Christmas Remembered

Ezra Taft Benson

President of the Church

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    The best Christmas gifts can’t be wrapped in paper. No store sells them. Money can’t buy them. They’re brighter than tinsel, warmer than firelight, sweeter than Grandma’s fudge. They’re Christmas memories.

    Kindled at the Source of all light, they shine from year to year, generation to generation, linking past and future. They soften hearts, lift spirits, and make us better people all year long.

    Christmas memories are homemade—with a little help from heaven. The best ones seem to happen when we forget ourselves and reach out to help others.

    On these pages five Church leaders share with you their own very special Christmas memories.

    [illustration] Lettering by James Fedor

    A Joyful Reunion

    Following my release from my first mission in 1923, I returned home to Whitney, Idaho, on Christmas Eve. It was a joyful reunion with my ten brothers and sisters, and especially with my father and mother in a home that had been as near ideal as a Latter-day Saint home could be.

    Father and Mother always made it a practice to hang the stockings, one on each chair, for the children and to place their limited gifts on or under or near each chair. This was quite a task because they made it a practice to hide the presents to be sure that none of the children saw them before Christmas morning.

    Father and Mother took me into their confidence that Christmas Eve, which I shall never forget, and we stayed up all during the night. In fact, we didn’t retire at all. We filled the stockings after going to the granary and elsewhere on the farm to get the presents which had been secretly hidden by our devoted and beloved parents. This took a good part of the night. The rest we spent visiting together, with Father and Mother telling me of the progress made by each of the children while I was away, and with me reporting to them and responding to their questions regarding my wonderful mission of 30 months in the British Isles. It was a choice evening. My love for my parents had never been quite so great before as it was that night.

    It was agreed that the children could arise early Christmas morning. I don’t remember the hour, but I think it was 5:00 A.M. They were each to go in the kitchen, as I remember it, for a glass of milk and a piece of bread and butter and honey before they came into the living room to partake of the goodies from their stockings and to enjoy the excitement of their presents from Santa. It was a happy morning. I could not hold back the tears as I watched with pride the reactions of my six brothers and four sisters and the loving expressions of my noble parents as they watched their posterity partake of the Christmas spirit and as they felt of the unity which prevailed in our family circle.

    [photos] This 1944 photograph of the Benson family appeared in the Deseret News, a Salt Lake City newspaper. The joy evident in the faces of the children echoes President Benson’s own childhood memories of family Christmases on a farm in Whitney, Idaho.

    A “Sunshine” Christmas

    Many years ago I found myself as part of occupation troops in a foreign land just at the end of a terrible war. It was not long after we arrived in this country before we developed a great love and concern for the people we were there to watch over. This was especially true of the young people, the children. Many times we would find them scavenging in our garbage cans looking for food to keep themselves alive. This deeply touched us, and we wanted to make a more substantial contribution to them. We raised what money we could and found a local religious group that was willing to open an orphanage for them. We donated as much time as possible to improve the facilities and provided them with the operating funds they needed.

    As Christmas approached, we sent letters home to our families asking that, instead of sending gifts to us, they send toys for the children in the orphanage. The response of our families was overwhelming! Toys arrived daily from our homes.

    We found a tree suitable to use as a Christmas tree, but we had no traditional decorations for it. A lady taught us how to make little birds by folding square pieces of paper, and these became the major part of the decorations for the tree. The presents were wrapped mostly in discarded Stars and Stripes newspapers. I’ll never forget Christmas Eve with those children. I am sure many of them had never seen a Christmas tree in their lives.

    We sang Christmas carols to them, but we weren’t very good at this. They had been rehearsing for weeks so they could sing a song to us in English. It was not a Christmas carol, but it was beautiful. They sang, “You Are My Sunshine.” We were deeply touched with the spirit of the children that Christmas Eve, especially as they opened the presents sent from our families. I suppose some of them had not had a toy in many, many years.

    This is a Christmas I’ll never forget because we were learning the true meaning of this great holiday season. The greatest joy we can receive in life is giving—to bring into the life of someone else a little joy and happiness.

    [photos] Elder Perry and his friends of the Tenth Marine Batallion, Second Marine division, found a ten-year-old Japanese girl with no shoes. They bought her a pair and provided her with food, clothing, and shelter. The helped establish an orphanage and staged a Christmas celebration for the children there.

