In the months leading up to Christmas in 1998, my husband and I wanted to celebrate Christmas in a different way than we had ever done before. In the past we had celebrated Christmas by meeting with relatives and friends, having dinner together, and opening our gifts on Christmas Eve, which is the tradition in our home country of El Salvador.
But this year we felt a deep desire to teach our two small children the true meaning of Christmas. We wanted our children to know that Christmas is more than lights and bright colors, more than parties and celebrations, more than wrapping paper and ribbons, more than decorating a tree, more than hugs and best wishes.
As Christmas Eve drew near, we weren’t sure what we were going to do that night, but I felt free of the stress that normally overwhelms me at Christmastime. We decided we would not go out with friends that night or make any other social commitments. Instead, we would spend the night in simple celebration as a family. Our thoughts would center around our Savior.
On Christmas Eve, I prepared a delicious dinner. As we sat down at the table, our young daughter, Ileana, said expectantly, “It seems like someone is coming tonight.” I struggled to keep tears from my eyes. I hoped Jesus Christ would indeed accept our humble invitation.
After dinner, my husband taught us about the birth of Jesus Christ as described in the second chapter of Luke. When he read verses 13 and 14—“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men”—we silently joined with the heavenly hosts in thanking our Eternal Father for sending His Son to atone for our sins. Then Ileana read to us the meaning of Christmas symbols. We opened a few simple gifts and took photographs.
Our evening together was filled with reverence, love, and gratitude for Jesus Christ. We experienced a sweet joy we had never felt before on Christmas Eve.
On Christmas morning we decided to continue our Christmas celebration the way we had started it. We prepared food as if for a picnic, and at about 11:00 A.M., we headed for Opal’s house. Opal is 80 years old and not a member of the Church. She has an inner beauty that makes people want to be close to her. Even though Opal doesn’t speak our language and isn’t from our Spanish culture, our children have accepted her as their grandmother. Ileana could spend hours talking with Opal. And despite his shyness, our son, Kevin, doesn’t hesitate for a minute to hug her. I am grateful for Opal’s love, especially since our children’s grandparents live very far away from our home in Texas.
We wanted to share our Christmas with this lovely widow who lives alone and has no children. Her eyes sparkled when we arrived. She was emotional as we served dinner—it was probably the first Christmas in many years she had spent with anyone.
After we ate, Opal opened some gifts we had brought her. But our visit was more of a gift to us than to Opal. Her joy warmed our hearts.
Next we went to the hospital to visit Sister Schroeder, a member of our ward. From the time our children were very young, Sister Schroeder had taken notice of them and had made them feel important and loved. Every time she greeted us, her first smile was for the children. Now she was in intensive care and was close to leaving this world. I didn’t think the children would be allowed into her room. But their sincere pleading softened the heart of the nurse, and they were admitted inside.
Since Sister Schroeder was unconscious, I didn’t know if she would hear anything we said to her. We wanted to tell her that she was important to us and that we loved her. With all the tenderness in my heart, I caressed Sister Schroeder’s arm as I sent a prayer to our Heavenly Father in her behalf. It was the first Christmas gift I have ever given with such a sincere desire; it was wrapped in compassion and tied with the ribbon of my tears.
Then Ileana approached her bedside and said in an angelic voice, “Sister Schroeder, it’s Ileana. I’m here to wish you a Merry Christmas.” Her tearful words were brief but sincere. I was certain Sister Schroeder would somehow take that loving memory with her to her new life.
Our unplanned Christmas taught me much. I came to understand that Christmas celebrations need not be competitions to see who can give or receive the most expensive present. Our most valuable gift is our love—love for the Christ child, who was born 2,000 years ago in a humble manger, love for our families and our neighbors, love for the beautiful world Heavenly Father has given us. Another valuable gift is our compassion—the feeling that causes us “to mourn with those that mourn” (Mosiah 18:9), to lift the weak, to visit the lonely, to dry the tears of those who are sad. And another gift is our gratitude—gratitude for our Savior who taught us how to live and who lovingly and willingly bore our sins, our griefs, and our weaknesses as His Father had commissioned Him to do.
We celebrate Christmas best when we live the Savior’s teachings—not just at Christmas but every day of the year.