What Is Christmas?
December 1998

“What Is Christmas?” Ensign, Dec. 1998, 2

First Presidency Message

What Is Christmas?

This is a glorious time of the year, simple in origin, deep in meaning, beautiful in tradition and custom, rich in memories, and charitable in spirit. It has an attraction to which our hearts are readily drawn. This joyful season brings to each of us a measure of happiness that corresponds to the degree in which we have turned our mind, feelings, and actions to the spirit of Christmas.

There’s Christmas in the home and church,

There’s Christmas in the mart;

But you’ll not know what Christmas is

Unless it’s in your heart.

The bells may call across the snow,

And carols search the air;

But, oh, the heart will miss the thrill

Unless it’s Christmas there.

Christmas is children. As a young elder, I had been called to the old Primary Children’s Hospital that once stood on North Temple Street in Salt Lake City. There were children to be blessed. It was the Christmas season. I had never been in a children’s hospital before.

As our group entered the foyer, we noticed an attractively decorated Christmas tree, with beautifully wrapped gifts beneath its boughs.

A feeling of sympathy welled up within me as I noticed these tiny children, many with legs or arms in large plaster casts. Some were ever so weak and pale.

A young lad called out to us, “Will you give me a blessing?” Of course the blessing was given. I shall ever remember placing my hands on the tousled head of that faithful boy who was desperately ill. As we left his side, he looked up into my eyes and said, “Thank you, Brother Monson.”

We walked away, only to hear him call out, “Oh, Brother Monson, merry Christmas to you.” I could scarcely see him for the tears in my eyes. He had that glow about him that comes only at Christmastime. That boy trusted in his Heavenly Father. He acknowledged the priesthood of God. His faith was unwavering. I felt I was on holy ground.

What made the glow emanate from the presence of this faithful boy? It was the Christmas spirit. Why does peace come closer to reality at this season than at any other? Why is it that more friends are remembered and more enemies forgiven at the Christmas season than at any other time? It is the Christmas spirit.

Christmas is remembering. A year ago our thoughts turned to the celebration of the sesquicentennial of the arrival of the pioneers in the valley of the Great Salt Lake in 1847. What was Christmas like that year?

From an entry in the diary of Mrs. Rebecca Riter, dated December 25, 1847, we read: “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 of wheat for the baby. Then I thought how we would need wheat for seed in the spring, so I left it alone.”

Christmas is giving. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the poet, wrote: “Rings and jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only [true] gift is a portion of thyself.”1

President David O. McKay said: “True happiness comes only by making others happy—the practical application of the Savior’s doctrine of losing one’s life to gain it. In short, the Christmas spirit is the Christ spirit, that makes our hearts glow in brotherly love and friendship and prompts us to kind deeds of service.

“It is the spirit of the gospel of Jesus Christ, obedience to which will bring ‘peace on earth,’ because it means—good will toward all men.”2

A few years ago I received an anonymous letter from a kindhearted dentist who demonstrated brotherly love and goodwill. I’d like to share it with you:

“Dear President Monson:

“I feel remiss in that I should have sent you a thank-you note sooner. Last December I listened to your talk given during the Christmas devotional. You spoke of an older woman who could not afford to pay for the registration for an automobile she had recently purchased. Others came to her aid. All involved were touched.

“I am a dentist by profession. Not long after the devotional, my receptionist informed me that an acquaintance of hers was coming into my office. She had problems with two of her teeth. She knew this woman and told me of her circumstances. The woman carried many burdens. The family business, which she ran, was doing poorly and the family was three months behind in paying rent. They had five children, many grown into adulthood, but all had moved back home because of difficult personal circumstances. By sheer force of will, she had kept her family together for some time. Now two teeth were broken.

“The woman arrived for her appointment and explained about her dental problem. She asked if I would allow her to pay her bill over time. She explained to me that her family had experienced several financial reversals and were just recently starting to pay some overdue bills.

“I assured her that her credit was good with me. She asked if I could repair just one of the two broken teeth at that time. I assured her that I could, and we began.

“Since I had the time, I repaired both teeth, for which she was grateful. When the work was completed, thinking of your talk, I told her that if she would not be offended, I should like to make a Christmas present of the dental work, for which there would be no bill. She was astonished. I could sense the depth of the stress and strain she had carried, as uncontrollable tears of gratitude gushed forth due to a small, simple act of kindness. It must have been years since someone showed her some little favor. Not able to speak, she made her way out.

“Both my assistant and receptionist were so moved by her reaction that they also sprouted tears and could hardly speak. I, on the other hand, was doubly glad. One part, in seeing such a simple act have such a happy effect on another. And the second part, for once in my life having a patient in my office crying for joy, and not for pain!

“To you, my very best wishes.


“A brother in the gospel”

Christmas is prophecy fulfilled. On the eve of His birth, the voice of the Lord came unto Nephi, saying, “Lift up your head and be of good cheer; for behold, the time is at hand, and on this night shall the sign be given, and on the morrow come I into the world, to show unto the world that I will fulfil all that which I have caused to be spoken by the mouth of my holy prophets.”3

What did the holy prophets of old declare? Isaiah, more than 700 years before the birth of Christ, prophesied, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”4

On the American continent, King Benjamin said, “For behold, 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, the Father of heaven and earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning; and his mother shall be called Mary.”5

Then came that night of nights when the shepherds were abiding in the fields and the angel of the Lord appeared to them, announcing: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy. … For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”6

The shepherds with haste went to the manger to pay honor to Christ the Lord. Later, wise men journeyed from the East to Jerusalem, saying, “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 were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.”7

Since that time, the spirit of giving gifts has been present in the mind of each Christian as he or she commemorates the Christmas season. Our Heavenly Father gave to us His Son, Jesus Christ. That precious Son gave to us His life, the Atonement, and victory over the grave.

What will you and I give for Christmas this year? Let us in our lives give to our Lord and Savior the gift of gratitude by living His teachings and following in His footsteps. It was said of Him that He “went about doing good.”8 As we do likewise, the Christmas spirit will be ours.

Ideas for Home Teachers

Some Points of Emphasis

You may wish to make these points in your home teaching discussions:

  1. The Christmas season brings to us that measure of happiness that fits the degree to which we have turned ourselves to the spirit of Christmas.

  2. The Christmas spirit can be found in children, in remembering, in giving, and in studying its original events, a story of prophecy fulfilled.

  3. At this season let us give to the Lord our gift of gratitude by living His teachings and following in His footsteps.

  4. It was said of Jesus that He “went about doing good.” As we do likewise, the Christmas spirit will be ours.

Discussion Helps

  1. Relate your feelings about the power of the spirit of Christmas to better our lives and relationships with others.

  2. Are there some scriptures or quotations in this article that the family might read aloud and discuss?

  3. Would this discussion be better after a previsit chat with the head of the house? Is there a message from the bishop or quorum leader?

The Wise Men Worship Jesus, by Griffeth Foxley © Providence Lithograph Co.

Photo by Steve Bunderson

Illustrated by Robert T. Barrett