I have been thinking about what makes Christmas such a great time in our lives. I am old enough to remember many Christmases. They have all been glorious. But I have learned that it isn’t just the presents that make them great.
The Happiest Christmas of My Childhood
When I was a young boy, our family was terribly poor. Father had no job because he was going through law school at the University of Utah. He had a wife and three young sons. Grandfather and Grandmother knew that we would have no Christmas if we did not come down to the farm in Millard County. So all of our family took the train from Salt Lake to Leamington, Utah. Where the money came for the tickets, I will never know.
Grandfather and Uncle Esdras met us at the railroad crossing in Leamington with a team of big horses to pull the open sleigh through the deep snow to Oak City. It was so cold that the huge horses had icy chin whiskers, and you could see their breath. I remember how old Jack Frost nipped my nose, and the extreme cold made it hard to breathe. Grandmother had heated some rocks and put them in the bottom of the sleigh to help keep us warm. We were wrapped and tucked into some heavy camp quilts with just our noses sticking out. Accompanied by the tinkle of bells on leather straps on the harnesses of the horses, we musically traveled from Leamington over the 10 miles to Oak City, where our beloved grandfather and grandmother lived. So many dear ones were there that we could hardly wait to arrive. When we got there it was warm and wonderful and exciting.
In the corner of the living room was the Christmas tree, a cedar cut from the hillside pasture. It was already partially decorated by Mother Nature with little berries that helped give it a strong smell. Our decorations were popcorn strings made by pushing a needle and thread through popcorn. The strings had to be handled carefully or they would break and strew popcorn all over the floor.
We also had paper chains to put on the tree, made by cutting up old Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs with the paper links pasted together with flour paste. The sticky flour paste got all over our hands, faces, and clothes. I wonder why they didn’t put sugar in it! With cream it could also have been served for mush.
I do not remember any presents under the tree. Under the tree were popcorn balls made with strong, homemade molasses. When we bit into the popcorn balls, it felt like they were biting back.
On Christmas Eve we all gathered around the woodstove, enjoying the warm comfort of the fire and the pleasant aroma of the burning cedar wood. One of the uncles gave the opening prayer. We sang carols and hymns. One of our aunts read of the birth of Jesus and of the “good tidings of great joy” (Luke 2:10). “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). Grandfather and Grandmother then told us how much they loved us.
The next day was Christmas, and we had a glorious dinner. But before we ate, we all got down on our knees for family prayer. I was so hungry. Grandfather prayed for the longest time. You see, he had much to pray for. He prayed for moisture because there was a drought in the land, and the crops had been meager. The fall grain had been planted in the dusty ground. What harvest there was could not be sold for much because of the low prices caused by the Great Depression. The taxes on the farm were delinquent because there was no money to pay them. He also prayed for our large family, his cattle and horses, pigs and chickens, turkeys—he prayed over everything.
During Grandfather’s long prayer, my youngest uncle became restless and gave me an irreverent pinch, hoping that I would shout to make things more exciting.
For dinner we had a huge tom turkey stuffed with delicious dressing. There was no celery in the dressing because we had only the ingredients that could be produced on the farm. But the dressing had plenty of bread, sage, sausage, and onions. There was an abundance of potatoes and gravy and pickles, beets, beans, and corn. Because Grandfather could trade wheat to the miller for flour, there was always fresh baked bread. To stretch the food, we were encouraged to take one bite of bread for every bite of other kinds of food. We had chokecherry jelly and ground-cherry jam. For dessert we had pumpkin and gooseberry pie. It was all delicious.
Giving and Receiving Presents
As I look back on that special Christmas over a lifetime, the most memorable part was that we did not think about presents. There may have been some handmade mittens or a scarf given, but I do not recall any presents. Presents are wonderful, but I found that they are not essential to our happiness. I could not have been happier. There were no presents that could be held and fondled and played with, but there were many wonderful gifts that could not be seen but could be felt.
There was the gift of boundless love. We knew God loved us. We all loved each other. We did not miss the presents because we had all these glorious gifts. It made me feel so wonderful and secure to belong and to be part of all that went on. We wanted nothing else. We did not miss the presents at all. I never remember a happier Christmas in my childhood.
