We Didn’t Have a Tree, Until …

The Christmas Eve I remember best began with a glorious snowstorm that filled the streets so that even the streetcars had a hard time making it over the icy rails. It was great sledding weather, and when Mother asked my teenage brother to run an errand for her, I gladly accompanied him. I was nine, and sledding at that time was a life of ease for me, for Grant either had to pull me on the sled or run along behind while pushing me, hoping to jump on for a ride while we coasted.

The happy years of my childhood came during the great Depression. For me, it was a time of learning and sharing. I was even encouraged to accompany Grant on his daily rounds after school while he sold cottage cheese from door to door to supplement the family income. You see, Dad was having a rough time of it. Our new store, which had been doing well right up to 1929, was closed now, and Dad found it difficult to keep a job as store after store, and factories, too, closed their doors.

We were gliding now, laughing as we went, to deliver some reports to the Relief Society president from our mother, who was her secretary. We were welcomed into a gaily decorated, warm house, and before we left we were each rewarded with a lovely big orange. What a treat! Before the age of transportation as we know it today, oranges were scarce where we lived, and to receive one in your Christmas stocking was something special. But to get one for doing practically nothing was an unexpected joy, and we traveled home with light hearts. Christmas was already a success!

Yet, at home, it was a bit hard to tell it was Christmas. For the first time in our lives no brightly lighted Christmas tree stood in the corner between the piano and the colonnades. Our family had talked it over and decided we could dispense with a tree this year. The tiny gifts I had made for Mom and Dad in school, wrapped in white tissue paper, rested uncomfortably on the sewing machine, alongside the small packages my brothers had managed to acquire with carefully hoarded pennies.

After a supper of hot soup and crusty bread, we lingered at the table awhile, then washed up the supper dishes. And then we sat. What do you do on Christmas Eve when there are no presents to be wrapped, no pies to be made, no tree in the front room? We played a game. And then we sat some more. Finally Dad could stand it no longer. Jumping to his feet, he almost shouted, “I’ve got 50 cents in my pocket. Let’s go see if we can get a tree!” Fifty cents! And no payday in sight. What love and devotion must have determined that sudden decision!

Yet, at the very moment, before we could say anything, the doorbell rang. My brother and I ran to the door, and to our surprise no one was there. We looked around in disappointment, and then we saw it—a glorious tree! We looked in every direction but could find no one to claim the tree. It had to be ours!

I can still feel the thrill, the excitement. I can still see the tears on my dad’s cheeks as he helped us decorate it. We hadn’t told anyone that we didn’t have a tree, and we had been very careful not to invite friends to our home for them to discover it. Later the bishop of our ward disclaimed any knowledge of it; the Relief Society thought it was a wonderful gesture but refused any credit for it; the neighbors were no more friendly than usual—so, we never knew where the tree came from. But the road seemed brighter for us as a family because some good soul had brought us a Christmas tree—and love—on our darkest Christmas Eve.

Janet W. Sorensen is presently living in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where her husband, Lynn A. Sorensen, is president of the Brazil Porto Alegre Mission.

Scriptures and Scrambled Eggs

As Christmas drew near, it was evident that unless my brother Jerry and I worked during the holiday vacation, we would not be able to continue college the following semester. So we both decided to work an extra week and go home toward the end of the vacation. I invited Jerry to share my apartment, since his dorm was closing and my roommates were going home. As we made our plans, I kept hoping an opportunity would arise to share the gospel with him.

A few weeks earlier, two days after my baptism into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I had seen Jerry near the campus. All of my family had had misgivings about my taking this step.

“Did you go through with it?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “I feel good about what I have done.”

He looked into my eyes and surprised me with his next remark. “You’re my oldest brother. I know you wouldn’t have done it if you hadn’t thought it was right.”

A feeling of relief swept over me. He hasn’t cut me off, I thought. He still has respect for me.

During the months I investigated the gospel, I had wrestled with the question, “Which church is true?” And, as the oldest son in our close family, I was especially aware of the role I played in leading my younger brothers and sisters. I had to be sure, absolutely sure, that I was doing the right thing. The hours, the days, and the months of turmoil as I sought an answer are still vivid in my memory. Finally, the answer had come one winter morning in the sweet, peaceful manner in which the Lord gives it.

