Do Mormons Have a ‘Holiday Problem’?

Mormons holiday problem title graphic

Apparently, around July 24th, there was a fair amount of hullaballoo on Twitter about Pioneer Day, with several folks expressing open hostility towards the July 24 observation of the Mormon pioneers entering the Salt Lake Valley.

I missed most of this momentous debate because, well, I have a job. But hearing even distant rumblings reminded me of how weird we Mormons can be about holidays.

I’ve never been a big celebrant of Pioneer Day. I usually forget about it entirely until I notice that I’m singing songs in Sacrament meeting about Utah on a hot Texas morning. It isn’t that I bear the holiday any ill will. I’ve just never gotten to the point of adopting the pioneer heritage as my own. Although the pioneer tradition is important to the Church generally, and it makes sense that we honor those that came west by wagon or handcart, those of us who don’t have family pioneer stories to tell in Sacrament do have a hard time relating. Honestly, my ancestors sailed to New York and then crossed the plains in a Buick.

old Buick adI don’t understand hostility toward the holiday, however. I think that handcarts and homespun bonnets are harmless for the most part, so long as they don’t work their way into our day-to-day lives (I’m looking at YOU, FLDSers). But I do share the bafflement of people who wonder at the emphasis of this holiday when Mormons tend to downplay most others.

My mom used to say that Easter and Christmas were the two days that the rest of the Christian world goes to church, and the Mormons stay home. There is a lot of truth to that. Easter not infrequently falls on General Conference weekend, so while other Christians are putting on their fresh and flowery Easter clothes, Mormons are watching conference in their jammies, occasionally stirring from the couch for nachos.

family watching general conference

If Christmas falls on a day other than Sunday, we have no special services on that day. If it does fall on a Sunday, we typically cancel all of our services except for Sacrament meeting, and we often combine that with other wards (at least in my neck of the woods) to keep the chapel occupied for as little time as possible.   Those presents aren’t going to open themselves.

And just for the record, I have experienced the cognitive dissonance of sitting through a Christmas talk on tithing. No joke. Tithing.

I’m not saying that we don’t recognize these holidays, but we certainly seem to downplay them as compared to other Christians. And I’m not sure that is a good thing.

People like and respond to ceremony, and it can be incredibly enriching to our spirits. The observances of the Easter season, with Ash Wednesday, Lent, Good Friday and Easter, create a framework for a month-long season of devotion and discipleship. Christmas services can help offset the commercial observation of the season. Without such traditional observances, it is easier to lose the spiritual power of the season. It also makes it harder to explain to others how we are a Christ-centered church.

Monson Christmas memeI doubt that much will ever be done to change this. Our church has a longstanding tradition of understated devotion. It’s built right into our language. Where other Christians have services, we have meetings. They have cathedrals, we have buildings or meetinghouses. (Yes, we have temples, but that isn’t part of our everyday worship). They have youth ministers, we have youth leaders. It’s not that we’re boring. We’re just very…businesslike. It’s hard to expect that to change quickly or easily.

But let’s not get upset when people look askance at us as our nursery kids march around the building in cardboard oxcarts chanting like Gregorian monks: “Pioneer children sang as they walked, and walked, and walked AND waaaaaalked.”

California Native. Texas lawyer. Long-time Mormon. Zen master wannabe. Confident that Mormonism is about more than casseroles and plodding music, and insisting that the Gospel isn't as hard as some people make it.