    Remembering Grandfather

    One of my fondest memories as a small boy was the annual visit to our home on Butler Avenue in Salt Lake City of my Grandfather and Grandmother Ballard on Christmas morning. Melvin J. Ballard died when I was ten years old. I knew that my Grandfather Ballard was a very important man in the Church, but I did not understand what it meant to be an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. To me he was Grandpa Ballard, and that was enough to make me always very eager for his visit to our home, and especially on Christmas morning.

    I particularly remember one Christmas morning, just a year or two before Grandfather Ballard died. My father and mother gave to Grandfather and Grandmother a new set of luggage. This seemed so appropriate to me then, because it seemed like Grandfather was always traveling.

    Reflecting back on those special Christmas mornings with Grandfather and Grandmother Ballard brings special fond memories since today I find myself as a member of the Council of the Twelve and I have a new and deeper appreciation for those special Christmas mornings with my grandparents. I hope now as my grandchildren come to visit me and I go to visit them, I can create memories for them that will live on long after I am gone.

    [photos] Elder Ballard treasures memories of Christmas morning visits by his grandfather, Elder Melvin J. Ballard. Elder Ballard says, “I think grandfathers throughout the Church ought to remember that the memories they make with grandchildren will live in their hearts for a long, long time.”

    A Far Greater Gift

    A number of years ago our family had the privilege of serving a mission in Belgium and France. We had six small children, including a new baby born in that country. Before Christmas we had written home for some clothing and Christmas gifts for our children. They did not arrive in time for Christmas as we had hoped.

    As we sat together Christmas Eve reading the New Testament and the account of the birth of the Savior, there was a little melancholy because there would not be many gifts. But as we read the words about the gift our Father in Heaven had given, his beloved Son, Jesus, we realized that there were many in our city who needed help. So we quickly gathered together some of our possessions and a Christmas box of groceries and sought out one of those families.

    As we all visited that tiny apartment and began to sing Christmas carols, our hearts were full as perhaps never before. We felt the spirit of giving, we felt the spirit of those who were receiving, and we felt the spirit of our Father in Heaven. We returned to our home that Christmas Eve with a far greater gift than those gifts we had anticipated from home. Truly, the only real gift is the gift of oneself.

    [photos] When Elder Paramore was president of the Belgium Brussels Mission, the family made this Christmas stocking for the missionaries. The words on the stocking are a French pun that identifies the Paramores as a family dedicated to love.

    The Bell Still Rings

    Several years ago just before Christmas, my niece, Shelly, grabbed her mom’s hand and, without explanation, led her into the privacy of the laundry room. “Mom,” she asked in a serious whisper, “is it okay if I believe just one more year?”

    Since that memorable happening, our family has established a family tradition. Each Christmas Eve, we gather together around the tree. With the lights low and the fire burning in the fireplace, we ask the question once again, the most important question of the year, “Is it okay if we believe one more year?”—not only believe in the traditions of childhood with Santa Claus and reindeer, but more importantly in the message of the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, whose birthday we are celebrating. Do we believe in his mission, his atonement, his resurrection? Do we believe in his invitation to come and follow him?

    Of course we are not really committing ourselves for only a year. We are pledged to follow the Savior forever. But we live life a day, a week, a month, a year at a time, and Christmas is a season to focus on the year ahead and reconfirm our discipleship.

    After a declaration of belief by one and all, the following question is sometimes harder: When we believe, how will that affect how we live, how we feel, what we will do and what we will not do? We then commit to strive to live as we believe and to help each other all year long.

    Next, someone reads aloud The Polar Express by Chris Von Allsburg. In the story, a young boy says, “I shook the bell. It made the most beautiful sound my sister and I had ever heard, but my mother said, ‘Oh, that’s too bad.’ ‘Yes,’ said my father, ‘it’s broken.’ My parents had not heard a sound,” the story continues. “At one time most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed it fell silent for all of them. Though I have grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.”

    Following the story, we each receive a small new bell on a red satin ribbon to wear around our necks during the holidays. We listen for its clear sound as a testimony and commitment that we truly believe and will strive to live as we believe. While the fire burns low, we then read the glorious account of the Christmas story recorded by Luke, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). And we believe.

    [photos] Every year Sister Kapp’s family meets to celebrate the Savior’s birth and to recommit themselves to living according to his life and teachings. At the far right is Sister Kapp’s niece Shelly, who asked the celebrated question that became a Christmas tradition.