Leonard J. Arrington is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Mormon Church”). He has published widely throughout his distinguished career. He is the author (or coauthor) of, among others: Mothers of the Prophets, Presidents of the Church,From Quaker to Latter-day Saint, Building the City of God, Brigham Young: American Moses, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints, and Great Basin Kingdom.
Christmas Story: On The Farm
Picture an isolated, two-room, wooden frame home on a windy prairie in southern Idaho. Coyotes howl in the distance. Despite wintry weather, the sky is clear and the stars are brilliant. There is a faint trace in the sky of an aurora borealis, or what is commonly referred to as “northern lights.” One can hear horses in a nearby corral breathing heavily and occasional sounds of late-night munching from two milk cows. Add to the picture a family, with a father and mother and three children—LeRoy, seven; Leonard, four; and Marie, two—sitting in front of an open oven door. Father, a hardy son of Tennessee mountaineers, is peeling an apple while telling about hunting raccoons and razorback wild hogs when he was a boy. Mother, humming faintly while her black-haired husband tells his stories, gets up to shake the skillet a few times while she makes popcorn. When it erupts, she distributes it to the eager family. Father likes to eat popcorn with sugar and cream, just as the Prophet Joseph Smith did.
It is a joyous moment, not untypical of every wintry night on that southern Idaho homestead in the early 1920s. But there is one difference—this is Christmas Eve and this is a Latter-day Saint family. On this first Christmas Eve that I remember, my father, Noah Arrington, is telling stories about Christmas in the Tennessee hill country. My red- headed mother, Edna Corn Arrington, reared in a Methodist home in Oklahoma, sings Christmas songs, recites poems she learned in school, and tells stories about Jesus—His birth, His teaching in the synagogue, His Sermon on the Mount, His healing of the sick of mind and body.
My image of an Idaho Christmas remained with me as I grew up and then went to college. It came forcibly to mind when I served in the U.S. Army in North Africa and Italy during World War II. The Christmases of 1943, 1944, 1945 were all spent overseas, and the loneliness of soldier life induced feelings of nostalgia. I resolved, in my own family, to try to duplicate the warm Christmas experiences of the Arringtons in southern Idaho.
Later my wife and I accepted a position at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, and our three children—James, Carl, and Susan—were born and reared there.
Mormon Christmas Devotional
From the time our children were small, we held a family devotional on Christmas Eve. The program began with a family prayer, followed by Christmas songs; then each member of the family presented some part of the program. One read a Christmas story, another played the piano, a third might have recited a poem or put on a skit. I read the Christmas story from Luke and gave a sermonette; Mother reminded us of an episode from a past Christmas.
As the children grew older, their contributions became more creative. James, now an actor-playwright, liked to write and perform playlets; Carl, a writer for People magazine, told original stories with a Christmas theme; Susan, a homemaker and author, enjoyed playing original compositions on the piano. And so on. Being a historian, I recounted interesting Christmas experiences of early Latter-day Saints—such as Joseph Smith skating on the ice with his son Frederick, Brigham Young driving to the mill to get grain to distribute to widows, Wilford Woodruff devoting the entire day to shucking corn, and Heber J. Grant spending most of the day signing books to be sent out to bishops around the Church. We closed our devotional with family prayer.
When the little children were put to bed, the older ones then gathered together for our annual “family meeting.” I made the financial report of the family’s “condition of affairs.” How close were we toward paying off the mortgage? Have we made out a will—just in case? Is there any heavy debt hanging over us? How is our job and what are the future prospects? Everyone was encouraged to ask questions.
Each person was then asked to list, on paper provided for the purpose, five resolutions for the forthcoming year. These were read out loud. Having committed ourselves, we suggested resolutions for each other. For example, there might have been a resolution that one of us take a shower more often, another should please show up for dinner on time. Other resolutions: grow a mustache, quit getting jittery over winter driving, quit snoring, stop going out with “that creep.” Sometimes this was done in good humor, as for instance the year my little girl resolved that I should take her, and her alone, out to dinner once a month. I managed to do it nine times during the year that followed, and was asked to do the same thing the next year by every other member of the family.
