A father once asked me to advise him about giving a Christmas gift to his daughter. He just couldn’t decide whether or not to give this gift or how to give it. His daughter was a college student. Her hectic life of school activities was made even harder because she didn’t have a car. She begged rides, and she sometimes missed appointments. Her dad didn’t have enough money for another car, at least not without some real sacrifice for his family. But he had found a used car he might buy for her, if he cut enough corners on the family budget.
He asked me, “Will that car really be good for her or will it be a problem? I love her, she really could use it, but do you think it will help her or help spoil her?” Let me guess. I can hear you rooting for the car: “Go for it! Go for it!”
I didn’t try to answer his question then. I could sense his worry and sympathize with him. Shortly after that my sons, Matthew and John, and I spent time at a toy store. Above us a red Santa Claus spun slowly and I heard a mother’s teeth-clenched whisper float over the stacks of toys to our aisle: “Don’t tell me what your brother did to you. I saw everything. Do you want me to hit you right here in the store? Now you go outside and sit on that bench. And you stay there. If you don’t I won’t get you a thing.” John and I shrugged and smiled at each other as we moved on, and I hummed inwardly, “’Tis the season to be jolly …”
It’s not always easy. It’s hard to give a gift with confidence. There are so many ways it can go wrong. For instance, will the person on the other end want it? My batting average on that is low. At least I think it is. You can’t really tell what gets returned after Christmas. But I am cautious enough that I always put the gift in the box from the store where I bought it.
I’ve always had a daydream of being a great gift giver. I can picture someone opening my gift with tears of joy and a smile showing that the giving, not just the gift, had touched a heart. I’ve been surrounded by expert gift givers all my life. None of them has ever told me how to do it, but I’ve been watching and I’ve been building a theory.
My theory comes from thinking about many gifts and many holidays. But one day and one gift can illustrate it. The day was not Christmas. It was a summer day. My mother died in the early afternoon. My father, my brother, and I had gone from the hospital to our family home, just the three of us. Friends and family came to the house, and went. In a lull, we fixed ourselves a snack. And then we visited with more callers. It grew late, dusk fell, and I remember we had still not turned on the lights.
Dad answered the door bell. It was Aunt Catherine and Uncle Bill. When they’d walked just a few feet past the vestibule, Uncle Bill extended his hand and I could see that he was holding a bottle of cherries. I can still see the deep red, almost purple, cherries and the shining gold cap on the mason jar. He said, “You might enjoy these. You probably haven’t had dessert.”
We hadn’t. The three of us sat around the kitchen table and put some cherries in bowls and ate them as Uncle Bill and Aunt Catherine cleared some dishes. Uncle Bill asked, “Are there people you haven’t had time to call? Just give me some names and I’ll do it.” We mentioned a few relatives who would want to know of mother’s death. And then Aunt Catherine and Uncle Bill were gone. They could not have been with us more than 20 minutes.
Now, you can understand my theory best if you focus on one gift: the bottle of cherries. As nearly as I can tell, the giving and receiving of a great gift always has three parts. Here they are, illustrated by that gift on a summer evening.
First, I knew that Uncle Bill and Aunt Catherine had felt what I was feeling and had been touched. They must have felt we’d be too tired to fix much food. They must have felt that a bowl of cherries, home-canned cherries, would make us, for a moment, feel like a family again. Just knowing that someone had understood meant far more than the cherries themselves. I can’t remember the taste of the cherries, but I remember that someone knew my heart and cared.
Second, I felt the gift was free. I knew Uncle Bill and Aunt Catherine had chosen freely to bring a gift. And I knew they weren’t doing it to compel a response from me. The gift seemed to provide them joy in the giving.
And third, there was sacrifice. I knew that from the cherries being home bottled. That meant Aunt Catherine had made them for her family. They must have liked cherries. But she took that possible pleasure for them and gave it to me. That’s sacrifice. But I realized since then this marvelous fact: it must have seemed to Uncle Bill and Aunt Catherine that they’d have more pleasure if I had the cherries than if they did. There was sacrifice, but it was made for a greater return to them—my happiness. Anyone can feel deprived as they sacrifice, and then let the person who gets a gift know it. But only the expert can let you sense that his sacrifice brings him joy because it blesses you.
Well, there is a simple theory. When you’re on the receiving end, you will discover three things in the great gift giver: he felt what you felt and was touched; he gave freely; and he counted sacrifice a bargain.
Now you can see it won’t be easy to use this theory to make big strides in your gift giving this Christmas. It will take some practice, more than one holiday, to learn how to feel and be touched by what’s inside others. And giving freely and counting sacrifice as joy will take a while. But you could start this Christmas being a good receiver. You might notice and you might appreciate. You have the power to make others great gift givers by what you notice. You could make any gift better by what you choose to see, and you could, by failing to notice, make any gift a failure.
