Mormon Journal

By Jennifer Dawson

How Long Had Mother Known This Joy?

Christmas without snow was a common thing in the small Arizona desert town where I grew up. But what we lacked in snow we made up for in spirit. Spirit was something we had to have plenty of since money was scarce—especially at Christmastime.

As I look back on those snowless, often penniless Christmases, the one that still brings a warm, glowing feeling is the Christmas of my tenth year.

The holiday season was approaching at its usual snail’s pace. The calendar on the living room wall only heightened my eagerness for the big day to arrive. Behind her locked bedroom door, Mother spent countless hours at her old sewing machine. We all knew this meant that no matter how tight the budget, there would be some beautiful creations under the tree for us to wear.

I kept myself busy making gifts for my brothers and sisters. Each year I longed to be able to purchase something nice for everyone from the five-and-ten-cent store downtown. Mother reminded me that it didn’t matter how humble or expensive the gift was; it was the giver who received the most joy. In my ten years I had never experienced such a feeling. I thought that perhaps if the gift were really nice, not homemade, that I would feel the joy of giving.

I sensed that this Christmas was going to be like any other. There would be the same strain on the budget and the usual warnings that we must not expect too much. So I was surprised when my parents announced that we were going to “play Santa” to Brother Thornton, a lonely old man in our branch. Each of us would buy him a present, they said, and Mom would pack him a box of Christmas food.

My first thought was, “How am I going to afford a present for him when I can’t even buy things for my own family?” Wasn’t it enough that we were bringing him a ham, rolls, pie, and candy? And I certainly didn’t want to have to go inside his smelly, tumbledown house. Brother Thornton rarely shaved, he had no teeth, and he always smelled of grease. But, grudgingly, I added my gift to the box.

The next day was Christmas Eve. All I could think of was the beautiful new dress that I was sure I would find the next morning. I also thought of the night ahead—certainly the longest night of the year—with all of us but the baby sleeping in one room, straining to hear just one sleigh bell before we fell asleep.

That night, as we loaded ourselves and our gifts into our old station wagon, I had mixed emotions. I wondered if our gifts would embarrass Brother Thornton. I feared the worst, expected the least, and secretly hoped we would leave the box at the door and run.

Soon we were parked in front of his little wooden shanty. Dad knocked on the door, and after a bit it was timidly opened just a crack. Mom began singing a Christmas carol, and we all joined in. Suddenly, the doorway filled with light from within. There stood Brother Thornton, stooped and unshaven, with a look of childlike surprise and a toothless grin. His eyes danced as he beckoned us in.

As we crowded into his tiny home, I stayed close to Mom. Brother Thornton listened while we finished our caroling. After a brief, awkward silence, tears welled up in his eyes, and he thanked us over and over. He was astonished that anyone would remember him at Christmas.

He slowly, shyly picked up each gift as if it were a treasure. When he came to mine—a pair of nail clippers—I was afraid he would be offended. But as he held them in his gnarled hands he looked tenderly at me and said, “Bless your heart.”

When he spoke those words, a strange feeling warmed me inside. He didn’t seem so repulsive or frightening anymore. For the first time, I suddenly saw Brother Thornton as a person—a person who needed to be loved and remembered. A person like me. I felt a tightness in my throat and swallowed hard.

My ten-year-old, self-centered concept of Christmas matured in those few minutes. I wondered how long my mother had known the secret of this kind of joy. I no longer thought of what tomorrow might bring me. The song in my heart was louder and more joyous than any carol I’d ever sung.

The Christmas the Truck Broke Down

We have had Christmas with tinsel and toys,
With family and gifts piled high;
With stockings hung clear across the room
With turkey and pumpkin pie.
But the Christmas that I will remember long
Was the one far away from home.

In December of 1983, my husband, Hoover, and I were serving a mission in northern South Dakota. We had been away from home only six weeks, and we were determined not to be lonely or melancholy.

We planned to eat Christmas dinner at Cannon Ball, North Dakota, with six other missionary couples in our district. We had baked pies and wrapped small gifts to exchange. Our children had been told to “call early or late,” because we would be gone all Christmas day.

As we left our temporary home in Mobridge, our hearts were high, and Christmas songs were on our lips. But as soon as we crossed the bridge leading out of town, our pickup truck suddenly stopped. Nothing my husband did would start the engine. He even tried an extra battery we had with us, but nothing worked.

It was cold, really cold. Mr. Dietric, a local rancher, stopped and worked on the truck with my husband for some time, then said, “I need to go over the hill and break the ice so my cattle can drink. I’ll be back in about half an hour. If you haven’t got the truck started by then, I’ll push you home.”

I was sure that we wouldn’t be there when the kind rancher returned. But we were. Not only were our toes colder, but our spirits were drooping as well.

After Mr. Dietric pushed our truck safely home, we thanked him warmly and presented him with a Book of Mormon.

A can of soup followed by a piece of pumpkin pie made up our Christmas dinner. Afterward, we didn’t allow ourselves to feel disappointed, but instead gave thanks to the Lord for our time together. Never have I felt such a comforting feeling as we sat together, just enjoying one another’s company. Too often we had been busy and pressured for time. Now, alone in our comfortable little home, we felt peace—the real peace of Christmas.