Now I wanted to tell Jerry all about the gospel. But my plans hit a snag. He would work a night shift and I would work a day shift! We would only be together during the breakfast and dinner hours.

How sacred those hours became! Each day we discussed a different question regarding our religious faiths, and after some hesitation—and to my delight—Jerry developed a hunger for the truth.

Christmas vacation turned out to be one of the most satisfying experiences of my life; it was a time of giving and sharing that I shall never forget. We spent almost every waking hour at the little kitchen table discussing the gospel. Our meals were almost incidental compared to our spiritual feasting.

Later, when we returned home to our family, I experienced a new appreciation for each member and sensed an acute awareness of my responsibility to share the gospel with them.

Jerry was baptized in March. What a glorious day! Now I had another member of the family who felt as I did about the gospel! We rejoiced together and discussed our hopes and concerns for our brothers and sisters. Our bond has grown stronger over the years, and we have since had the opportunity to widen the circle of family gospel involvement by baptizing our sister and her husband and by doing temple work for our kindred dead.

As I look back on that Christmas season of many years ago, I realize that sharing the gospel with others is the most priceless gift we can give.

Gary J. Coleman is director of the Spokane Institute of Religion and serves as second counselor in the Spokane Washington East Stake presidency.

The Twelve Gifts of Christmas

Loneliness and Christmas are not meant to go hand in hand; yet Christmases for Elizabeth Blumberg, a Hungarian convert of 20 years, were very lonely indeed. It had not always been so; she had raised a family and had had the fun of traditional Christmases, both in Budapest and in Canada. But now she was lonely. People didn’t mean to be unkind, she knew, but Christmas was a time when everyone was just too busy.

Sister Blumberg accepted the situation with the same calm she accepted all else—things she regretted but could not change: advanced age, partial deafness, failing eyesight, widowhood, a halting command of the English language, and the fact that she could not share her love of the gospel with the nonmember daughter and family with whom she lived.

Christmas 1973 approached in the usual way. On the 14th of December, however, there was a knock on the door, a bright package on the doorstep, and a card that read, “On the first day of Christmas what did Sister Blumberg see? A potted plant, as pretty as can be. From a Secret Friend.”

This Christmas season would be the most memorable one of her life. Someone did care.

The next day brought another knock, another gift, and another card, again signed, “Secret Friend.” This time the package contained two Christmas candles. Someone was taking the time to give a lonely elderly sister something to think about and to look forward to—not just once, but 12 times that season.

The gifts were delightful: four tree ornaments, five flowers, six Santa soaps, seven cookies, eight candy canes, and so on. Finally, on Christmas day, a red felt stocking holding 12 little gifts was left on the porch. This time Sister Blumberg opened the door in time to catch a glimpse of a young girl scurrying into a car.

Several weeks later Sister Blumberg discovered, quite by accident, that her secret friends were a class of Young Women. How she loves those sweet girls! She treasures their cards, and laughs with delight when she recalls each thoughtful gift. Twelve secret friends took time to care at Christmas.

Joyce C. Backstrom, a homemaker, serves as visiting teacher in the Edmonton Sixth Ward and as family health leader for the Edmonton Alberta Stake Relief Society.

Snowdrifts and Good Deeds

Two families share their feelings about a treasured experience that happened one Christmas in Alaska.

Family A: Some years ago, when I was trying to teach my children about brotherly love and sharing, we held a family council and decided that each Christmas we would take what we had and help someone less fortunate. Our children would help choose the gifts, wrap them, and deliver them. This is now a highlight of each Christmas season at our home.

Last year one of the families in our ward was in obvious financial distress because of serious illness and loss of income. Because of their great need, a number of ward members helped with the contribution of money for and purchase of Christmas gifts, and asked our family to deliver them a few days before Christmas.

It was dusk as we piled all of our children into the car, along with the gifts. A special addition was a beautiful gingerbread house a ward member had made. As we approached our destination, however, we saw to our dismay that the whole family was eating supper right by the front window. This made anonymous delivery at the front door impossible.

