The Christmas I remember best happened when I was 12 years old. It all started one evening about a month before Christmas. The room had fallen totally silent. We all stood staring at Father, our jaws dropped in shock.
Just moments before, my three brothers and I had been wrestling with our two big dogs. My mother had watched, smiling, from the nearby kitchen table. But now, even her hands had gone perfectly still, stopping in midair as she sewed buttons back on a blue Scout uniform.
“What do you mean ‘No presents this year’?” my 16-year-old brother Mick asked slowly.
“Just what I said,” Father answered calmly. He sat down across the table from Mother. “Christmas has become all about ‘things.’ We worry too much about what we’re getting, how many presents are under the tree. Your mother and I have always taught you children the real reason we celebrate Christmas.”
“It’s Jesus’ birthday!” I piped up.
Father nodded. “That’s right, Nellie. But even though we all know the story of baby Jesus and can recite Luke chapter 2 by heart, I just feel that our home doesn’t have the right spirit in it during the holiday season. I think that if we forget about buying presents and really concentrate on the true meaning of Christmas, we’ll be more in tune with Jesus Christ and His gospel.”
“But, Dad,” I said, “we’ve always talked about how giving each other presents at Christmas is symbolic of Heavenly Father giving Jesus Christ to the world. Isn’t that true?”
Father considered this. “You’re right, Nellie. OK, let’s do this. No gift given in this family may be store-bought. Whatever you give each other must come from you,” he put his hand on his chest, “from inside you. You figure it out.” He got up and left the room.
“This is going to be the worst Christmas ever,” I thought.
“Is he serious?” Tyler asked Mother.
“He sure sounded like it.” She had already resumed her uniform mending.
“No presents …” Mick seemed in a daze.
Neil, my eight-year-old brother, looked like he was going to cry.
“So, what are we supposed to give each other?” I asked.
“Well, you all have about a month to ‘figure it out,’ as your father said,” Mother replied. She stood up with the finished shirt and left the room, humming a Christmas song.
Over the next four weeks, our house slowly filled with the Christmas spirit. We were all very secretive about what we were planning for everyone else, and we were excited about what we were giving. I never even thought about what I was getting.
Christmas morning dawned, chilly and white outside. For the first time since they had become teenagers, Mick and Tyler were the first ones up.
“Come on! Come on—get up!” They ran from room to room, waking up the rest of us.
Mother laughed. “I can’t believe you two. This alone has made my Christmas!”
Right after family prayers, the gift-giving started. What a wonderful, spirit-filled morning! We exchanged original poetry and songs. Neil had made “I’ll-do-you-a-favor” coupons for everyone. Mother had made copies of black-and-white photos of both sets of grandparents and framed them by hand for each of us.
All the gifts were truly given with love. But the one I remember the most was the one my father gave to me.
He handed me a plastic bag. Inside, I could see a slightly browned paper folded in thirds. All eyes were on me as I took the paper out and unfolded it. I gasped. It was the letter Father’s mother had written to him when he was 14 years old and she was dying of cancer. Her name was Nell, and I’m named after her. I had heard about this letter but had never seen it. I knew how precious it was to my father. And now he was giving it to me.
I started to read. The faith and spiritual strength of my grandmother radiated from her words. I read the six-page letter over and over again. The love she expressed for my father made me cry. The part that touched me the most was when she talked about leaving her family to join the Church:
“You’ll probably never get to meet your grandparents, Son. They’re in Hickory County, Missouri, with all eight of my brothers and sisters. I still remember the last time I saw them. It was during a summer rainstorm, and the humidity wrapped around me like a wool blanket as I stood there on the front porch, facing my parents. They wouldn’t even come out the door to say good-bye. Nor did they let any of my siblings come outside that house to hug me—not even my twin sister, Nora.
“‘The day a body puts some crazy fool church before her own family is the day that body loses herself. She loses her family,’ my daddy told me through the screen door. My mama was behind him. I could see she was crying. Then he said, right before he slammed the door, ‘You are no longer my daughter.’ I’ve never seen any of them since.
“Now, Son, I don’t tell you this story to make you feel sorry for me. I tell you this because I want you to know how firmly I believe this church is the one true Church on the earth. I was willing to sacrifice my family to come here to Utah because of the truth.
“Was it hard? It was very hard! Did I ever feel lonely? Absolutely. Have I ever for one single minute regretted it? No, Son, I have not. The gospel is true. I would never deny it. If I hadn’t followed my heart and joined the Church, it would have driven me insane. I knew the Book of Mormon was true the first time I read it. Sometimes, Son, you have to do the right thing, even though everyone around you is telling you otherwise.
“One night when I was feeling very discouraged, I was kneeling to say my prayers and felt myself embraced by strong, warm arms. I suddenly felt safe and reassured. There was no one there—it was our Father in Heaven letting me know that He was there and that He loved me.
“When you have children of your own someday, you be sure to tell them how much their grandmother loves them. You tell them that the gospel is true and that it’s worth all the sacrifices they will have to make. Oh, and tell them that I’ll always be right there beside them, watching out for them—just as I will be for you.”
I shared the letter with my brothers so that they could know Grandma, too. We’ve all grown up now, served missions, and been married in the temple. Every now and then, I pull out my father’s letter and read it again. Ever since my father gave it to me that Christmas long ago, it has been a source of strength for me. And I know, without a doubt, that my grandmother kept her promise to my father and has always been “right there beside” us.
“Now is the time for each of us to work toward … becoming what our Heavenly Father desires us to become. … Exaltation is an eternal family experience.”
Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “The Challenge to Become,” Ensign, Nov. 2000, 33.