Observing Christmas

By Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

The following is the text from Elder Dallin H. Oaks's Christmas address to the BYU Management Society, given December 9, 2015, at the Little America Hotel in Salt Lake City.

At this time of year we celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. His life was the greatest life ever lived.


Even in secular terms, His life has had greater impact on every part of this world and its history than any life ever lived.

No one who has ever lived has more monuments to His life and teaching than He. This, of course, includes the great cathedrals that dot the landscape in Western Europe, many of them requiring more than 100 years to construct, and, more recently, our own temples, more than 145 on every continent and in 49 nations of the world.

The greatest art and music of the Western world has been devoted to celebrating the birth and the life and the mission of Jesus Christ.

Kingdoms have been founded and overthrown to serve His purposes, as the leaders of that time supposed. Armies have marched and navies have put to sea and continents have been discovered and populated.

Philosophers and theologians have spent their lives studying His teachings. Among other impacts, those teachings have unquestionably fostered political systems that dignify and provide rights to the individual and have inspired charity, education, and culture.

Millions have given their lives, and, more importantly, millions have patterned their lives after the Lord God of Israel, Jehovah, Jesus Christ, our Savior. I believe that President Gordon B. Hinckley did not overstate the point when he wrote, “His matchless example [has] become the greatest power for goodness and peace in all the world.”[1]

Our Savior’s mission was to save us from death, to save us from sin, and to save us from ignorance. What did He teach us? And even more importantly, what have we learned? We live in peace and prosperity when we follow His teachings. In contrast, virtually every unhappiness and sorrow in the world is traceable to failures to follow His teachings.


Christmas is a time to celebrate the birth of the Son of God and also to remember His teachings.

What did Jesus teach the people of His day? And what did He not teach? Ponder this contrast. Perhaps it will have the impact upon you that it had on me when I first heard it about 50 years ago.

What did Jesus teach the people of His day? The people He taught were in slavery to Rome. Yet he did not teach them the military arts or activities they could use to free themselves from the yoke of Rome. He did not even teach them the principles of civil government. He said, “Render … unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).

Infant mortality was high in the society in which He lived and life expectancy was low because of a multitude of diseases. Did He teach them the principles of health? There was much hunger at that time. Did He teach them ways to improve agriculture or nutrition? The whole world needed His message, but He said He was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And what He taught them was how to live their personal lives.

He taught them to be meek and humble and to hunger and thirst after righteousness (see Matthew 5:5–6; 23:12).

He taught them to love their enemies and bless them that cursed them, do good to them that hated them, and pray for them that despitefully used them and persecuted them (see Matthew 5:44).

He taught them that “inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33), He taught. “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26).

He taught:

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:

“But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:

“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:19–21).

“Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

“Whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant” (Matthew 20:27).

“Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

“Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” (Matthew 5:11–12).

“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34).

Finally, He declared, “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Perhaps we can understand in a small measure the importance of these things Jesus taught by comparing them with the things He did not teach. Think how important it would have been for Him to have addressed the social issues of His day, such as questions of freedom and health and government. We have no record that He addressed any of those subjects. That was not His mission. Instead, He taught people how to perfect their personal lives. “Be ye therefore perfect,” He taught, “even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).


In this life we must choose between Jesus’s way and the world’s way. Of course we know that we must meet the requirements of the world in many ways, including the need to earn our daily bread and pursue the education and other activities that will allow us to do so. But we must never neglect our overriding priority on the things of eternity—the bread of life—that the Savior and His Church provide us. We must not forget our worshipping and witnessing of the Savior of all mankind.

For centuries, Christmas has been a celebration of Jesus Christ and the significance of His ministry. But in recent years it has become a secular holiday with observances that overshadow or replace Him and His ministry.

As I view our recent history—say the last century—religious observances of the birth and mission of the Savior have evolved from Christ-centered observances into a tremendous holiday of gift-giving. The focus on worldly gifts has gradually and now almost decisively overshadowed the religious aspects of the Christmas holiday. If you doubt this, compare the Christmases we see around us today with the Christmases we remember from our childhood or that of our parents.

President James E. Faust made this point vividly in this recollection:

“As I look back on that special Christmas, the most memorable part was that we did not think about presents. Presents are wonderful, but they are not essential to our happiness. I could not have been happier than I was then. While we had no presents to hold and fondle and play with, 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, and we all loved each other. It made us 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 of mind, and therefore more enduring and of far greater worth than presents brought at a store.”[2]

Consider these contrasting features of Christmas observances, past and present. Which is now dominant?

1.     Savior


Santa Claus

2.     Worshipping



3.     Attending religious services


Attending bowl games

4.     Christian Christmas music


“I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”

“Frosty the Snowman”

“Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”

“Jingle Bell Rock”

A major force in all of this has been the increasing secularism of society that has led to court rulings outlawing public religious symbolism, such as the well-loved manger scenes. Many public schools are fearful to allow their choirs to sing religious hymns at Christmastime. “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “O Holy Night,” and “Joy to the World” are certainly overtly Christian songs of worship and joy. As such, they are objectionable to those legal or administrative authorities who are sensitive to the increasing aggressiveness and litigiousness of secular forces in our society. In saying this I am not advocating an official establishment of Christianity in this nation, which is clearly forbidden. I favor respectful recognition of the increasingly diverse fundamental values of many of our citizens, but that should not prevent an open and tolerant acknowledgment of the religious traditions at the foundation of Western society.


