“Christmas Gifts, Christmas Blessings,” Ensign, Dec. 1995, 2
“What did you get for Christmas?” This is the universal question among children for days following that most celebrated holiday of the year. A small girl might reply, “I received a doll, a new dress, and a fun game.” A boy might respond, “I received a pocketknife, a train, and a truck with lights.” Newly acquired possessions are displayed and admired as Christmas day dawns, then departs.
The gifts so acquired are fleeting. Dolls break, dresses wear out, and fun games become boring. Pocketknives are lost, trains do nothing but go in circles, and trucks are abandoned when the batteries that power them dim and die.
If we change but one word in our Christmas question, the outcome is vastly different. “What did you give for Christmas?” prompts stimulating thought and causes tender feelings to well up and memory’s fires to glow ever brighter.
Giving, not getting, brings to full bloom the Christmas spirit. Enemies are forgiven, friends remembered, and God obeyed. The spirit of Christmas illuminates the picture window of the soul, and we look out upon the world’s busy life and become more interested in people than things. To catch the real meaning of the spirit of Christmas, we need only drop the last syllable and it becomes the Spirit of Christ.
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb.
If I were a Wise Man
I would do my part,
Yet what can I give Him?
Give my heart.
(Christina Georgina Rossetti)
One ever remembers that Christmas day when giving replaced getting. In my life, this took place in my tenth year. As Christmas approached, I yearned as only a boy can yearn for an electric train. My desire was not to receive the economical and everywhere-to-be-found windup model train; rather, I wanted one that operated through the miracle of electricity. The times were those of economic depression; yet Mother and Dad, through some sacrifice I am sure, presented to me on Christmas morning a beautiful electric train.
For hours I operated the transformer, watching the engine first pull its cars forward, then push them backward around the track. Mother entered the living room and said to me that she had purchased a windup train for Mrs. Hansen’s son, Mark, who lived down the lane. I asked if I could see the train. The engine was short and blocky, not long and sleek like the expensive model I had received. However, I did take notice of an oil tanker car that was part of his inexpensive set. My train had no such car, and pangs of envy began to be felt. I put up such a fuss that Mother succumbed to my pleadings and handed me the oil tanker car. She said, “If you need it more than Mark, you take it.” I put it with my train set and felt pleased with the result.
Mother and I took the remaining cars and the engine down to Mark Hansen. The young boy was a year or two older than I. He had never anticipated such a gift and was thrilled beyond words. He wound the key in his engine, it not being electric like mine, and was overjoyed as the engine and two cars, plus a caboose, went around the track.
Then Mother wisely asked, “What do you think of Mark’s train, Tommy?”
I felt a keen sense of guilt and became very much aware of my selfishness. I said to Mother, “Wait just a moment. I’ll be right back.”
As swiftly as my legs could carry me, I ran home, picked up the oil tanker car plus an additional car from my train set, and ran back down the lane to the Hansen home, joyfully saying to Mark, “We forgot to bring two cars that belong to your train.” Mark coupled the two extra cars to his set. I watched the engine make its labored way around the track and felt supreme joy, difficult to describe and impossible to forget. The spirit of Christmas had filled my very soul.
That experience made it somewhat easier for me to make a difficult decision just one year later. Again Christmastime had come. We were preparing for the oven a gigantic turkey and anticipating the savory feast that awaited. A neighborhood pal of mine asked a startling question: “What does turkey taste like?”
I responded, “Oh, about like chicken tastes.”
Again a question: “What does chicken taste like?”
It was then that I realized my friend had never eaten chicken or turkey. I asked what his family was going to have for Christmas dinner. There was no prompt response, just a downcast glance and the comment, “I dunno. There’s nothing in the house.”
I pondered a solution. There was none. I had no turkeys, no chickens, no money. Then I remembered I did have two pet rabbits. Immediately I took them to my friend and handed the box to him with the comment, “Here, take these two rabbits. They’re good to eat—just like chicken.”
He took the box, climbed the fence, and headed for home—a Christmas dinner safely assured. Tears came easily to me as I closed the door to the empty rabbit hutch. But I was not sad. A warmth, a feeling of indescribable joy, filled my heart. It was a memorable Christmas.
I recall a young man who, as a boy of thirteen, led his quorum of deacons in a successful search for the Christmas spirit. He and his companions lived in a neighborhood in which many elderly widows of limited means resided. All the year long, the boys had saved and planned for a glorious Christmas party. They were thinking of themselves, until the Christmas spirit prompted them to think of others. Frank, as their leader, suggested to his companions that the funds they had saved so carefully be used not for the planned party, but rather for the benefit of three elderly widows who resided together.
The boys made their plans. As their bishop, I needed but to follow. With the enthusiasm of a new adventure, the boys purchased a giant roasting chicken, the potatoes, the vegetables, the cranberries, and all that comprises the traditional Christmas feast. To the widows’ home they went, carrying their gifts of treasure. Through the snow and up the path to the tumbledown porch they came. A knock at the door, the sound of slow footsteps, and then they met.
