A Gift from the Heart
In December 1996 I found myself serving a full-time mission in the Mexico Monterrey North Mission. My companion was a young sister from Utah. It was my first Christmas away from home without my children and grandchildren, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what my children were doing and who was preparing dinner, since I wasn’t there to do it.
I was quieter than usual, so my companion gave me a hug and said, “I’m going to make a delicious dinner for you.” I looked at her lovely face and into her beautiful blue eyes that were looking back at me with so much love, the way my children and grandchildren look at me. I smiled at her.
The dinner she prepared was just a warm cinnamon drink, but for me it was a great delicacy. I was 46 years old, and she was only 21. Always I was concerned about giving, and I didn’t think about receiving. As missionaries we did not have any money to give, so we gave love and service instead. Without my companion knowing it, I had bought a pair of gloves and a scarf to protect her from the cold. That was my gift to her. But she gave me something that couldn’t be bought with all the gold in the world: love and service.
That night her gift taught me that Christmas is for giving the most beautiful part of ourselves, the feelings of our hearts. Very shyly I took out my gifts for my dear companion. I felt so humble to give her what I had bought, compared with her great love.
Every Christmas after returning home from my mission, I have shared with my children and grandchildren that wonderful Christmas. I will always be grateful to my Heavenly Father and to Jesus Christ for the holy season of Christmas and to my companion for her example of love.
Straw for the Manger
As our children’s awareness began to grow beyond the protective walls of our own home, Christmas became more and more Santa and glitter. As this excitement and anticipation grew, the birth of our Savior seemed farther and farther from our hearts and minds. My husband, Bob, and I tried to bring the true spirit of Christmas back into our celebration in ways that would be meaningful to the entire family. One year we established a pattern of traditions that has served us well and provided meaningful Christmases for many years.
We chose a family home evening lesson for the first week in December that focused on giving service as a way to celebrate the Christmas season. We made a cardboard manger and provided a container full of straw. Each time a family member performed an act of service, we put one piece of straw into the manger. The children eagerly sought meaningful acts of kindness with which to earn a straw for baby Jesus’s manger, and we filled the manger three times over that year.
Bob happened to spot an old-fashioned lantern in a store’s display of Christmas decorations. He bought it, and it provided the inspiration for the culminating event of our religious celebration. After our family party and dinner on Christmas Eve, the children dressed for bed and gathered in the largest bedroom upstairs, away from the nativity scene in the living room. We turned off all the lights in the house and explained to the children that we would be taking a pilgrimage to see the newborn King of kings. We prepared for our journey by singing traditional carols and then proceeded to the living room, singing “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful.” Bob led the way, holding the lantern with its flickering candlelight to brighten our path.
Upon reaching the little stable, we sat quietly and sang a few more carols. Then we presented the manger to baby Jesus. It was filled with straw representing gifts of love we had given throughout the month. Everyone who wanted to do so expressed his or her love for the Savior. The Spirit of the Lord was in our home and our hearts that evening. The children went calmly and quietly to bed—still eager for the morning to come, but also feeling love and appreciation for the Christ child, whose birth we were celebrating.
Each year, as we get caught up in the frantic preparations for Christmas, we have a sense of peace, knowing that the commercialism will be tempered, at least to a degree, with a few moments of meaningful worship. Even at the height of anticipating Christmas morning, the children look forward to the special time we spend each Christmas Eve with the newborn King.
Unemployed for the Holidays
In January 2001 my husband, Peter, became unemployed, and shortly thereafter our third child was born. When Peter found a job 500 miles (800 km) away, we made a big move. And although he enjoyed the job, the year was very bad economically and we had barely enough money to pay for rent and groceries. Our small food storage quickly vanished, and Christmas was approaching. Then Peter’s employer gave us an unexpected “Christmas bonus”—all the employees in Peter’s department were declared unemployed for one month.
Thus, my husband was again out of work. But the Lord did not forget us. Peter was asked to help several members, and we were supported financially through this work. We were not forgotten for Christmas either. The sister missionaries rang our doorbell one day and presented us with a package on behalf of an anonymous family in our ward. When we opened it we found many lovingly wrapped gifts, each bearing the name of a member of our family. We also found an envelope containing extra money—as if the presents had not been enough!
On Christmas Eve the doorbell rang again. A package on the doorstep again contained nicely wrapped presents for each of us. We were very happy. I thanked our Heavenly Father for the little miracles He had provided. And I was grateful to the members who were so loving, even though we had lived there for only five months.
