to contemplate the love and gift that Christ gave from Golgotha. Early Latter-day Saint women remembered Christ’s Crucifixion at Christmas. Do we do the same? Ultimately, Christmas is a time of love and giving—and Christ expressed his greatest act of love and giving as follows: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Truly his atoning sacrifice is the greatest gift.


Considering the Cross: How Calvary Connects Us with Christ

Between Gethsemane and the empty Garden Tomb stands the Savior’s sacrifice on the cross. In this in-depth study of Christ’s gift from Golgotha, John Hilton III provides insight to help us in our quest to “attain a perfect knowledge of [Christ]” and come closer to Him (Jacob 4:12). This book explores questions like “How can studying Christ’s Crucifixion increase our appreciation for his Atonement?,” “Why do some Church members avoid the cross—because of Church doctrine or cultural practice?,” and “How can the Savior's atoning sacrifice help us find relief from pain and suffering?” By providing answers to these and many other questions, Hilton guides readers to see Calvary in new and powerful ways.


Notes

1. Annie, “Christmas,” Woman’s Exponent 10, no. 14 (December 15, 1881): 105.
2. “Prize Christmas Poems,” The Young Woman’s Journal 15, no. 12 (December, 1904): 570.
3. Kate Thomas, “For Christmas,” The Young Woman’s Journal 15, no. 12 (December, 1904): 532.
4. Ila Fisher, “My Christmas Prayer,” Relief Society Magazine 4, no. 12 (December, 1917): 704.
5. Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Wondrous and True Story of Christmas,” Ensign, December 2000.
6. Hope, “Our Christmas Tree,” The Young Woman’s Journal 5, no. 15 (February, 1894): 234.

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