Childhood memories are for me the most vivid and the emotions from those times most easily recovered. Just a few weeks ago, I walked through heavy snow that reached above the tops of my shoes to stand next to a fence that now surrounds the yard of the house in which I lived as a boy.
President Henry B. Eyring, with his family, recently visited his childhood home in Princeton, New Jersey.
My daughter and her husband stood at my side. We had driven through the storm from their apartment in New York City to the town of Princeton, New Jersey. Our purpose was to recover and create memories. Since she was a little girl she had heard my stories of that house and the happiness I had felt living there with my mother, father, older brother, and younger brother.
I noticed in the snow what appeared to be green leaves of a bush next to the house. As a little boy, I had given my mother a hydrangea plant for her birthday. That was the spot where she and I had planted it, next to a downspout, so that it would be watered in the summer rains. Its blue flowers had pleased my mother so much that she mentioned to me her feeling of loss to leave it behind when years later we sold the house and moved away to go to the west. We had been gone 64 years, so those green leaves in the snow were only a trigger of a happy memory.
Because on that winter day we didn’t want to bother the people who lived in the house, we stood looking at the darkened windows of the first floor as the snow fell softly. I realized that the window before us was in the porch next to the living room. I couldn't see into the darkened rooms, but that only made the memories flood back in full color.
Perhaps because of the falling snow, I could see in my mind the rooms as they were in the Christmas of 1941. I could see the decorated Christmas tree in the middle of the living room. Then came the memory of my mother patiently smiling as she repaired our efforts to hang tinsel from the branches of the pine tree. That brought back my feelings of her loving kindness.
In my memory I could see the rest of the room. If there had been lights in the darkened house, I could have seen the fireplace across from the tree where our stockings were hung on the mantel. In the days of the 1930s an apple in the stocking seemed to us a bounteous gift on Christmas morning. We knew that unemployed fathers were selling apples on chilly city streets to buy food for their children in those depression years. I still can feel blessed when I remember those crisp red delicious apples and our warm fireplace in that room.
Then, another picture came back to me as I stood in the snow. In those rooms now darkened I remembered a Sunday morning. My mother was playing the piano for the dozen Latter-day Saints who gathered there from miles around to worship with the Princeton Branch. Among the hymns of the Restoration they surely must have sung that day were the words of a child’s prayer: “And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.”
Then, the scene for me changed. Memories flooded back. Sometime later that Sabbath day, we gathered around a radio at the end of the living room. Someone must have told my parents to listen. I still remember looking at the lighted dial on the front of the round-topped radio as we heard a man's voice.
The newscaster described bombs, fires, and sinking ships in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. I had known that war was raging for others far away for years. Now it had come to us. I heard alarm in the man's voice. Yet as I watched my parents, I could see that they were calm. They seemed to be at peace. A feeling of peace flooded over me.
That feeling persisted in the days before Christmas, on Christmas Day itself, and in the Christmases that followed. I now know what a miracle that Christmas memory of peace was, especially for my mother.
As a young girl she had grown up with a beloved cousin. His name was Mervyn Bennion. He was the captain of a ship anchored in Pearl Harbor on the Sunday of December 7. On December 6, the night before, he had been with his wife at a pleasant social with the Latter-day Saints in Honolulu. Their hosts were the stake president and his wife, who was a relative of Sister Bennion. They invited the Bennions to stay for the night. Brother Bennion thanked them but said that he felt his place was to be on his ship.
The following morning, Sunday, December 7, Mervyn Bennion was in his cabin getting dressed for a trip ashore to meet his wife for Sunday School when a sailor dashed in to report an air attack. Captain Bennion gave the command: “To Your Battle Stations!” He ran to his place of command on the flag bridge.
It was nearly Christmas Day when my mother learned of the heroic death of the cousin she so much loved. For hours after he was mortally wounded he resisted the efforts of his men to take him to safety.
As well as I can recall, when my mother learned of Mervyn’s death she shed no tears, just as she showed no fear as she heard the radio report of the battle that took his life and might take the life of others she loved. Faith in the Lord drove out fear. Faith in His Atonement brought her the peace that passes understanding.