We do not know who helped us during those difficult times, and I can’t help but think of the Savior’s words: “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink” (Matt. 25:35).
The Clam Chowder Story
Every Christmas Eve my wife serves my favorite dish, clam chowder. We added the chowder to our holiday traditions not only because we enjoy the taste, but because it reminds us of the Savior’s infinite love for us. After the last bite, we tell the clam chowder story, which happened years ago when our children were young.
It was a Monday evening, and I was on my way home from work, looking forward to a fun and relaxing family home evening with my wife and children. As I walked toward the back door, I anticipated the children playing nicely and dinner waiting on the table. Not so.
My wife, Joy, had arrived home just before I did. She had had a busy day, and now each of our children was trying to get her attention. As we began to sort out their needs, it seemed each had homework that had to be completed that evening. Joy was exhausted, we needed to prepare dinner, we needed to hold family home evening, and Joy had also committed to prepare clam chowder for 60 women who would attend the Relief Society luncheon the next day.
We divided up the tasks. Joy fixed dinner, I helped the children with their homework, and we held a short family home evening. I then put the children to bed while Joy started the clam chowder. The children were all tucked in bed by about 9:30. I walked into the kitchen, and Joy was busily preparing the ingredients for the clam chowder. The process is quite lengthy and somewhat tricky. The chowder must be constantly stirred at the right temperature, or it will burn.
Joy had to leave at 8:00 the next morning, so the chowder had to be finished that evening. I asked her if she would like me to help. She said she could handle it, so I went upstairs to work on my electronics course.
About 11:30 Joy came into the room with a small bowl of chowder. I was in the middle of soldering a part in a circuit board. When I looked up she was gone. There sat the steaming bowl of heavenly soup. I put a big spoonful in my mouth, expecting ecstasy. I was startled. I couldn’t believe what I was tasting. It was terrible! It tasted burned. Surely this couldn’t be. How could I tell my wife?
Gathering all my tact and courage, I went downstairs. She was sitting in the kitchen, looking forlorn and tired. I said as gently as I could, “Honey, there’s no way you can serve this. It’s burned.” She looked up and started to cry. “I hoped you wouldn’t notice. I was stirring and stirring, and all of a sudden I noticed black flecks coming to the top. I quickly took it off the stove and poured it into another pot, hoping I had caught it in time.” The tears flowed freely, and she looked hopeless. “I am so tired, it’s so late, and we don’t have any money to replace the ingredients. What are we going to do?”
I put my arms around her and told her she needed to go to bed. She said, “But I can’t. I still have carrots to peel and cut up.” I walked her to the bedroom. We had a prayer, and she got in bed. She was already asleep when I closed the door and headed for the kitchen, wondering what I could possibly do.
I grabbed the cookbook and looked for “burned milk products” in the index. Nothing. I even tried calling an all-night radio program that discussed all sorts of topics. I couldn’t get through, so I went back to the sink and peeled carrots. It was full panic time. I had done all I could do. Only one option left. I went into the dark living room and knelt down.
I felt a bit uncomfortable asking about such a trivial matter. But it was not trivial to Joy. “Heavenly Father,” I began, “I know there are many people with big problems. But I have no other place to go. I have done all I know how to do. This problem is very big to my wife, and that makes it important to me. She is faithful and tries to do all she is asked to do.” I took a deep breath. “Please, Father, take the burned taste out of the clam chowder before morning. Please forgive me for asking such a trivial thing, but please help my wife.” With that I went to bed.
About 6:30 a.m. my wife sat up in bed and said, “What am I going to do?” I told her the carrots were done, and she needed to get dressed and go try the chowder. She dipped out a small amount into a pan and heated it. As she tasted it she looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “There are no black flecks and no burned taste. What did you do?” I told her what I had done, and we both realized the blessing He had granted us. We knelt in prayer and thanked our Heavenly Father for His love and concern for us.
What process did the Lord use? I don’t know. Why did He grant this petition? I don’t know. All I know is that He said, “Ask, and it shall be given you” (Matt. 7:7), and I believed Him. And this time He granted the blessing.
Oh yes, the clam chowder was served to the sisters. They all commented on how delicious it was and asked for the recipe.
We find the Christmas season the best time of year to remind ourselves and our family of how much the Savior cares about us and that, to Him, even little things matter.