In the unmelodic voices characteristic of thirteen-year-olds, the boys sang: “Silent night! Holy night! All is calm, all is bright.” They then presented their gifts. Angels on that glorious night of long ago sang no more beautifully, nor did Wise Men present gifts of greater meaning. I gazed at the faces of those wonderful women and thought to myself, “Somebody’s mother.” I then looked on the countenances of those noble boys and reflected, “Somebody’s son.” There then passed through my mind the words of the immortal poem by Mary Dow Brine:
The woman was old and ragged and gray
And bent with the chill of the Winter’s day.
The street was wet with a recent snow,
And the woman’s feet were aged and slow.
She stood at the crossing and waited long,
Alone, uncared for, amid the throng
Of human beings who passed her by,
Nor heeded the glance of her anxious eye.
Down the street, with laughter and shout,
Glad in the freedom of “school let out,”
Came the boys like a flock of sheep,
Hailing the snow piled white and deep. …[One] paused beside her and whispered low,
“I’ll help you cross, if you wish to go.” …
“She’s somebody’s mother, boys, you know,
For all she’s aged and poor and slow.
And I hope some fellow will lend a hand
To help my mother, you understand,
If ever she’s poor and old and gray,
When her own dear boy is far away.”
And “somebody’s mother” bowed low her head
In her home that night, and the prayer she said
Was, “God be kind to the noble boy,
Who is somebody’s son, and pride and joy!”
Not one of those boys ever forgot that precious pilgrimage. Christmas gifts had become Christmas blessings.
Times change, years speed by; but Christmas continues sacred. It is through giving, rather than getting, that the spirit of Christ enters our lives. God still speaks. He prompts. He guides. He blesses. He gives.
Many years ago, President Harold B. Lee recounted to me an experience of a President Ballantyne who grew up in Star Valley, Wyoming. This is harsh country. The summers are short and fleeting, while the winters linger and chill. President Ballantyne told of a special Christmas season from his boyhood days. He said:
“Father had a large family; and sometimes after we had our harvest, there was not much left after expenses were paid. So Father would have to go away and hire out to some of the big ranchers for maybe a dollar a day. He earned little more than enough to take care of himself, with very little to send home to Mother and the children. Things began to get pretty skimpy for us.
“We had our family prayers around the table; and it was on one such night when Father was gone that we gathered and Mother poured out of a pitcher, into the glass of each one, milk divided among the children—but none for herself. And I, sensing that the milk in the pitcher was all that we had, pushed mine over to Mother and said, ‘Here, Mother. You drink mine.’
“‘No, Mother is not hungry tonight.’
“It worried me. We drank our milk and went to bed, but I could not sleep. I got up and tiptoed down the stairs, and there was Mother, in the middle of the floor, kneeling in prayer. She did not hear me as I came down in my bare feet, and I dropped to my knees and heard her say, ‘Heavenly Father, there is no food in our house. Please, Father, touch the heart of somebody so that my children will not be hungry in the morning.’
“When she finished her prayer, she looked around and saw that I had heard; and she said to me, somewhat embarrassed, ‘Now, you run along, son. Everything will be all right.’
“I went to bed, assured by Mother’s faith. The next morning, I was awakened by the sounds of pots and pans in the kitchen and the aroma of cooking food. I went down to the kitchen, and I said, ‘Mother, I thought you said there was no food.’
“All she said to me was, ‘Well, my boy, didn’t you think the Lord would answer my prayer?’ I received no further explanation than that.
“Years passed, and I went away to college. I got married, and I returned to see the old folks. Bishop Gardner, now reaching up to a ripe age, said to me, ‘My son, let me tell you of a Christmas experience that I had with your family. I had finished my chores, and we had had supper. I was sitting by the fireplace reading the newspaper. Suddenly, I heard a voice that said, “Sister Ballantyne doesn’t have any food in her house.”
I thought it was my wife speaking and said, “What did you say, Mother?” She came in wiping her hands on her apron and said, “Did you call me, Father?”
“‘“No, I didn’t say anything to you, but I heard a voice which spoke to me.”
“‘“What did it say?” she asked.
“‘“It said that Sister Ballantyne didn’t have any food in her house.”
“‘“Well, then,” said Mother, “you had better put on your shoes and your coat and take some food to Sister Ballantyne.” In the dark of that winter’s night, I harnessed the team and placed in the wagon bed a sack of flour, a quarter section of beef, some bottled fruit, and loaves of newly baked bread. The weather was cold, but a warm glow filled my soul as your mother welcomed me and I presented her with the food. God had heard a mother’s prayer.’”
Heavenly Father is ever mindful of those who need, who seek, who trust, who pray, and who listen when He speaks. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). God’s gift becomes our blessing. May every heart open wide and welcome Him—Christmas day and always.
Some Points of Emphasis
You may wish to make these points in your home teaching discussions:
Giving, not getting, brings to full bloom the Christmas spirit.
To catch the real meaning of the spirit of Christmas, we need only drop the last syllable and it becomes the Spirit of Christ.
The Spirit of Christ enters our lives through our giving to others in a manner that fills a need in others’ lives.
Relate your feelings about the power of the true spirit of Christmas, the Spirit of Christ, to lift and change our lives and the lives of others.
Are there some scriptures or quotations in this article that the family might read aloud and discuss?
Would this discussion be better after a pre-visit chat with the head of the house? Is there a message from the bishop or quorum president?