In Search of the Christmas SpiritBy President Thomas S. Monson then, Second Counselor in the First Presidency Ensign – December, 1987
Temple Square in Salt Lake City is known throughout the world. It is particularly attractive at Christmastime, with its thousands of twinkling lights, traditional nativity scene, carolers singing those songs so dear to us all, and, of course, the lighted statue of the Christus, which seems to say to the world, “The spirit of Christmas is indeed the Christ spirit.”
As I make the long-awaited family trek to Temple Square each year to observe its Christmas adornment and to renew more vividly the meaning of this special season, my thoughts inevitably turn back to Christmases of long ago, and there courses through my memory a cherished experience.
As a very young elder, I was asked to join the president of my quorum in a visit to the old Primary Children’s Hospital, situated then on North Temple Street in Salt Lake City, to provide blessings for the sick children who desired to receive them. As we entered the large front door, we noted the Christmas tree with its bright and friendly lights. Carefully wrapped packages were spread beneath its outstretched limbs. Then my heart was penetrated and my spirit subdued as I read a specially prepared message that had been framed and placed on the wall:
We walked through the long corridors in silence. It was a hallowed scene. Tiny boys and girls—some with a cast upon an arm or upon a leg, others too ill to stand or sit—stared with looks of appreciation. We walked toward the bedside of a small boy, who greeted us with the question, “What are your names?” He then asked, “Will you give me a blessing?” The blessing was provided, and, as we turned to leave his bedside, he whispered a reverent “Thank you.” We walked a few more steps and then heard his feeble call, “Brother Monson.” We turned and heard him say, “Merry Christmas to you,” and a bright smile flashed across his countenance. That little one had the Christmas spirit. It was contagious. We walked from the hospital more appreciative of our priesthood callings, more grateful for our blessings. We had received the Christmas spirit.
How different was this boy when compared with seven-year-old Michael and his Christmas experience. The newspaper heading read “Christmas Spirit Comes to Michael,” then continued: “For five minutes on Saturday morning, Michael lived in a fantasy world that seven-year-olds dream about. He spent the five most exciting minutes of his life in a toy department hauling away every item he could put into, onto, around, and through a grocery cart. And it was all for free.
“That dream-come-true was his prize for winning a contest which sought the number of lights on Salt Lake City’s community Christmas tree. His guess was 9,624—one shy of the 9,625 lights on the 65-foot tree which stands on Main Street. Bespectacled, dressed in tennis shoes so he wouldn’t slip, and with his two front teeth missing, Michael took the controls of a giant grocery cart he barely could see over at exactly 11:00 A.M.
“Five minutes later … his toy list included a bicycle, two road raceway sets, a tommy gun, camping set, western rifle, a long toy snake, a dart set, an astro track space toy, and countless small cars.
“Remaining amazingly calm throughout the five minutes, Michael attracted a large crowd of shoppers who moved aside as he pushed his cart through the aisles.”
As I read the account, the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson seemed to acquire a new depth of meaning: “Rings and jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only gift is a portion of thyself.” (Essays: The Poet.)
The true Christmas spirit is never found in a surfeit of things. It is less obvious in arrival and more lasting in impact.
An unknown author wrote:
This is the spirit each true Christian seeks. This is the spirit I pray each may find. This is the Christ spirit. No quest is so universal, no undertaking so richly rewarding, no effort so ennobling, no purpose so divine. The Christmas season seems to prompt anew that yearning, that seeking to emulate the Savior of the world.
This search for Jesus is not new. In his touching and tender farewell to the Gentiles, Moroni emphasized the importance of this search: “And now I, Moroni, bid farewell. … I would commend you to seek this Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written.” (Ether 12:38, 41.) For generations, enlightened mankind anxiously sought the fulfillment of prophecies uttered by righteous men inspired of God. For did not Isaiah declare: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isa. 7:14.) And again, “For unto us a child is born … and his name shall be called … The Prince of Peace.” (Isa. 9:6.)
On the American continent, God’s prophet declared, “The time cometh, and is not far distant, that with power, the Lord Omnipotent … shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay. … He shall suffer temptations, and pain. … And he shall be called Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mosiah 3:5, 7–8.)
Then came that night of nights when the angel of the Lord came upon shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock, and pronounced, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11.)
Did these shepherds, personally invited to undertake a search for the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, concern themselves with the security of their possessions? Did they procrastinate their search for Christ? The record affirms that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem. … And they came with haste.” (Luke 2:15–16; italics added.)
Wise men journeyed from the East to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. … When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when … they saw the young child with Mary his mother, [they] fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.” (Matt. 2:2, 10–11.)
