NAUVOO, Illinois - The Nauvoo Pageant is a great way to experience Nauvoo. But Looking to Nauvoo Christmas of the past can strengthen one’s testimony today of the Savior and of the prophet Joseph Smith.
Drawing from the History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and journals of early Church members, employees at the Education in Zion Gallery at Brigham Young University dressed in 19th century costumes to host a family home evening for students and members of the community on Dec. 1. Listeners young and old gathered in the exhibit in the Joseph F. Smith building to hear of times past and join in song as they experienced their own Christmas in Nauvoo.
“I got involved with the family home evening three years ago when I joined the student staff at the Gallery,” said Reggie Voyce. “I am a part-time student and I work at the gallery part time. I love playing Eliza because of the wonderful spirit her journal entries bring to that time in Church history.”
The event, held twice a night for the first two Mondays in December, gave listeners an idea of what Christmas in Nauvoo was like in the early days of the Church. Actors playing Wilford Woodruff and Eliza R. Snow — both leaders in the early Church and residents in the Nauvoo settlement — greeted guests and shared personal examples of what it was like to live in Nauvoo at Christmas time.
BYU students Sebastian Romero and Reggie Voyce acted as Wilford Woodruff and Eliza R. Snow, sharing personal accounts taken from their journals. Chris Kinghorn acted as narrator and tied their written words together, sharing how the experiences of those who lived before can strengthen testimony of the Savior and Joseph Smith’s role as a prophet.
Looking to the actor portraying Wilford Woodruff, the narrator asked “What is Christmastime like for you in Nauvoo?” The actor responded by saying he — along with many members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — didn’t spend every Christmas at home.
Drawing from the words of President Woodruff found in his diary, Brother Romero told of Christmas in 1840, when President Woodruff and many of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles were away from their families.
“We took Christmas dinner with Brother Morgan,” he said. “He had his family at home with him. The dinner consisted of baked mutton, goose, rabbit pies, minced pies and plum pudding and bread and cheese. ... We spent the evening at Mr. Albums in conversing about the things of God. We returned home. After sitting an hour with the family we retired to rest.”
That was the first Christmas President Woodruff spent in England. Brother Romero continued from the future prophet’s journal:
“Where shall I be next Christmas day the Lord only knows, and what a year to come will bring forth we cannot tell, but may the Lord preserve my life, my wife and child in peace I pray and enable all the Saints to be established in righteousness. Christmas is considered the greatest of all days in England.”
Sister Voyce shared the words of Eliza, telling of her experiences and speaking about Joseph Smith. She said that for many years Joseph had been busy doing work for the Church or spending the holiday season in jail, but by the time the Saints had settled in Nauvoo, he consistently spent the holidays with his loved ones.
“Perhaps no Christmas was more pleasant in the Prophet’s lifetime than his last earthly celebration on December 25, 1843, in Nauvoo,” Sister Voyce said. “All the ingredients of what might be regarded as a traditional observance of the day were present. Joseph and Emma had just occupied the hospitable quarters of the newly constructed mansion house.”
Drawing from the words of the Prophet Joseph Smith, she shared his experience after he was awakened by the sound of music. Carolers had come by his home and, while singing “Mortals, awake! With angels join,” Joseph recorded that it “caused a thrill of pleasure to run through my soul.”
“I felt to thank my Heavenly Father for their visit, and blessed them in the name of the Lord,” Brother Romero narrated. The carolers moved on to his brother Hyrum’s home, where he described them as “a cohort of angels” that had come to visit him.
Later that same day Joseph hosted a large party at his home, where they spent the evening in music and dancing “in a most friendly manner.” It was during those festivities that a man with long hair walked in. After looking the man in the face Joseph recognized him as Orrin Porter Rockwell, who had been imprisoned for nearly a year.
“This rare, yet unexpected gift closed the activities of a beautiful Christmas Day,” Sister Voyce said. “The Prophet must have felt all the warmth engendered by a lasting friendship between [him and Porter], which had spanned the years from the earliest days of the Restoration in New York.”
That was Joseph’s last Christmas, for in a short six months he and his brother Hyrum would be martyred at Carthage Jail.
“Yes, we all miss Brother Joseph dearly,” Brother Romero said in his narration. “It is probably similar to how the apostles felt after Christ left. But I testify that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that he fulfilled his duty to God.”
The Christmas seasons after Joseph’s death included times of struggle as well as rejoicing. In 1845, many Church members in Nauvoo were scurrying about to complete their temple endowments and sealings before they left to build Zion in the West under the direction of Brigham Young.
On that day, Brigham Young spent most of his day in the temple along with many of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Some 107 people received the ordinances of the temple that day, closing the doors at 10:20 p.m. Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball spent the night in the temple.
“From my mission experience to sleigh riding, from Joseph’s last Christmas with carolers and old friends; and even spending Christmas forgiving and finishing temple covenants, it is such an important time to celebrate our Savior,” said Brother Romero as Wilford Woodruff. “Let us honor him with joyful music, family and celebrations, but also with testimonies and furthering of the work of the Lord.”
Sister Voyce, a longtime convert to the Church, said after the program that one of the main lessons she hopes the audience came away with is how instructive the lives of the early Church members can be.
“The lessons of patience in adversity, forgiveness and love of one’s enemies while going abroad to teach the gospel are amazing to me,” she said. “These are the main lessons I hope our audience came away with as well. Enduring to the end is only possible through love of Christ, which teaches us to love all His children.”
Most important, the production focused on the testimonies the early Saints had of the Savior.
“Christmas has always been and will always be about Heavenly Father’s precious gift to us, the Savior of all who want to rejoin Him,” said Sister Voyce. She continued, “Merely confessing Christ is not enough. Enduring with joy as these early Saints did is imperative to inviting His Spirit to be with us always.”
Nauvoo Pageant Dates for the 2019 Nauvoo Pageant are not yet released.