You can guess the advice I might have given my friend—the one with the car-less daughter. Would a car be a good gift? Of course it could be, but something very special must happen in the eyes of that daughter. On Christmas morning, her eyes would need to see past the car to Dad and to the family. If she saw that he had read her heart and really cared, if she saw that she’d not wheedled the car from the family nor that they had given it to extract some performance, and if she really saw the sacrifice and the joy with which they made it for her—if she saw that, then the gift would be more than wheels. In fact, that gift would still be carrying her long after the wheels wouldn’t turn. And from the dad’s description of the car’s age, that could be soon. Her rare appreciation, if it lasted, would make a great gift of whatever awaits her Christmas morning.
Gift giving takes a giver and a receiver. I hope we use our little theory, not to criticize the gifts and giving that come our way this year, but to see how often our hearts are understood and gifts given joyfully, even with sacrifice.
There is something you could do this Christmas to start becoming a better gift giver yourself. In fact, you could begin to put some gifts—great gifts—on layaway for future Christmases.
You could start in your room today. Is there an unfinished paper somewhere in the stacks? Perhaps it’s typed and ready to turn in. Why bother more with it? I learned why during a religion class I taught once at Ricks College. I was teaching from Doctrine and Covenants 25:8 [D&C 25:8]. That tells Emma Smith she should give her time to “writing, and to learning much.” About three rows back in the class sat a blond girl whose brow wrinkled as I urged diligence in developing writing skills. She raised her hand and said, “That doesn’t seem reasonable to me. All I’ll ever write are letters to my children.” That brought laughter. I felt a little chagrined to have applied that scripture to her. Just looking at her I could imagine a quiver full of children around her and even see the letters she’d write, in purple ink, with handwriting slanting backwards, with neat, round loops. Maybe writing powerfully wouldn’t matter to her.
And then a young man stood up near the back. He’d said little during the term. He was older than the other students and shy. He told in a quiet voice of being a soldier in Viet Nam. In what he thought would be a lull, he’d left his rifle and walked across his fortified compound to mail call. Just as he got a letter in his hand he heard a bugle blow, and shouts and mortar and rifle fire came in ahead of the swarming enemy. He fought his way back to his rifle, using his hands as weapons. With the men who survived, he drove the enemy out. The wounded were evacuated. And then he sat down among the living, and some of the dead, and he opened the letter.
It was from his mother. She wrote that she’d had a spiritual experience that assured her he would live to come home, if he were righteous. “That letter was scripture to me,” the boy said quietly. “I kept it.” And he sat down. You may have a child someday, perhaps a son. Can you see his face? Can you see him somewhere, sometime in mortal danger? Can you feel the fear in his heart, and does it touch you? Would you like to freely give? What sacrifice will it take to write the letter your heart will want to send? You won’t do it in the hour before the postman comes. Nor will it be possible in a day or even a week. It may take years. Start the practice this afternoon. Go back to your room and write, and read, and rewrite that paper again, and again. It won’t seem like sacrifice if you picture that boy, feel his heart, and think of the letters he’ll need someday.
Now, some of you may not have a paper waiting for you. It may be a textbook with a math problem hidden in it. They hide them these days: the mathematics is often tucked away in a special section which you can skip. And so many of you do. Let me tell you about a Christmas in your future. You’ll have a teenage son or daughter who’ll say, “I hate school.” After some careful listening, you’ll find it is not school or even mathematics he or she hates; it’s the feeling of failure.
And so you’ll correctly discern those feelings and you’ll be touched. You’ll want to freely give. So you’ll open the text and say, “Let’s look at one of the problems together.” Think of the shock when you will see that the same rowboat is still going downstream in two hours and back in five hours and how fast is the current and how far did the boat travel. Think of the shock when you remember having seen that problem before. Why, that rowboat has been in the water for generations. You might think that you’ll say, “Well, I’ll make my children feel better by showing them that I can’t do math either.” Let me give you some advice: they will see that as a poor gift.
There is a better gift, but it will take effort now. My dad, when he was a boy, must have tackled the rowboat problem, and lots of others. That was part of the equipment he needed to become a scientist who made a difference to chemistry. But he also made a difference to me. Our family room didn’t look as elegant as some. It had one kind of furniture, chairs, and one wall decoration, a green chalkboard. I came to the age your boy or girl will reach. I didn’t wonder if I could work the math problems; I’d proved to my satisfaction I couldn’t. Some of my teachers were satisfied that was true, too.
