I was asked to speak in church today. I mean, I was asked five weeks ago to present my talk today (hope that makes sense). For five weeks I’ve been somewhat distracted from other matters because of this one. This week, the last few days especially, I’ve been feeling nervous and excited and nervous and . . . nervous.
In case anyone is interested in reading it, here is the talk I delivered in church this morning.
The True Meaning of Christmas
24 Dec 2017
I was asked to speak on The True Meaning of Christmas. This was a bit of a challenge for me. I love the Savior, but I’m not especially good at celebrating Christmas.
I grew up in a large family, the seventh of eight children. When I was young we always celebrated in a big way. One of the things we looked forward to was the “Specials” on TV—these were shows you could only see ONCE a year. If you missed them, they were gone for the next 365 days. A Charlie Brown Christmas was one of my favorites and stands out in my memory as one show dedicated to the True Meaning of Christmas.
It begins in the midst of the Christmas season with all the other children having a great time while Charlie Brown feels depressed. He’s even more depressed because he knows he should feel happy. He’s discouraged by all the commercialism he sees—his dog is entering a contest for the best display of Christmas decorations, his little sister asks him to write a letter to Santa Claus asking for lots and lots of presents or, better yet, MONEY.
Charlie Brown seeks advice from his Psychiatrist, a little girl with a forceful personality, named Lucy van Pelt. She gives him some sound advice—for the price of a nickel. She tells him he needs to Get Involved and she tells him how—their group of friends need a director for their Christmas Play.
Charlie Brown undertakes the responsibility with vision and determination, but he meets all kinds of resistance to his ideas. His frustration reaches a climax when everyone laughs at him because he chose a scrawny little Christmas tree instead of a fake, fancily decorated one. He cries out, “I guess I really don’t know what Christmas is all about. Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
His friend Linus says, “Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” Linus then recites the famous scripture story from Luke Chapter 2, beginning with the angels’ visit to the shepherds and ending with ‘Glory to God in the Highest and, on Earth, peace, good will toward men.’ That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
Charlie Brown takes his scraggly little Christmas tree and leaves the theatre, intending to decorate it and prove it will work in their play. He puts one large red bulb on the tree, but the weight of the bulb bows the tree to the ground. Discouraged, he walks away.
Then all his friends show up; Linus’ blanket supports the trunk and everyone’s involvement transforms the scruffy little branch into a beautiful festive evergreen. The show ends with the children joining together singing, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.”
I had to admire Charlie Brown. People called him a blockhead and treated him like he was a loser; even his dog didn’t respect him. But he wasn’t a quitter. Not only did he stay true to his quest to honor the true spirit of Christmas, he tried his hardest to encourage others to do the same. In the end, he was a Success.
As a child I understood the message of the show. But things have a way of becoming more complicated as we become more knowledgeable. The more I thought about the true meaning of Christmas, the more I struggled to write a talk about it. God is love; in Christ cometh all good things; anything virtuous, lovely or of good report, or praiseworthy; God so loved the world that He sent His Only Begotten Son… Every time I tried to separate the true meaning of Christmas out from the rest of the gospel, it brought EVERYTHING with it.
So I did more pondering and watched a few more movies.
One of my favorites is Miracle on 34th Street, the black and white version. It’s about a young girl whose mother has raised her to not believe in anything unrealistic like fairy tales, true love, or Santa Claus. In the end, the girl’s dearest wish comes true because she chooses, against reason, to believe in Santa Claus—“Even though it’s silly,” she says over and over to herself, “I believe. I believe.”
Believing in the unbelievable—our world enjoys stories like that, yet they’re so often unwilling to put the idea into practice. “Yea, there are many who do say: If thou wilt show unto us a sign from heaven, then we shall know of a surety; then we shall believe.” But Alma urges us to try the experiment of planting faith in the Lord Jesus Christ in our hearts: “…Even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe…” (Alma 32: 17, 27, 41).
Is this the True Meaning of Christmas—believing in what some would call unbelievable? Do we realize what a privilege it is to have what we have? Faith, testimony, scriptures, prophets, prayer, a Savior.
Speaking of privileges… Once upon a time there was a man named Ebenezer Scrooge. Nod your head if you know the story. I grew up with the Mr. Magoo version of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, so it seems like I’ve always been familiar with the story. Four ghosts visit the miserly Scrooge. He has a change of heart and vows to keep Christmas “all the year.”
This year is the second time I’ve read the book. Because I know the rest of the story so well, I’m most affected by the visit of the ghost of Jacob Marley who declared, “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business.”