We drove past the house and parked about a block away. While all the neighborhood dogs barked their disapproval, we sneaked up the road and decided to make our way through thigh-deep snow over a high embankment leading to the back of their house. The bank was so steep that I lost my balance once and fell backward into the snow with a single thought in mind: “Don’t drop the gingerbread house!” I didn’t, and we continued our ungraceful crawl as the family giggled and dogs increased their barking. Finally, near panic, we deposited the gifts on the patio and floundered back to the road as fast as possible.

The barking of the excited dogs accompanied us nearly all the way to the car, and then abruptly it ceased. Good grief! Were the dogs feasting on the gingerbread house? We ran to a nearby home, explained what we had done, and called “our” family, under guise, telling them to look on their patio for a Christmas surprise.

When we finally collapsed in the car with red cheeks, freezing feet, and a glow in our hearts, one of the children exclaimed, “Whose family do you think we should surprise next year?”

Family B: In past years our family had always enjoyed rather abundant Christmases because both my wife and I worked. But last year was different, and it turned into the most meaningful Christmas we have ever experienced.

Almost a year before, my wife had been forced to leave her job and take our children to the “lower 48” states so that one of our sons, who had cancer, could receive special treatment. In the past we had two incomes for one family; we now had to support two family units on only one income. Things were mighty bleak when my wife and children returned to Alaska, but we decided that just being together this Christmas was happiness and blessings enough.

Then strange things began to happen. First, the bishop asked if the ward could help. Finally, after quite a bit of persuasion, we agreed to have the ward supply some needed groceries. Then, people began to drop by with fruit and freshly baked bread. Finally, about two days before Christmas, three packages and a gingerbread house appeared on the patio anonymously. We were overwhelmed. We knew then that we were truly loved by our fellow ward members.

We plan to keep the gingerbread house throughout the years. It will help us remember the true meaning of Christmas.

We Make Memories for Christmas

“Is that all?” It was the innocent query of a five-year-old caught up in the materialism of Christmas, after the large assortment of gifts stacked under our tree had disintegrated into a heap of ribbons, paper, and empty boxes.

Was that all? For weeks we had planned, schemed, and worried about how to satisfy the children as their lists grew longer each day. I had even taken a part-time job as a salesclerk so that the children wouldn’t be disappointed and we wouldn’t have to go into debt. But, in order to accomplish this, we had sacrificed evenings of carol singing, cookie making, and story reading, the real spirit of the occasion, so we could fulfill these materialistic Christmas dreams. How futile our efforts now seemed!

In 1903 President Joseph F. Smith said, “Our pleasures depend more upon the qualities of our desires than upon the gratification,” for, said he, our desires “incite us to energy and … make us productive and creative in life.” (See Juvenile Instructor, July 1903, p. 400.) If our desires are weak, our creations are likely to be puny and worthless. He went on to say that children who have everything they want, when they want it, are most unfortunate, because their capacity to enjoy has been greatly weakened by not having to wait.

We gave this some thought, realizing that the education of our desires is really the important thing! So, last Christmas, our family of nine held council and decided to forego exchanging gifts. We decided instead to “make memories” for our family. As a result, we pooled our funds and went on a camping trip—to a sunny beach in Mexico.

What a lovely Christmas Eve! After decorating our campsite we caroled to the other campers in the park, and then we settled down to our traditional storytelling. Each family member told his favorite Christmas story. We sang “Silent Night,” had family prayer, and retired to bed with a strong feeling of devotion toward him whose birthday we were commemorating.

When morning came, there were no gifts to unwrap, but we played a glorious game of football in the deep, warm sand of a deserted beach (I didn’t even mind getting tackled), and we ate a delicious Christmas dinner of freshly caught shrimp. It was truly a happy day.

When the Christmas vacation was over and we returned home, we knew we had a memory that would linger long and become ever more precious. Even this year, with two children recently married and two serving on foreign missions for the Church, we hope to keep our sights above commercialism and give of ourselves in the true spirit of Christmas.

[illustrations] Illustrated by James Christensen

Mildred Chandler Austin writes for the Church Instructional Development Committee and serves as mother education teacher in the Ninth Ward Relief Society, Provo Utah East Stake.