Time and many experiences have made that memory of the 1941 Christmas season more precious and clear. I am not even sure that we received the Church News in New Jersey in that far-away time. But the First Presidency of the Church had published a Christmas greeting in January of 1941 that I didn’t read until after that wonderful day with my daughter standing in the snow outside the home of my childhood in 2011.
As you would expect from prophets, seers, and revelators, they wrote foreseeing the Christmas Day at the end of 1941 and all the Christmases that would follow until the Savior comes again to bring perfect peace:
“We send to the Saints in all the earth our greetings and blessings. …
“We invoke upon all war-ridden countries the spirit of love, forbearance and forgiveness.”
And then they spoke for the Savior:
“We pray the Lord to heal all those who are stricken with disease and not appointed unto death. May He soften the pain of the wounded and bring to them health and strength.
"We ask Him to bless all those who are bereft—the lonely orphan, the sorrowing widow, the heart-wrung mother" ("Greeting from the First Presidency," Improvement Era, Jan. 1941).
I realize now that the prayer of the First Presidency was answered for my mother and all those who are bereft by the loss of those they love. One of those who signed that letter was J. Reuben Clark, the First Counselor in the First Presidency. His daughter was the wife of Mervyn Bennion and became a widow on December 7.
President Clark was blessed by the prayer for peace as was my mother in the tragedy of war and those tested by the tribulations that followed. All have been blessed with the testimony that the First Presidency bore in their Christmas message.
They pleaded for this blessing: "May there come to every man that walks the earth the testimony of the Savior that came to Martha:
"I am the 'resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live' (John 11:25).”
My mother showed me in that Christmas season long ago and in the years that followed that she knew what Martha knew and so felt peace. That was and is the experience promised in the last days, "When peace will clothe the world as with a mantle" (Improvement Era, Jan. 1941).
As I walked through the snow with my daughter and her husband, I felt warmth coming from the Christmas memory we had found together (Church News, Dec. 22, 2011).
One year, when I was perhaps four years old, I was in the room where we kept our Christmas tree. It was decorated with lovely, shining ornaments. Silver tinsel draped over the branches, catching the light of real wax candles that flickered all around me. Nearby was a window that looked out onto the street; its curtains shimmered in the light, adding a certain mystery and magic to the scene.
It was on that day that I made two eventful discoveries.
The first was that if I held a lit wax candle behind the curtains, the light sparkled beautifully through the delicate fabric, transforming it into something sublime and mesmerizing.
The second thing I discovered was that curtains are flammable. As you might guess, the flame from the candle caught the fabric of the drapes and spread quickly, threatening the walls and ceiling of our home.
I screamed in fright. My parents ran in from the other room and quickly pulled down the drapes and stamped out the fire, preventing what could have been a terrible tragedy.
Once the danger was over, the charred remains of our once-beautiful window trimmings littered the floor; the now-bare window loomed behind me, cold and condemning; and I stood timidly in front of my mother and father without explanation or excuse.
I knew, with all the certainty of a four-year-old boy, that I had ruined Christmas!
Christmas and Perfection
Nearly seven decades have passed since that fateful day. And as a result of my one and only brush with arson, I have learned some important things.
First, don’t ever play with fire—an important message with literal and figurative implications for everyone, not only children.
Second, even though I nearly turned our apartment into a pile of ash and smoke, I did not ruin Christmas.
This fiery event was a very frightening experience, of course. I’m certain my mother and father were shocked and dismayed that I had done such a foolish thing. But in the end, it didn’t diminish the love we had in our family, nor did it destroy the wonder of the Christmas season.
Back then, German children often were told of a tradition that during Christmas well-behaved boys and girls would get gifts and sweets, while those who had misbehaved would be punished and get die Rute, a birch branch. By most standards, setting the living room curtains on fire would qualify as having misbehaved—so the timing of my terrible mistake could not have been worse. But I didn’t get die Rute. My memories of that and every other Christmas of my youth are dear and precious to me. Knowing that my family still loved me was a wonderful blessing and a great lesson (“Of Curtains, Contentment, and Christmas,” 2011 First Presidency Christmas Devotional).
It was about 25 years ago that I received the assignment to be chairman of the Missionary Executive Committee. Christmas was approaching. It had been the practice to have a devotional at the Missionary Training Center on Christmas morning with all the missionaries who were away from home; perhaps for most of them it was their first Christmas not being with family and friends.