We all enjoy giving and receiving presents. But there is a difference between presents and gifts. The true gifts may be part of ourselves—giving of the riches of the heart and mind—and therefore more enduring and of far greater worth than presents bought at the store.
Of course, among the greatest of gifts is the gift of love. When I was called to the holy apostleship, President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) gave me a kiss on the cheek. I felt his whiskers. It caused a flood of wonderful little boyhood memories of being held by strong arms and feeling Grandfather’s whiskers as he kissed me on the cheek.
Some, like Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, have a hard time loving anyone, even themselves, because of their selfishness. Love seeks to give rather than to get. Charity towards and compassion for others is a way to overcome too much self-love.
He whose birth we celebrate has told us that all of the law and the prophets is contained in loving God and our fellowmen. James called this “the royal law” (James 2:8). The Apostle Paul said, “To know the love of Christ … passeth knowledge” (Eph. 3:19). In the First Epistle of John we are told, “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God” (1 Jn. 4:7).
Anciently the three Wise Men came from afar to bring gifts to the baby Jesus. Would it not be marvelous this Christmas if we could personally give gifts to the Savior? I believe this is possible to do. Said Jesus:
“When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory. …
“Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
“For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
“Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
“Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
“When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
“Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
“And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:31, 34–40).
So as we help the sick and clothe the naked and attend to the stranger, we personally give gifts to our Savior.
Among these true gifts are some our family shared on that boyhood Christmas I told you about: the gift of peace, the gift of love, the gift of service, the gift of self, and the gift of faith.
All of us enjoy wonderful gifts from God which, if developed, can be enjoyed by others. At this Christmas season, so many of us have enjoyed the musical and literary gifts of Handel, Dickens, and many others. The sharing of these natural gifts blesses both the giver and the receiver.
This Christmas and every Christmas will be richer by sharing and enjoying gifts that cannot be held but only felt.
Many years ago I went to the hospital to give a blessing to a young man named Nick and his sister Michelle. Nick is a friend of mine and former home teaching companion, and his young life was threatened by a kidney disease. Nick had not been well for a long time. Nick’s older sister Michelle had offered to give him a precious gift to preserve his life: she offered one of her own kidneys.
The operation was successfully performed, but still in question was whether or not Nick’s body would accept this priceless gift from Michelle. You see, Michelle had given the gift not knowing if it would be accepted; fortunately it was. In like manner, our Heavenly Father has given us so many wonderful gifts not knowing if they would be accepted. He has offered us His peace, His comfort, His love. All we have to do to accept His gifts is to be obedient and follow Him.
There are so many problems facing us individually and collectively. Yet I have the simple faith that many, if not all, of them can be put into proper perspective by Paul’s sublime message to the Galatians: “Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
The message of this season that is applicable throughout the year lies not in the receiving of earthly presents and treasures but in the forsaking of selfishness and greed and in going forward, seeking and enjoying the gifts of the Spirit, which Paul said are “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law” (Gal. 5:22–23).
With gifts such as these, I am sure everyone could feel as I did that wonderful Christmas so long ago when we had no presents to hold and play with. I would not have wanted to trade places with any prince of the world with his room full of toys. The gifts of love, peace, service, self, and faith so generously given made me feel so fulfilled. It made me feel that I must be somebody special to be part of so much love. I wanted nothing besides more of these wonderful gifts that couldn’t be handled nor touched but only felt.
Two days before Christmas we also honor the birthday of the Prophet Joseph Smith, who is singular in importance in our faith (see D&C 135:3). To Joseph we owe the knowledge of the appearance of God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, the priesthood, and the keys of the Restoration in its fulness.
As one of the special witnesses of Jesus and of the gospel restored to earth by God working through the Prophet Joseph Smith, I testify that the greatest gift of this or any other Christmas is the Atonement of Jesus as the Redeemer, the Son of God. Paul said this was a “free gift” (Rom. 5:15). It is a gift we cannot handle or touch, but we can feel the immeasurable love of the Giver.
Through this gift we can all find the pathway to eternal life. My testimony of this is sure, real, and absolute, as is my sacred testimony of Him. I invoke the blessings of God upon us all at this special Christmastime.