“At the focal point of all human history, a point illuminated by a new star in the heavens revealed for just such a purpose, probably no other mortal watched—none but a poor young carpenter, a beautiful virgin mother, and silent stabled animals who had not the power to utter the sacredness they had seen. … First and forever there was just a little family, without toys or trees or tinsel” (Jeffrey R. Holland, Ensign, Dec. 1977, 63–65).
The beginnings of Christmas were simple. Together, a family celebrated the day of our Savior’s birth. Today, entire nations celebrate. Santa Claus visits, parades are held, food is shared, and gifts are purchased. But these celebrations cannot compete with the joy of that first Christmas when only a family celebrating the birth of a divine child were present. Capturing that spirit amidst the often hurried celebrations we hold today can be difficult. But it isn’t impossible.
In the next few pages you will meet families who celebrate together, by focusing on the one who came to earth to redeem mankind—our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Jason Johnston’s family was more than 1,000 miles away from home on Christmas Eve three years ago. Jennifer, Jason’s older sister, was scheduled to have surgery in Salt Lake City, Utah, shortly after Christmas, and the family had traveled from Bartlesville, Oklahoma, so they could be near her.
As they gathered around the fireplace of a cabin in Aspen Grove, Utah, that night, everyone knew it would be a different kind of Christmas. But the real differences came unexpectedly.
“I went eagerly to my place in the circle as my parents handed us each a gift,” says Jason, who was 18 at the time. “I held my present close, so as soon as the story of Christ was told, I could open it.”
But Jason’s mother, Ann, started out the traditional family event with tears in her eyes and asked them to first listen to a song about Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. She then expressed her own feelings for such a mother and child and asked that her children open their gifts right away, a task usually reserved for the evening’s finale.
Being the youngest in the family, Jason got to open his gift first. Jason ripped apart the paper and quickly opened the box. “I was dismayed to see a frame face down,” Jason says. “I picked it up, and, turning it over, I noticed it was a picture of Mary and the Baby Jesus.”
“I didn’t say anything. I just sat and stared at it as each of my sisters and my brother opened the same gift.”
Jason was, to say the least, momentarily disappointed. The same picture each child received was one his mother already had sitting on the table next to the Bible.
But then Ann told them the picture’s story:
It was the same picture she had been given more than 20 years ago by her mother on Christmas Eve. And just like Mary and her own mother before her, Ann wanted her children to know how much she loved them. She wanted them to know how she felt honored to raise each of them. How she worried about them as they went into the world. And how she once lovingly cradled each of them in her arms.
“At this point there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Jason says. His disappointment immediately changed to love and peace. “I don’t know why my eyes filled with tears. I guess it really didn’t matter. I was with my family, and that’s all I needed.”
The family finished their Christmas Eve festivities with a testimony meeting, and each child received a priesthood blessing from their father. They also sang carols and ate holiday treats that night. But the memories of carols and food aren’t quite as clear in their minds as are the words spoken by a loving mother and father on that night in a small cabin so far away from home.
Today that simple picture of Mary and her child still hangs on Jason’s bedroom wall in Oklahoma, many miles away from the cabin in Aspen Grove. But he will never forget that night. Nor will he forget the picture’s legacy and the meaning that comes from a Christmas centered around Jesus Christ.
Just as a simple picture allowed Christ to enter into one family’s Christmas traditions, a few notes of music have strengthened another family’s feelings about Christmas.
The Pikes, of Holladay, Utah, have made music an integral part of their lives, and of their Christmases, by producing an annual concert for friends and families in the East Millcreek (Utah) Eleventh Ward.
“Music has a very strong part in my life,” says 18-year-old Emily Pike, who has been helping her family put on the concert for two years. “We think of the Christmas program as a gift that shows the people in the ward how much we love them.”
Emily has found that singing and listening to the words of a hymn or choral music invite the Spirit to dwell inside her. She says that her family tries to bring this feeling into everyone’s heart as they prepare their Christmas program.
“I have always felt the Spirit more strongly when I sing,” Emily says. “I’m able to get into the music more when I’m thinking of the words and what they mean to me. It brings out the life of Christ and helps me to remember what Christmas is really about.”
“You learn to love the music, and you just feel so much happiness, and you feel Christ’s love with you [when you sing].”
As Emily joins her family this season to sing hymns about our Savior, she knows she will be blessed. She also knows that her Christmas will be more meaningful. Most of all, she knows that a short verse in the Doctrine and Covenants is true in her own life. “The song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads” (D&C 25:12).
Celebrating Christ’s life during the Christmas season brings both families and friends closer together. Jennifer Adams, of Pleasanton, California, discovered this when she went away to school.
She and her roommates knew they would spend most of the time leading up to Christmas away from their families. But they didn’t want to miss out on the traditions and special experiences of home, so they started some of their own.
They took a long candle, decorated it with numbers from 1 to 25, and placed it in the center of the living room. Every night they lit the candle and let it burn down one number.
While the candle burned, they sang traditional Christmas hymns and shared stories of service and giving. Some nights, they bore testimony of the Savior and talked about what Christmas meant to them.
It only took 15 minutes a night and made for a meaningful holiday season. It became a tradition Jennifer will one day incorporate in her own home. It also brought the roommates closer together and created a feeling of having a family even while they were away at college.
As these families and friends join together this Christmas season, it is likely that new traditions will be formed. Some traditions will celebrate the commercial aspects of Christmas. Other, more meaningful traditions, will focus on the Savior and remind families around the world that Jesus Christ makes the joy we feel at this time of year possible.
President Ezra Taft Benson said, “Without Christ there would be no Christmas, and without Christ there can be no fulness of joy. It is my testimony that the Babe of Bethlehem, Jesus the Christ, is the one perfect Guide, the one perfect Example. Only by emulating Him and adhering to His eternal truth can we realize peace on earth and good will toward all” (Ezra Taft Benson Remembers the Joys of Christmas, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988, 13).
One of the best ways to center your Christmas around the Savior is to live your life how he lived his: in service for others.
Here are just a few ideas:
Decorate a service tree with your family. Decorate the tree as you usually would at the beginning of the month. Then place a basketful of homemade ornaments under the tree. Attach a small piece of paper to each ornament, suggesting an act of service—like visiting a neighbor or smiling at everyone you see that day.
Family members should pick an ornament out of the basket every day and do whatever service it suggests, then hang the ornament on the tree. During family home evenings for the month, share testimonies of service with each other.
Make appreciation boxes for members of your ward who do behind-the-scenes jobs, like the librarian or the nursery leader. Decorate a shoe box with Christmas wrapping paper and fill it with cookies or other treats.
Give a gift to a needy person instead of buying a gift for a particular person in your family. Go shopping with your family to pick out the gift.
Write your testimonies of the Savior in copies of the Book of Mormon and give them to a nonmember family in your ward.
Serve a Christmas breakfast to your parents. They have worn themselves out in preparation for the day and would love a break. Make cinnamon rolls in the shape of a tree and use green frosting to trim them. Cut up some fruit and serve it with orange juice to complete the meal.