We decided to take our turn and be the speakers at the devotional. Because it was Christmastime and Christmastime is a time of remembering families, we decided to take our children and grandchildren to the MTC with us. In those days, they didn't have the fine facilities they have today for the devotional settings. They set up chairs in the cafeteria with a small, raised platform for those that were speaking. We were very close to the missionaries, and there were certainly not the numbers that we have today.
The theme we tried to carry into the setting with the missionaries was family traditions you can carry with you in the field. We tried to emphasize those basic values they would be able to teach their investigators from their own personal experience of living in a Latter-day Saint home—the values of family prayer, family scripture study, family home evenings, counsel with fathers and mothers, and so on.
The messages seemed to be appropriate and well-received by the missionaries as family members participated. The musical numbers were furnished by the grandchildren. We had two at that time who were without their two front teeth. They sang "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth." That was all we needed to gain the warm, loving appreciation of the missionaries that particular morning.
We decided to stay and have Christmas dinner with all of the missionaries. We wanted to scatter ourselves around them, so each of us, including the grandchildren, sat at a different table with these great young men and women and the couples. Conversations, of course, centered around being away from home and remembering Christmas traditions. We learned of the lessons their parents had taught to prepare them for being full-time missionaries and declaring the message of the restored gospel to the peoples of the world. It was a wonderful experience, one we'll never forget.
Now, fast forward many years. We found ourselves a year ago with the same assignment, that of being chairman of the Missionary Executive Committee. Christmas was approaching. Because of the pleasant experience we'd had at the MTC those many years ago, we decided to repeat the performance.
This time, there were about twice the number of missionaries. The setting was very different, for now a beautiful auditorium had been constructed for holding devotionals. There before us were more than 2,000 wonderful full-time missionaries anxious to hear the messages we would bring to them at Christmastime. Because the setting was different and required a more formal approach, we selected the message from Matthew and Luke of the birth of the Savior.
The book of Matthew tells the remarkable account of how he wanted to be certain that everyone understood the fact that the Savior came to earth through the lineage of David the King just as the Old Testament prophets had predicted. Matthew goes on to tell the wonderful story of the Wise Men coming from the East to pay homage to the Christ child. They brought gifts that would greatly relieve the burden of having to flee for their safety into Egypt, as Herod the King was troubled about the fact that this King of the Jews was being born.
Each of the stories was preceded by having the scripture read by our two youngest grandchildren, J. P., who was 8 years old, and Megan, who was 10 years old.
J. P. read the verses from the book of Matthew. As the story unfolds, you wonder where Matthew went for his source of material. It is obvious that this is the story of Joseph the father, of his concern for the safety of his family, and also for supplying the family with the needs that they would require as they were to make this long journey to a distant land. Our message was on the blessed role of fathers.
Megan read the beautiful account contained in Luke, the story of the shepherds coming and finding the Savior's birth taking place in a manger and the travail of Mary in bearing a child under such trying conditions. Again, it is very evident that Luke must have listened to the wondrous story told by the mother of the Savior. We elaborated on the contribution mothers have made in our lives, of nourishing, of loving, of confidence, and of giving peace and security, as only a mother can do.
Again, we decided to follow the practice of the previous experience and have dinner with the full-time missionaries. We scattered ourselves among the tables and had a glorious time listening to their stories of home and what they were going to accomplish. We felt of the spirit they had now as full-time missionaries ready to go out in the world to declare the great message of the Restoration to the peoples of the world.
It was interesting to see the reaction of our grandchildren. Megan, in naming her 12 favorite events a short time later, had the Christmas MTC experience listed second only to her last special birthday. To me that was a lesson taught by our grandchildren to their grandparents.
The greatest joy we have is seeking out someone in need and sharing the joy of Christmas with them. I know you will not have the opportunity of being in the MTC, but all around you in the cities and villages, towns and townships where you have opportunity to dwell, there are those who are separated from the warmth and love of their families at Christmastime. We want to encourage you to reach out and extend the hand of fellowship to them and bring the warmth of Christmas into every soul you possibly are able to touch. You will find, just as Megan found, these are experiences you will never forget and you will have them on the top of your list of Christmases to remember because you visited others and brought joy to them in this glorious season of the year (Church News, Dec. 13, 2008).