But Dad wasn’t satisfied. He thought I could. So we took turns at that chalkboard. I can’t remember the gifts my dad wrapped and helped put under a tree. But I remember the chalkboard and his quiet voice and even his not-so-quiet voice as he built up my mathematics, and me. It took more than knowing what I needed and caring. It took more than being willing to give his time then, precious as it was. It took time earlier when he had the chances you have. Because he spent it then, he and I had that time at the green board. And because he gave me that, I’ve got a boy this year who has let me sit down with him. We’ve rowed that same boat up and down. And his teacher wrote “much improved” on a report card. But I’ll tell you what’s improved most: the feelings of a fine boy about himself. Nothing I will put under the tree for Stuart this year has half the chance to become a family heirloom that his pride of accomplishment does.
Now I see some art, or are they music, majors smiling. You’re thinking: he surely can’t convince me there’s a gift hidden in my unfinished assignments. Let me try. Last week I went to an Eagle Scout court of honor. I’ve been to dozens. But this one had something I won’t forget. Before the Eagle badge was given there was a slide and sound show. The lights went down, and I recognized two voices on the tape. One was a famous singer in the background, and the other, the narrator, was the dad of the new Eagle Scout. The slides were of eagles soaring, and of mountains, and of moon landings. Maybe the Eagle Scout didn’t have a lump in his throat quite the size of mine. But he’ll remember the gift. The dad must have spent hours preparing slides, writing words that soared, and then somehow getting music and words at the right volume and at the right moment. You may have a boy someday, with all his cousins and aunts and uncles in a room looking on. And with your whole heart, you’ll want to tell him what he is and what he can be. Whether you give that gift then depends on whether you feel his heart now, and are touched, and start building the creative skills you’ll need. What it will mean in his life will make it worthwhile. I promise you.
There is yet another gift some of you may want to give that takes starting early. I saw it start once when serving as a bishop. A student sat across my desk from me and talked about mistakes he had made. And he talked about how much he wanted the children he might have someday to have a dad who could use his priesthood and to whom they were sealed forever. He said he knew that the price and pain of repentance might be great. And then he said what I will not forget, “Bishop, I am coming back. I will do whatever it takes. I am coming back.” He felt sorrow. And he had faith in Christ. And still it took months of painful effort.
And so somewhere this Christmas there is a family with a priesthood dad, and they have eternal hopes and peace on earth. He’ll probably give his family all sorts of gifts wrapped brightly, but nothing will matter quite so much as the one he started a long time ago in my office and has never stopped giving. He felt then the needs of children he’d only dreamed of, and he gave early and freely. He sacrificed his pride and sloth and numbed feelings. I am sure it doesn’t seem like a sacrifice now.
He could give that gift because of another one given long ago. God the Father gave his Son, and Jesus Christ gave us the Atonement, the greatest of all gifts and all giving. He gave the gift freely, willingly to us all: He said, “Therefore, doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself” (John 10:17–18).
And I bear you testimony that as you accept that gift, given through infinite sacrifice, it now brings joy to the giver. Jesus taught, “I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).
If that warms you as it does me, you may well want to give a gift to the Savior. Others did at his birth. Knowing what we do, how much more do we want to give him something. But he seems to have everything. Well, not quite. He doesn’t have you with him again, forever, not yet. I hope you are touched by the feelings of his heart enough to sense how much he wants to know you are coming home to him. You can’t give that gift to him in one day, or one Christmas, but you could show him today that you are on the way. You could pray. You could read a page of scripture. You could keep a commandment.
If you have already done that, there is still something left to give. All around you are people he loves and can best help through me and you.
One of the sure signs of a person who has accepted the gift of the Savior’s atonement is gift giving. The process of cleansing seems to make us more sensitive, more generous, more pleased to share what means so much to us. I suppose that’s why the Savior used a standard of gift giving in describing who would finally come home.
“Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
“For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
“Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me:
“Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
“When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
“Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
“And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:35–40).
And that, I suppose, is the nicest effect of receiving great gifts. It makes us want to give and give well. I’ve been blessed all my life by such gifts. Many of those gifts were given long ago. We’re near the birthday of the Prophet Joseph Smith. He gave his great talent, and his life, that the gospel of Jesus Christ might be restored for me and for you. Ancestors of mine from Switzerland and Germany and Yorkshire and Wales left home and familiar ways to embrace the restored gospel, as much, perhaps more, for me as for them. It was ten years after the Saints came into these mountains before my great-grandfather’s journal shows he had so much as a Christmas meal. One entry reads, in its entirety: “December 25, 1855: Fixed a shed and went to the cedars. Four sheep died last night. Froze.” I acknowledge such gifts, which I only hope I am capable of sending along to people I have not yet seen.
And so shall we do what we can to appreciate and give a merry Christmas?
“Freely ye have received, freely give” (Matt. 10:8).
I pray that we will. I pray that we will be touched by the feelings of others, that we will give without feelings of compulsion or expectation of gain, and that we will know that sacrifice is made sweet to us when we treasure the joy it brings to another heart, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.