99912_000_005What did presents and tinsel mean when my father was seriously ill?
Each year as Christmas approaches, my mind drifts back to the Christmases of my youth. The United States was slowly recovering from the Great Depression, and my family was poor. But I was not aware of that because my parents filled our home and hearts with happiness.
When Christmastime would draw near, Mother would busy herself at the sewing machine. Warm flannel pajamas and cozy nightgowns would be carefully sewn and tucked away. Pounding and humming noises would emanate from Father’s workshop in the basement. There he would fashion carefully saved pieces of wood into things such as a doll’s cradle, a child’s cupboard, or a boy’s very own toolbox.
Excitement filled the air. The week before Christmas, our family would climb into the car and go to one of the few Christmas-tree lots in Ogden, Utah, where we would pick out and purchase exactly the right tree.
My older brother’s birthday was on 22 December. By family tradition, this was the day the fir tree was brought into the house and decorated. After supper that evening, we would wait with anticipation for darkness. When the family had gathered, either my brother or I would be chosen to plug in the tree lights. We always thought each year’s Christmas tree was the most beautiful we had yet decorated.
The Christmas of 1940, when I was seven, was different. My father had become critically ill with kidney disease in the fall. Some time after Thanksgiving he had been rushed to the hospital for the first of two surgeries required to repair his congenitally defective kidneys. Things had not gone well during the operation: Father had not been expected to live, and he was still in the hospital.
On 22 December my mother and brother and I decorated the tree as always, but our hearts were not in the task. My brother and I decided that in our father’s absence the tree lights would not be turned on.
I am sure we placed our hard-earned and carefully selected gifts under the tree that year, but I don’t remember doing so. Knowing my mother, I am equally sure she had been busy at her sewing machine, but I don’t remember its whirring sound. I remember only the darkness and fear I felt late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve when the telephone rang and my mother was beckoned to the hospital. She instructed my brother and me to watch over our baby sister, and she told us she would return as soon as possible with word of our father.
I don’t know how long she was gone; it seemed forever. The night sky was dark when my brother and I heard the car roll up in the driveway. We were silent as the back door to the house opened. Our hearts pounded in our chests, for we feared the message she might bring.
And then we heard it: two sets of footsteps in the hall. Two sets! We rushed to the kitchen. There was our father, tall and thin in hospital pajamas and robe, being supported by our petite mother. Into the living room they slowly walked, and she carefully helped him into the overstuffed chair.
She then went to the bedroom and lifted the sleeping baby from her crib and brought her to my father’s waiting arms. She settled herself on the arm of the chair and placed her arm around his shoulders and her cheek against his forehead. I sat at his feet and rested my head upon his knee. My brother settled on the other arm of the chair and laid his head against my dad. Then we joined in a prayer of thanks as my father spoke to Him who had given so abundantly to us. At the close of the prayer, my brother arose, walked to the tree, and plugged in the lights. The Christmas tree blazed forth.
I don’t remember what gifts I received that Christmas. I am not sure if it snowed. I don’t even know if we put out our stockings, but I do remember that, at the age of seven, I learned that the wonder of Christmas is not lighted trees draped with balls and tinsel, nor is it gaily wrapped packages. It isn’t letters to Santa Claus, nor is it stockings filled with fruit and candy.
Christmas is families gathered together basking in the love of God and partaking of His tender mercies. It is hearts filled with thanksgiving for the birth, life, and death of our Heavenly Father’s Son, that we might enjoy the blessings of the gospel and prepare ourselves to return to Him.
I will be forever thankful that I learned this most valuable lesson on that most special night. It was the best Christmas of my life.