Delivering Christmas Baskets
By Elder Dallin H. Oaks
As a 12-year-old deacon, I was pleased to accompany the bishop to deliver Christmas baskets to the widows of our ward in Vernal, Utah. The backseat of his car was filled with baskets of grapefruit and oranges. This was during World War II, when grapefruit and oranges were scarce, so they were quite a treat. He waited in the car while I took a basket to each door and said, “The bishop asked me to give you this Christmas basket from the ward.”
When we had delivered all the baskets but one, the bishop drove me home. There he handed me the last basket and said, “This is for your mother.” Before I could reply, he drove away. [Dallin Oaks was 7 when his father passed away in June of 1940.]
I stood in front of our house, snowflakes falling on my face, holding the basket and wondering. We had been delivering baskets to widows, but I had never thought of my mother as a widow. I had never heard her refer to herself as a widow. I wondered why anyone would think my mother was a widow.
That Christmas experience was formative in my understanding of the eternal family and in my appreciation for the faith of my mother. She always taught us that we had a father and she had a husband and that we would always be a family because of their temple marriage.
I always felt that my father was away because the Lord had called him to another work. I knew that other boys had dads who took them hunting and fishing, and it hurt me that he wasn't there. But those were war years, so I just thought of myself as a boy whose father was away in the war. He would be away for a very long time, but I knew that someday we would all be together again.
I am grateful for temple marriage and for the assurance that we can be together as an eternal family (Church News, Dec. 4, 2010).
One of my fondest memories as a small boy was the annual visit to our home on Butler Avenue in Salt Lake City of my Grandfather and Grandmother Ballard on Christmas morning. Melvin J. Ballard died when I was 10 years old. I knew that my Grandfather Ballard was a very important man in the Church, but I did not understand what it meant to be an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. To me he was Grandpa Ballard, and that was enough to make me always very eager for his visit to our home, and especially on Christmas morning.
I particularly remember one Christmas morning, just a year or two before Grandfather Ballard died. My father and mother gave to Grandfather and Grandmother a new set of luggage. This seemed so appropriate to me then, because it seemed like Grandfather was always traveling.
Reflecting back on those special Christmas mornings with Grandfather and Grandmother Ballard brings special fond memories since today I find myself as a member of the Council of the Twelve and I have a new and deeper appreciation for those special Christmas mornings with my grandparents. I hope now as my grandchildren come to visit me and I go to visit them, I can create memories for them that will live on long after I am gone ("Christmas Remembered," New Era, Dec. 1988).
Editors note: The following took place while Elder Scott was serving as president of the North Argentine Mission.
After numerous attempts, we were finally able to arrange a time with Elder Viselio Antonio Arce to return to his native tribe to open missionary work in that Indian area and quite fittingly, it was during the week of Christmas. We held our first meeting, in the city of Quiriza, approximately 30 miles southwest of Tupiza along the San Juan de Oro River about 20 miles into Bolivia on Sunday, December 25, 1966.
I took with me three fine missionaries; one was a zone leader, another a district leader, and the third a fine proselyting elder. We took with us the Jeep loaded with the necessary living equipment and proselyting materials.
After some difficulty crossing the border, we drove the rough and panoramic road that connects Villason, the border town, with Elder Arce’s birthplace, Quiriza, Bolivia. I confess that my heart was in my throat as we inched along that beautiful valley, rich and green on both sides from the irrigation by this lovely people and crowned with some of the most exquisite beauties of nature that I have yet seen in terms of beautiful mountain formations.
It was dusk, Christmas Eve, when we finally arrived at Quiriza. We were met by Brother Arce’s relatives, and they were overjoyed to see him again. Suddenly, about 20 people appeared on the scene and helped us carry our equipment to his father's home, where we spent the night. We had a planning session that night and then knelt in prayer, thanking our Father in Heaven for the privilege of being among that wonderful people and, of course, remembered the birth of our Savior.
Sunday morning, we held a very moving sacrament and testimony meeting, recalling the birth of the Savior and the wonderful missionary experience that lay before us. Brother Arce expressed deep gratitude for the privilege of returning to his people to bring them the truth of the restored gospel. We felt the Spirit of the Lord with us deeply.
