A Part of the Giving

by Lynn Tilton

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    If anyone ever compiles a history of Christmas magic, one chapter will record that in Salt Lake City, each Christmastime, a forest grew overnight—no ordinary woods, but a forest of Christmas trees sparkling with ribbons and candy canes, apples and ornaments, dancing with ballerinas and bright-colored birds, Santas, elves, and gingerbread men, laughing with toy trains, planes, trucks, popcorn strings, and tiny perfect loaves of wheat-good bread. And somewhere in that chapter, probably near the end, the author will explain that the magic of this forest helped heal children in pain and gave hope where hope had been lost. And the last footnote will state humbly that the forest sometimes taught people how to love and give.

    If this all sounds like a children’s story, it is in a way, but mostly it’s a people-story, because this forest is grown every year by people-magic, and most authorities agree that’s the strongest and sweetest magic of all.

    The magic began in the heads of people all around the Salt Lake area. These people belonged to church and civic groups, businesses and families, and soon these people and these groups were busily making Christmas tree ornaments. They worked hard to make the ornaments as beautiful and artistic as they could, but above all, they tried to make them glow with the spirit of Christmas, because that is a powerful aid in working people-magic.

    One day in early December all these people appeared at the Salt Palace, Salt Lake’s beautiful convention center, with their decorations and their trees, and as they carefully hung the ornaments on the trees, a Christmas forest was born.

    Meanwhile, people all over the area were working magic of their own in ovens and on cutting boards where Christmas cakes, cookies, and pastries of all kinds were being conjured up by magicians of the kitchen amid flour and eggshells and the rich, spicy aromas of December. Gingerbread castles sprang up under their fingertips, and cookie trains rolled forth on delicious wheels. In basements and sewing rooms, wizards of workshop and sewing basket were putting the finishing touches on handcrafted gift items. All these sweet-smelling and straight-stitched miracles soon found their way to the Salt Palace where the forest was glimmering. The magic was at work.

    Drawn by the enchantment, thousands of people came to the Salt Palace and wandered through the trees, oohing and aahing in a slow-moving river of wonderment. They gladly made contributions at the door and often purchased Christmas gifts and Christmas confections from the gift boutique and Sweete Shoppe. The whole splendid Yuletide crunch of people and trees and treats and laughter was called the Festival of Trees, and when the festival had ended, local businessmen and other generous men and women bought the decorated trees for prices often running into four figures.

    And that was only the beginning of the magic, because the proceeds of the festival were given to the Primary Children’s Medical Center where they helped provide medical care that changed children’s lives for the better.

    Last year students at the LDS seminary in Magna, Utah, got a taste of the magic because they contributed one of the trees. It was their third year of participation, but judging by their enthusiasm, it was definitely not their last. In fact, all 800 seminary students would probably have gladly taken part, but the principal had to choose about three dozen to keep the project manageable. Under the direction of committee chairman Robyn Rydalch, the students chose “A Calico Carousel” as their theme and began making plans for decorating the tree that a local businessman agreed to donate.

    One Saturday morning in November they met, with apple juice and donuts to lend them strength, and began handcrafting 150 ornaments for their seven-foot tree. They worked steadily, cutting and assembling the decorations, stuffing them, and sewing them shut.

    “Last year we made the decorations out of cookie dough but had to redo half the ornaments,” one said.

    “What happened? Somebody eat them?”

    “Oh, no, we used a special recipe that baked super-hard.

    Some were too brittle and broke.”

    When asked if any other problems developed, Robyn laughed. “Well, last year half the flocking fell off the tree, but it still sold for $300.”

    After the snowmen, stars, Santa Clauses, and gingerbread houses were completed, the time had come to prepare the tree for sale and exhibition. The tree, ornaments, and lights were trucked over to the Salt Palace. There everything was assembled on the tree.

    A preview showing was held, with Bishop Victor L. Brown officially representing the Church. He paused for a time at the Magna seminary’s tree and admired the handiwork of the students.

    Those who worked on the project admitted it was a lot of work (300 hours worth) with a lot of satisfaction. One said, “It makes Christmas neater because we’re a part of the giving.”

    If anyone ever compiles that book of Christmas magic, the seminary students from Magna will be mentioned in it along with a lot of other good people. And last of all it will probably have a few words to say about the magic of the Primary Children’s Medical Center and of the children it helps. There is the magic of little Kirk who was told he would never walk, but walks. There is the magic of Lynn Ann who is courageously holding her own against leukemia. There is the magic of Joey who overcame crippling emotional problems to become a happy child. The work of the hospital staff is in keeping with the spirit of the Savior who was born in Bethlehem and brought to the world something better than magic. He too loved little children.

    Every year the Women’s Endowment Committee, which organized the festival, invites everyone to “give the future to a child—give the gift of love.” Those like the Magna seminary students who have accepted the challenge have found the wonderful kind of magic that comes with being “a part of the giving.”

    Photos by Craig Law and Brian Kelly

    Above: Magna seminary students decorate their tree. Clockwise from upper left-hand corner: Terri Rydalch, Debbie Ruston, Curtis Slack, Robin Rydalch, Terri Eden, and Dave Pearce

    Faces clockwise from upper left-hand corner: Dave Pearce, Beth Barker, and Julie Maloney. Left: An ornament made by the Magna Seminary students. Above: The Magna seminary tree stands in the foreground of part of the enchanted forest

    The creative talents of the tree decorators produced such unusual ornaments as breadsticks, donuts, wheat, wooden toys, and loaves of bread