Alice N. Washburn, a homemaker, teaches Relief Society in the Monroe Fourth Ward, Monroe Utah Stake.

The Crystal Punch Bowl

My mother’s beautiful crystal punch bowl was to be my inheritance. As a small child, I looked forward to the two holidays of the year when this lovely, glittering piece of tableware was brought out cautiously to grace the long table in our dining room.

My mother would carefully wash it, dry it, and fill it with gallons of ruby red, bubbling punch. The ice placed in it floated like huge diamonds in a vermilion sea. All the points and crevices of the crystal would shimmer and shine, reflecting a kaleidoscope of tiny red lights that danced around the room.

For years, I entreated my mother to make me the heir of this beautiful creation. She agreed, she said, because I seemed to be the one who found the most pleasure in the crystal bowl. Each time we used it, I cautioned my mother and sisters to be careful with “my inheritance.”

Fifty-three years ago I became a happy bride with at least one very beautiful possession. Each Christmas and on my birthday my lovely punch bowl graced my dining-room table, and everyone exclaimed over its beauty.

The babies came, one after another, until there were nine. The punch bowl continued to be a matchless symbol of beauty. There was not much else in our house that was very valuable or beautiful, and I gave strict orders that no one but me was to wash the bowl.

The Christmas of 1982 was the first without my beloved husband, and the second without our precious daughter-in-law who had been killed just eight days before Christmas the year before. The day had been a very emotional one, with nostalgic memories of both these dear people whose passing had left such a void in our lives.

I brought out my historic punch bowl, now eighty-five years old, for the family party on December 26. It reminded us of happy memories of past Christmases.

Afterward, my two granddaughters and I were cleaning up the dishes when some of the guests began to leave. I was just taking the bowl to the kitchen to wash it, and I stopped what I was doing to say good-bye. One of the girls placed my bowl in the sink and ran hot water into it. The bowl shattered into a hundred pieces!

My granddaughter turned deathly pale, and I nearly went into shock. The room was totally silent. I thought, “Not my beautiful punch bowl!”

I was devastated! There was no holding back the choking tears or the overwhelming sense of loss.

I found comfort in the arms of my son who had lost his wife. He knew what the bowl had meant to me. He also knew, and reminded me, that this was just a material thing, something for this life only.

“The bowl was a thing of beauty, Mom,” he said. “But it was not forever, like Dad is, or my dear wife.”

In a few minutes I composed myself and turned to my granddaughter. I asked her to smile, and told her that I was sorry she had to suffer over the loss.

The next day, after several hours of deliberation, I came to realize that while the bowl had been beautiful, even more valuable and precious were the gifts that my husband and I had been given for the eternities—each other, our nine children, thirty-six grandchildren, and to date, nine great-grandchildren—each one a “thing of beauty, and a joy forever.”

I called my granddaughter and assured her that the bowl wasn’t really important. We still had the things that truly mattered.

Tithing Came before Presents

Following the stock market crash of 1929, the United States entered the Great Depression. Banks failed, and many businesses went bankrupt. As Christmas approached that year, many workers were unemployed.

Our family was among the lucky ones. We had no money in the banks, and so lost none when they closed their doors. My husband was still employed.

But unexpectedly, just a week before Christmas, his job was terminated. When he brought home his last paycheck, which amounted to sixty-three dollars, our first thought was, “How shall we spend it?”

We had canned plenty of fruit and vegetables, and we had a cow and chickens to provide milk, butter, and eggs. Our food supply was ample, so we planned to spend some of the money on Christmas presents for our three young children, ages six, four, and one.

Then the bishop announced that he would hold tithing settlement the following weekend. We had paid some tithing each month but had not paid it in full. We were always hoping that our finances would improve and make it possible for us to catch up.

After doing a little bookkeeping, we learned that we owed the bishop exactly sixty dollars if we were to end the year as full tithe-payers. Never had sixty dollars seemed such a vast amount! We were learning one of the greatest lessons in life: “Be honest with the Lord each payday.”

The snow was deep, and the old Model-T Ford refused to start, even when my husband cranked it. We decided to walk to the bishop’s home and give him the sixty dollars before we were tempted to spend some of it.

The walk back home seemed much shorter. We still had three dollars left for Christmas shopping.

The next day we went to the five-and-ten-cent store and purchased a small can of black paint, and another of red. We also bought a few trinkets that would please the children. My husband and I worked long hours after the children were asleep, creating wooden toys from scrap lumber and painting them. I sewed stuffed animals and made a Raggedy Ann doll.

When those tasks were finished, my husband went to get a Christmas tree from a nearby canyon. (In those days, Christmas trees were free if you cut them yourself.) While he was gone, the children and I made candy, popcorn balls, and cookies.

When we brought in the freshly-cut tree, the children helped us trim it, and we settled down to enjoy Christmas despite our lack of funds.

About the middle of January, my husband received a phone call with an offer of employment at one hundred and fifty dollars a month. It seemed like a fortune to us! From then until the day he died, my husband was never unemployed, and we prospered both spiritually and financially.

In Malachi 3:10 [Mal. 3:10] we read: “Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.”

We accepted the challenge, and the blessings indeed came.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Stephen Moore

Jennie N. Ernstrom is a member of the Logan Eleventh Ward, Logan Utah South Stake.