The Indian villages were celebrating the holiday season in their own way with a ball game with a nearby village. Quiriza won, and two of their more valiant youth came to our hut to invite us to celebrate with them that night their victory. We accepted warmly. Brother Arce is a professional singer, and he performed for them. We sang in English, Christmas carols and some typical North American songs, and the Indians hesitatingly but willingly sang some of their native Quechua Indian songs.
Over the next couple of days we met with local tribal leaders, gaining their trust and their blessing for the young elders to stay in Quiriza, to learn the customs and language, and to be a source of information to allow us to bring help from the outside world and to aid them in their progress. It was also recorded that we would teach them about their past and their relationship with their Father in Heaven.
I was thrilled at the sincere, profound friendship that we had been able to form in such a brief stay with this people. As we prepared to leave, they would come forth, shake hands, put their arms around us in a typical Latin “abrazo,” and give us sincere thanks for our efforts to try and help them improve their circumstances.
That was one Christmas that I will always remember. It began the sharing of the message of the Restoration to a choice people, many of whom have become strong members of the Church, sealed in the temple (Church News, Nov. 29, 2008).
Christmas within You
By Elder Jeffrey R. Holland
I suppose everyone remembers his or her first Christmas away from home. The reason might be missions or military service, student life or employment assignments, but whatever the reason, that first Christmas “away” is a poignant memory for all of us. To those who have been away from home at Christmas, or who may be away from home this year, I dedicate my own such remembrance.
In my case it was my service as a missionary. For 19 years I had enjoyed Christmas surrounded by family and friends. I suppose in my youthful self-centeredness I had never considered spending it any other way. Then, as the Yule season approached in 1960, I found myself half a world away from all that. I had been in England less than three months when, on the first of December, I was summoned to the mission office to meet Elder Eldon Smith, newly arrived from Champion, Alberta, Canada—my first junior companion. We were sent to open up the very conservative city of Guildford in the county of Surrey, an area that had never had Latter-day Saint missionaries and, to our knowledge, had only one member somewhere within its boundaries. We were young, inexperienced, and a bit overwhelmed, but we were not fainthearted.
We registered with the police, arranged for lodgings, and, initially unable to locate our lone member of the Church, threw ourselves into the only thing we knew to do—knock on doors. We knocked on doors in the morning, we knocked on doors mid-day, we knocked on doors in the afternoon, and we knocked on doors at night. We rode our bicycles through those streets in what must have been the rainiest British December in history—or so it seemed to us. We were wet in the morning, we were wet at mid-day, we were wet in the afternoon, and we were wet at night, but we kept knocking on doors. And we got in almost none of them.
So it went until Christmas Eve, when people were even less inclined to hear a couple of missionaries “from the colonies.” So weary but devoted, we retired to our one-room rental and had a Christmas devotional. We sang a Christmas hymn, then offered an invocation. We read from the scriptures and listened to a tape recording entitled “The True Story of Christmas.” Then we sang another hymn of the season, said a closing prayer, and went to bed. We were too tired to have visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads.
On Christmas morning we kept our morning study schedule then opened the two or three packages that had caught up with us due to our transfer. Then we went out to knock on doors. We knocked in the morning, we knocked at mid-day, we knocked in the afternoon, and we knocked at night. We didn't get in any of them.
For such an uneventful Christmas—clearly the least festive of any I had ever had before or since—it says something that those special days in December of 1960 remain in my heart (after 50 years!) as one of the sweetest Christmases I have ever had. I think that is because for the first time in my life I found myself understanding Christmas rather than just enjoying it. I think for the first time in any truly significant way I was getting the message of Christ's birth and life, His mission and His message, and His sacrifice trying to do something for others. I should have made that connection at an earlier age, but I hadn't, at least not strongly enough. But that Christmas in England—as a cold, wet, somewhat overwhelmed 19-year-old—I "got it." I can truly say that because of my mission, Christmas, like so many other aspects of the gospel, has meant more to me every year since that experience.
