What a wonderful, joyous time of the year! I always look forward to being here on the first Sunday of December, when we have the opportunity to listen to beautiful music and hear messages that lead into another blessed Christmas season. And again we look forward to hearing from God’s prophet, our dear President Monson.
Christmas has always been a special time for me. When I was very young I lived in Czechoslovakia, and the rich, centuries-old traditions of Christmas were everywhere around us. Although many years have passed, I still look back on those days with a fondness and tenderness that leave me with profound feelings of gratitude and joy.
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!
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.
Looking back, I think my fear that I had ruined Christmas came from an incomplete understanding of what Christmas really is. And I’ve noticed that it’s not only four-year-olds who have this misunderstanding.
Sometimes it seems that our efforts to have a perfect Christmas season are like a game of Jenga—you know, the one played with small wooden blocks that are precariously stacked up to a tower. As we try to increase the height of the tower, we pull out one wooden block before we can place it on top of the delicate structure.
Each of those little wooden blocks is a symbol of the perfect Christmas events we so desperately want to have. We have in our minds a picture of how everything should be—the perfect tree, the perfect lights, the perfect gifts, and the perfect family events. We might even want to re-create some magical moment we remember from Christmases past, and nothing short of perfection will do.
Sooner or later, something unpleasant occurs—the wooden blocks tumble, the drapes catch fire, the turkey burns, the sweater is the wrong size, the toys are missing batteries, the children quarrel, the pressure rises—and the picture-perfect Christmas we had imagined, the magic we had intended to create, shatters around us. As a result, the Christmas season is often a time of stress, anxiety, frustration, and perhaps even disappointment.
But then, if we are only willing to open our hearts and minds to the spirit of Christmas, we will recognize wonderful things happening around us that will direct or redirect our attention to the sublime. It is usually something small—we read a verse of scripture; we hear a sacred carol and really listen, perhaps for the first time, to its words; or we witness a sincere expression of love. In one way or another, the Spirit touches our hearts, and we see that Christmas, in its essence, is much more sturdy and enduring than the many minor things of life we too often use to adorn it.
In these precious moments we realize what we feel and know in our heart—that Christmas is really about the Christ.
Christmas and some of the cherished traditions of the season remind us that we, like the Wise Men of old, should seek the Christ and lay before Him the most precious of gifts: a broken heart and a contrite spirit. We should offer Him our love. We should give Him our willingness to take upon ourselves His name and walk in the path of discipleship. We should promise to remember Him always, to emulate His example, and to go about doing good.1
We cannot offer Him the gift of perfection in all things because this is a gift beyond our capacity to give—at least for now. The Lord does not expect that we commit to move mountains. But He does require that we bring as gifts our best efforts to move ourselves, one foot in front of the other, walking in the ways He has prepared and taught.
And what are the Savior’s gifts to those who are willing to bring these gifts to Him?
This may be the most one-sided gift exchange in the history of the universe. The Savior’s gifts to us are breathtaking.
And finally, eternal life—the greatest gift of all.4 Because of the Atonement of Christ, not only are we guaranteed an infinite quantity of life, but He offers the possibility of an unimaginable quality of life as well.5
Some of His divine gifts are reserved for that glorious future day when we return to His presence.
But He extends many gifts and His grace to us every day. He promises to be with us, to come to us when we need comfort,6 to lift us when we stumble, to carry us if needed, to mourn and rejoice with us. Every day He offers to take us by the hand and help transform ordinary life into extraordinary spiritual experiences.
Of course, we do not need a Christmas holiday or Christmas traditions to remember Jesus Christ, our Savior. But the celebrations of Christmas can help remind us of Him. The hallowed Christmas season can be an opportunity to recommit to keep the fire of the Spirit and the glory of the Son of God burning in our hearts every day throughout the year.
This is a wonderful time of the year. It may not be perfect. But if Christmas can point our hearts toward our Savior, we can rejoice even in the imperfections of the season. Brothers and sisters, dear friends, may we always remember to bring gifts to Him who has given His all for us. May we always remember and be grateful that in the birth of that Child, the universe rejoiced. And may each Christmas season remind us to lift up our voices and fill our hearts with joy and gratitude that Christ the King has come! Christ lives! He is real. He is our Redeemer at Christmas and always. Of this I bear solemn witness.
I leave you with a blessing of love and with my warmest wishes for a meaningful Christmas season, in the sacred name of Jesus Christ, amen.