I could make a whole talk about legal restraints on the public observance of Christmas, but prefer to turn to a subject within the personal control of each of us. I refer to private observances of Christmas and how they have been influenced by external legal forces and the associated media coverage that have tended to dominate our thinking and behavior.

Where are Christians today in their private observances of Christmas?

One prominent feature of private Christmas observances are the greetings sent by mail or electronics. The cards I remember from my youth all featured religious messages like manger scenes or wise men. They also had words honoring the babe of Bethlehem, God’s gift to the world, or the mission of the Savior whose birth we celebrate.

Today it is difficult to find a Christmas card that features a religious image or a religious message. To illustrate that point, I analyzed the Christmas cards I received at my office and home a few years ago. There were many, so this is not a small sample. Significantly, my sample was biased toward religious images and words by the fact that most of the cards were sent by fellow leaders or members of my faith.

I sorted the cards I received into three groups. In the first group I put the traditional cards—those with an overt mention of Christ and/or pictures evocative of the birth of the Savior. Only 24 percent of the cards I received were of this traditional character. In the second group were those cards whose pictures and visuals were not at all religious, but they did have the words “Merry Christmas” to identify the religious origin of the holiday. This was the largest group—47 percent. In the third group—comprising 29 percent of the cards I received—there was no mention of Christ or Christmas, and no religious visuals at all. These cards had words like “Season’s Greetings,” “Happy Holidays,” “Peace in the New Year,” or “Peace and Beauty of the Season.” A few were so daring as to refer to “Peace on Earth” or “Faith, Hope, and Love,” but none had any pictures suggestive of religion.

Similarly, the spoken greetings exchanged in public at this time of year used to be “Merry Christmas.” Today that is probably less common than “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays.”


We sometimes read about persons who have asked to have their names removed from membership in the Church. Some say that the Church is not providing for their needs—is not helping them with their daily problems or desires. This causes me to think about the teachings recorded in the sixth chapter of the book of John. There we read of Jesus expanding five loaves and two fishes to feed a multitude of about 5,000. At the end of the day, He sought to leave the multitude by taking a ship across the Sea of Galilee, but many boarded ships and followed Him. When they overtook Him, He challenged their motives. He said, “Ye seek me … because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled” (John 6:26). In other words, they sought Him to provide their immediate needs, not to receive the unique message only He could give them. Jesus taught:

“Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you. …

“… I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (John 6:27, 35).

Then the scriptures record, “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him” (John 6:66). Those who left Jesus were not willing to partake of the spiritual bread and water He gave them. Similarly, there are those who leave the Church of Jesus Christ because this Church, like Jesus’s teachings, concentrates on what will give life everlasting instead of what will provide their needs and desires today.

The gift that Christ gives is the greatest gift ever given, and it is available to each of us. That is the gift we should celebrate at this and every Christmas. Here I recall the words of our beloved Elder Neal A. Maxwell. In a Christmas message, he said:

“God’s gifts, unlike seasonal gifts, are eternal and unperishable, constituting a continuing Christmas which is never over! These infinite gifts are made possible by the ‘infinite atonement’ (2 Nephi 9:7; Alma 34:10–12). Without the ‘infinite atonement’ there would be no universal immortality, nor could there be given the greatest gift which even God can give—eternal life! (D&C 6:13; 14:7).

“Meanwhile, if we cannot distinguish the eternal things from the things of the day, we are to be pitied. The first Christmas in the Middle East was met with massive, uncomprehending indifference. In both fact and symbol there was no room at the inn. People were busy, just as in the days of Noah, and just as they will be prior to the Second Coming.”[3]

Latter-day Saints are uniquely qualified to celebrate the mission of Jesus Christ throughout the year. We have the gift of the Holy Ghost, whose mission is to testify of the Father and the Son (see 3 Nephi 16:6). For that reason, we have a duty to testify like the shepherds, who, “when they had seen [what the angels described], they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child” (Luke 2:17).

We know whom we seek and we know why. We are children of a Father in Heaven who declared, “This is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). And our Savior—the Jehovah of the Old Testament, the Lord God of Israel—is fundamental to that work.

A few years ago, President Monson spoke these words:

“As we undertake our personal search for Jesus, aided and guided by the principle of prayer, it is fundamental that we have a clear concept of him whom we seek. The shepherds of old sought Jesus the child. But we seek Jesus the Christ, our Older Brother, our Mediator with the Father, our Redeemer, the Author of our salvation; he who was in the beginning with the Father; he who took upon himself the sins of the world and so willingly died that we might forever live. This is the Jesus whom we seek.”[4]

As President Howard W. Hunter taught us in his humble way:

“The real Christmas comes to him who has taken Christ into his life as a moving, dynamic, vitalizing force. The real spirit of Christmas lies in the life and mission of the Master.”[5]

I pray that we will all emulate that life and celebrate that mission at this Christmastime, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


[1] Gordon B. Hinckley, The True Meaning of Christmas (1991), 1.

[2] James E. Faust, The Greatest Gift (1990), 3.

[3] Neal A. Maxwell, The Christmas Scene (1994), 4.

[4] Thomas S. Monson, “The Search for Jesus,” Ensign, Dec. 1990, 5.

[5] Howard W. Hunter, “The Real Christmas,” Ensign, Dec. 2005, 24.