We reversed the custom of making resolutions for each other one year and decided to write down something nice about each of those present. After these were read, with many nods of approval, the slips were given to the person for whom they were written. Thus, I learned that my family didn’t regard me as a penny pincher, appreciated that I was always in a good mood, and liked my taste for women (their mother).
One year we made predictions for the coming year, not only events nationally and internationally, but what would happen in the family. Susan went out on a limb to predict a major earthquake in Chile. As we read these over the next year, we were astounded that there had, indeed, been an earthquake in Chile that had killed two thousand people. She became our prophetess. As to family predictions, my son- in-law, whose home is in a mountainous area having frequent visits from deer and elk looking for winter fodder, was told that he would suffer asphyxiation from elk breath. Another predicted she would have a baby in August, a way of announcing to us her pregnancy. Still another predicted they would be forced to commit their parakeet to the state mental hospital.
One year the chairman (we rotate each year) asked each person to bring a favorite poem to read or recite. One read Wordsworth’s “Lines Written in Early Spring”; another, “If” by Rudyard Kipling; a third, “Choose Something Like a Star” from Robert Frost; a fourth, Kasantzakis’s rendition of “The Odyssey”; a fifth, Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”; a sixth, a Shakespearean sonnet; and another, Robert Frost’s “One Step Backward Taken.”
The next year we were requested to bring a favorite record to play. The amazing variety showed the differences in individual tastes that ranged from Beethoven to the Beach Boys, from Maria Callas to Madonna.
The historian in me knew that if I kept a proper file, some personal information would be valuable to those writing personal and family histories in the future. So there were always some “fun” questions and some “thought” and self-revelatory questions that each had to answer on paper, date and sign, and, after reading to the group, turn over to me for the family archives. The following are examples of questions:
Question: What are some things you most enjoy? Answers: bubbling brooks, snow- covered mountains, birds in the wild, people who make sacrifices for others, “La Boheme,” the sound of the organ in our chapel, mother’s pies.
Question: If you could turn into an animal, which would you most enjoy being? Answers: a sleek cat that stubbornly retains her independence, a tiger that escapes from his cage and livens up a city street, a horse that carries on his back a whole neighborhood of children on Saturday afternoon, a hen that proudly cackles after it has laid an egg, a kangaroo because it can jump away from any difficulty.
Question: What do you consider the best personality or character traits a person can have?Answers: sensitivity to others’ needs, being able to make people feel good, teachability, having a sense of humor, being insightful without being pompous.
Question: What living person do you most admire, family members excepted, and why? Some responses over the years: David O. McKay, Spencer W. Kimball, John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, Margaret Thatcher, Belle Spafford, Lowell Bennion.
Question: What was the most terrifying experience you ever had? One told of a ride in a jeep over rough country terrain; another told of being introduced to an audience and not being able to speak; one told of rappelling up a mountain and walking over the edge of a cliff; another told of a dream in which he was sitting on a hill and his parents walked away and left him; another told of walking down a ghetto street with two suitcases, fearful every minute that he would be mugged. A grandmother told of the time her mother told her that the buzzards would get her if she didn’t wear a hat. Once she went outside and forgot to wear her hat. When she saw buzzards circling overhead, she became so terrified that she couldn’t even run back into the house. She just sat down and screamed.
Other questions: Assuming you are converted to the gospel of, what was the single most important experience or idea that converted you? What, if anything, has been an obstacle to your complete and continuous conversion? What was the most spiritual experience you ever had? What book, aside from the Bible and Book of Mormon, has influenced you most?
As each person read his/her answer to the question of the evening, there was always lively discussion and the sharing of thoughts. We felt a very intimate family spirit. And, because it was Christmas Eve, the spirit of Christ came into our midst. It was like sitting around the open oven door.
When members of the household were on LDS missions, they were asked to prepare something to be read at the meeting. If there was an illness, there was always a family prayer offered in behalf of the afflicted.
With such Christmas Eve festivities, our family has been able to keep alive a tradition of closeness and mutual understanding that existed on a lonely Idaho homestead many years ago. With grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the tradition is the highlight of the Christmas season. And this particular grandpa, like his father, continues to eat his popcorn with sugar and cream.