On this Christmas I send my love to every missionary, every man or woman in the military, every student, every employee or traveler who won't "be home for Christmas," as the carol says. Keep your faith. Look for the good in your situation. Do something kind for someone. You will find that in spite of external circumstances, Christmas—like the kingdom of God—is “within you” (“Christmas within You,” Ensign, Dec. 2012).
A True Kinship
By Elder D. Todd Christofferson
Christmas 1994 found my wife, Kathy, and me in Mexico City with our two youngest children, Ryan and Michael, ages 15 and 10.
We had arrived in August when I was assigned as a member of the Mexico South Area Presidency of the Church.
For Ryan and Michael especially, life was rather unsettled. I had been called to the First Quorum of the Seventy in April 1993, and our family moved from Charlotte, North Carolina, to the Salt Lake area that summer. With corporate mergers affecting my employment, we had moved each of the two previous years as well—from Tennessee to Virginia in 1991, and from Virginia to North Carolina in 1992.
Now after one year in Utah, we had moved again, this time out of the country. The two boys had been in five schools in five years and were now coping with a different culture and a new language.
Lacking snow and the traditional American trappings of Christmas, it did not seem like the holiday our boys knew. They were uncomplaining, but Kathy and I worried about the impact on them of one more adjustment among so many in their young lives.
As it happened, about two weeks before Christmas a friend in the United States sent us some money to buy Christmas gifts for a needy family that we might identify.
Our bishop and stake president in Mexico City were helpful in suggesting one in particular that they felt could use our help. They described the family members and their circumstances, and told us how to find them. Ryan and Michael helped us select gifts in a local store.
I remember that Christmas Eve as we made our visit. The family’s home was inaccessible by car since the street, such as it was, that ran by the house was full of deep ruts, potholes, rocks, and mud.
We parked as close as we could and made our way carefully there on foot with our gifts. The house consisted of a bare concrete kitchen/dining area and bedroom and a second bedroom on the top. The spaces were very small and, as I recall, the stair to the upper bedroom was simply a wooden ladder.
The family—father, mother, and four children—had been building their house as circumstances permitted and hoped to add to it in the future.
They were humble and happy and received us with great warmth. From what little they had, they gave us something to drink and thanked us repeatedly and profusely for the presents we had brought.
From what we could see, there was very little if anything in the way of Christmas gifts for members of this family beyond what we had just delivered.
Our sons could not understand much of the Spanish conversation, but the gratitude of this family in their meager circumstances was clear, and we all felt an instant kinship.
As we bade good-bye and walked away, Michael commented, “Now it feels like Christmas.” I had to agree. I realized once again that love and the spirit of giving, especially to those in need, is the essence of Christmas—the essence of the Savior’s ministry whose birth we celebrate. That love and service transcend culture, place, time—and even weather—making any Christmas, anywhere, a true Christmas (Church News, Dec. 19, 2009).
It has been more than 50 years, but I vividly remember Christmas morning 1959. With childish anticipation, I hoped desperately for a new bicycle. My older brother and sister and I shared the same bicycle, a 24-inch (61 cm) antique we had each used to learn to ride. It had long been less than stylish, and I had appealed to my parents for a new bicycle. Looking back, I am a little embarrassed that I did not have more sensitivity to the cost of such a present to a family with limited income.
Christmas morning came, and I leaped up the stairs from our basement bedroom. Running into the living room, I looked in vain for a bicycle. My heart dropped as I noticed a small present under my stocking, and I tried to control my disappointment.
As we sat as a family in the living room, my father asked me to get a knife from the adjoining kitchen so we could open a box holding a present for my brother. I walked into the small kitchen and fumbled for the light switch to find my way. As the light illuminated the room, my excitement soared. Right before me stood a beautiful black 26-inch (66 cm) bicycle! For many years I rode that bicycle, took care of it, watched over it, and befriended it—a gift long appreciated and treasured.
Just three months before that Christmas, I had been given another gift far more important and consequential than a bicycle. I had been baptized and given the gift of the Holy Ghost. … This gift of the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost is available only to those who have been baptized and confirmed members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Holy Ghost can influence at times all seekers of truth, but the gift of the Holy Ghost is reserved in its fulness for those who have taken upon themselves the covenants of the restored gospel. This gift is real (“A Gift Worthy of Added Care,” Liahona, Dec. 2010).