With the birth of the babe in Bethlehem, there emerged a great endowment—a power stronger than weapons, a wealth more lasting than the coins of Caesar. This child was to become the King of kings and Lord of lords, the promised Messiah—Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Born in a stable, cradled in a manger, He came forth from heaven to live on earth as mortal man and to establish the kingdom of God. During His earthly ministry, He taught men the higher law. His glorious gospel reshaped the thinking of the world. He blessed the sick. He caused the lame to walk, the blind to see, the deaf to hear. He even raised the dead to life. To us He has said, “Come, follow me.”
As we seek Christ, as we find Him, as we follow Him, we shall have the Christmas spirit, not for one fleeting day each year, but as a companion always. We shall learn to forget ourselves. We shall turn our thoughts to the greater benefit of others. This noble transition is exemplified by an entry dated 24 December 1847, in the pioneer diary of Mrs. Rebecca Riter. She describes that first Christmas in the valley of the Great Salt Lake: “The winter was cold. Christmas came and the children were hungry. I had brought a peck of wheat across the plains and hid it under a pile of wood. I thought I would cook a handful for the baby. Then I thought how we would need wheat for seed in the spring, so I left it alone.”
We are prone to say, “Oh, those were difficult times, times of stress and trial,” and they were. But I would also reply, “These times in which we live are also difficult times in their own way.” There is no shortage of opportunities to forget self and think of others. Such opportunities, however limitless they may be, are also perishable. There are hearts to gladden. There are kind words to say. There are gifts to be given. There are deeds to be done. There are souls to be saved.
(Deseret Sunday School Songs, no. 197.)
If we remember, “When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17), we will not find ourselves in the unenviable position of Jacob Marley’s ghost. When he spoke to Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ immortal A Christmas Carol, he spoke sadly of opportunities lost. Said he, “Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness! Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”
Marley added: “Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!” (In The Best Short Stories of Charles Dickens, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947, p. 435.)
We can learn a treasured lesson from the pen of Dickens and from the example of Christ. As we lift our eyes heavenward and then remember to look outward into the lives of others, as we remember that it is more blessed to give than to receive, we, during this Christmas season, will come to see a bright, particular star that will guide us to our precious opportunity.
Such was the experience of a Sunday School class some years ago when a wise teacher placed aside the manual one Sunday morning as Christmas approached. With her class members listening in, she telephoned me. I was serving then as the bishop of a large ward situated in the central part of Salt Lake City. The teacher inquired, “Are there any poor in your ward—people who need a sub for Santa?” She then described her own neighborhood as one of affluence and mentioned that she wanted her class to remember this particular Christmas. I responded that our members had the necessities of life but mentioned a family that would welcome a special experience—one that would also greatly benefit her young class members.
The family I had in mind had recently emigrated from war-torn Germany and had rented a humble, older home in our area. The children were new to America, and, while they were learning to speak our language, they were shy and reluctant to mingle with others. Their personal possessions were few; they had lost so much during the war.
In a private telephone conversation with the teacher, I suggested an appropriate evening when her class could accompany her to our ward meetinghouse and together we would journey to the home where the Mueller family lived. Again the teacher stated that she wanted her choice class to remember the true meaning of Christmas. I responded, “Could I suggest, then, that each child bring with him or her a gift that has a special meaning to the individual; a gift the person treasures and would rather keep for himself.”
Just four days before Christmas, the class journeyed to our ward. Several adults brought them in large, expensive automobiles. Such an array of wealth had never before graced the parking area. We then walked to the Mueller home, singing carols along the way. The laughter of the children and the hurried pace of their steps reflected the anticipation of Christmas.
It was at the Mueller home, however, that the frills of Christmas became the spirit of Christmas. I watched as one girl looked into the eyes of one of the Mueller children, a girl about her age, then tenderly handed her a beautiful doll she had received on her own birthday, a gift she herself loved. She anxiously told her newly found friend how to dress the doll and hold it ever so tenderly in cradled arms. I observed a normally rowdy boy take from his left hand his genuine leather baseball glove, which bore the replica signature of Joe DiMaggio, and place the glove on the left hand of a German-speaking boy who had never seen, far less worn, a baseball glove. He then explained how to catch the baseball in the special pocket of the glove, which he had hand prepared hour after hour with a particular oil. Such was the experience of each child with each gift.
As we left the Mueller home and walked back to the meetinghouse, not a word was spoken. One could hear the crunch of the newly fallen snow as young feet, guided by happy hearts, made the two-block journey. We entered the building, there to have donuts and apple cider. In the blessing that was asked upon the food, a beautiful girl, her voice choked with emotion, described the feelings of all as she prayed, “Heavenly Father, we thank Thee for the best Christmas we have ever had.” That night, as children who had found the real spirit of Christmas filled the automobiles, left the parking lot, and disappeared into the darkness, I recalled the meaningful words from the hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem”:
(Hymns, 1985, no. 208.)
And so He had. The quest for the Christmas spirit had been rewarded.