Scrooge follows Marley to the window and sees a dreadful sight.
“The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost… Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant… The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.”
Every Christmas President Monson reads the book of Luke, A Christmas Carol, and a story called The Mansion by Henry van Dyke. It’s about a man who dreams, to his mortification, that his eternal mansion will be small and lowly because he devoted all his wealth on earth to promoting his own self-interests. The power statement from that story is found in the words of his angelic guide, “Would you be paid twice?”
President Marion G. Romney said, “Service is not something we endure on this earth so we can earn the right to live in the celestial kingdom. Service is the very fiber of which an exalted life in the celestial kingdom is made” (Marion G. Romney, “The Celestial Nature of Self-reliance,” General Conference, October 1982).
I suspect that our devotion to service is a reliable measure of our love for, and gratitude to, God, who so loved us that He sent His Son to save the world from Satan’s power—oh, tidings of comfort and joy!
Part of the True Meaning of Christmas must include that it’s an exceptionally special time for families. This might be why I have a little difficulty with Christmas—disappointed hopes and all that. But I remember the joyful celebrations from my childhood … and I have Hope. I try to keep Christmas as best I can … all the year.
I continued searching for the True Meaning of Christmas by turning to the hymn book. I’m not a talented musician or singer, but I love music, and have a great love for our hymns. Though they’re not the scriptures, most are doctrinally sound; I certainly feel the Spirit when I sing them and I learn wonderful truths as I contemplate the powerful words written, sometimes very long ago, by men and women who, like us, have sought to draw closer to Heavenly Father and Jesus, and to know them better.
If you look closely at the way the hymns are arranged in the book, you’ll see that Sacrament hymns—about the Atonement—come right before the Easter hymns—about the Resurrection—then come the Christmas hymns. President Hinckley said, “There would be no Christmas if there had not been Easter. The babe Jesus of Bethlehem would be but another baby without the redeeming Christ of Gethsemane and Calvary, and the triumphant fact of the Resurrection.” Even though Jesus was born before He was resurrected, hymns about his birth come after Easter hymns.
At the age of 22, I found myself on the other side of the earth, celebrating Christmas away from home for the first time in my life. I wasn’t entirely among strangers because I was surrounded by short, dark-haired Chinese saints and a lot of American missionaries—my new temporary family.
I arrived in Taiwan in December. Each week I attended Relief Society where I didn’t understand anything I heard. But the meeting was conducted like a meeting is anywhere and the music was the same. I had a Romanized Chinese hymn book, so I could sing along. Our chorister taught us to sing the alto part of “Joy to the World.” We sang it week after week, alto part only. To this day, I still have the alto part memorized. It’s the only hymn where I can sing alto without looking at the notes. And it’s one of my favorite Christmas hymns because of that special memory.
We had two large missionary districts in Kaohsiung because it’s a very large city and there were two wards there. Our district met excitedly with the other missionaries to decorate the Cultural Hall and to practice for the Christmas program. For the first, and only, time in my life, I was asked to play Mary in the Nativity Scene. It was an honor. Imagine everyone’s surprise when I showed up carrying a little girl baby I’d borrowed from someone in the audience. I think that’s the only time I’ve held a baby at Christmastime.
We closed the program with “Silent Night,” which gently reminds us of Jesus’ birth and His mission; it too had now become one of my favorite Christmas hymns.
Jesus was born in humble conditions, to humble parents. His witnesses were humble people. Wise men, rich men, bowed to Him. He was born into and grew up in a family with brothers and sisters. He went about doing good. His disciples were “of the people.” He was one of us and yet so much more.
What does it all mean? What’s the true meaning of Christmas?
Is it the beautiful things to see, hear, smell, and eat? To make beautiful memories?
Is it something to feel good about—believing in what some think is unbelievable?
Is it to draw closer as families and friends?
Is it to resolve to be a better person?
Is it to sing with the angels, to hope for the promised bright future?
Is it for children, grown-ups, families, individuals? For saints and sinners?
God loved us, so He sent His Son. O the wisdom of God, his mercy and grace! O how great the plan of our God. Believe, even if ye can no more than desire to believe. Remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men.
How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.
Come, let us adore Him!
In this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him,
Still the dear Christ enters in.
Still is found the world around
The old and hallowed story.
God is not dead nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail the right prevail.
Glory to God in the highest.
Peace on Earth, good will to men.
Joy to the world!