In 1977, Jeffrey R. Holland gave a talk about Christmas to students at Brigham Young University. BYU is a Mormon-owned university and Elder Holland is a Mormon apostle.
Read: Jeffrey R. Holland, “Maybe Christmas Doesn’t Come from a Store”, Ensign, Dec. 1977, 63–6.)
Elder Holland used as an example the popular Christmas story of the Grinch, by Doctor Seuss. The Grinch learned that there might be a little bit more to Christmas than he had believed. While it seemed to be nothing but a gift-getting holiday, he discovered some people find a deeper meaning in the holiday.
With that in mind, Elder Holland directed students to remember the birth of the Savior because Christmas is a birthday celebration for the Son of God. He drew on one aspect of the story to help students see Christmas in a new way.
“One impression which has persisted with me recently is that this is a story—in profound paradox with our own times—that this is a story of intense poverty. I wonder if Luke did not have some special meaning when he wrote not “there was no room in the inn” but specifically that “there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7; italics added.) We cannot be certain, but it is my guess that money could talk in those days as well as in our own. I think if Joseph and Mary had been people of influence or means, they would have found lodging even at that busy time of year.”
Elder Holland pointed out that we know Mary and Joseph were poor. When they made the purification offering after Jesus’ birth, they could not afford to offer the lamb that was the expected offering. Instead, they had to offer a turtledove, which the Law of Moses allowed only for those who were very poor. They did receive expensive gifts from the Wise Men, but these men most likely came from Persia and did not arrive until Jesus was described as a young child, not an infant. It is believed by some that their gifts may have been used to finance the journey to hide Jesus while His young life was in danger.
With this in mind, Elder Oaks suggested we put some separation between the giving of gifts and the worship of the Savior, perhaps doing them as different portions of the day. While gift-giving is acceptable and enjoyable, it must not become the primary purpose of the holiday.
Many Mormons have special traditions which help them to separate the gift-giving and getting from the spiritual. For some, one celebration happens on Christmas Eve and the other on Christmas morning. For some, there are multiple segments of spirituality throughout the holiday, from attendance at the annual Messiah sing-a-long or nativity display held in many Mormon congregations to displays of personally owned nativities. Many families hold their own family Christmas pageants or sing hymns each evening through the season. Families read accounts of the Savior’s birth from both the Bible and the Book of Mormon.
Gordon B. Hinckley, then a counselor to the prophet and later a prophet himself, reminded listeners one year that the most important gift of Christmas is the one God gave to us: Jesus Christ.
“Christmas means giving. The Father gave his Son, and the Son gave his life. Without giving there is no true Christmas, and without sacrifice there is no true worship. There is more to Christmas than neckties, earrings, toys, and all the tinseled stuff of which we make so much.”
Gordon B. Hinckley, “What Shall I Do Then with Jesus Which Is Called Christ?””, Ensign, Dec. 1983, 3.)
He suggested we follow the example God set for us on the first Christmas day by giving, not just the traditional material gifts, but the gifts of self, unselfish gifts that come with a non-material sacrifice. “Christmas means giving—and “the gift without the giver is bare.” Giving of self; giving of substance; giving of heart and mind and strength in assisting those in need and in spreading the cause of His eternal truth—these are of the very essence of the true spirit of Christmas.”
Frequently people give a traditional gift to those in need at Christmas time. However, it is important to remember that people don’t just need help or spiritual guidance during holidays. All around you are people who need help—food, shelter, a listening ear, a friend, or patience—and they need that help all year long, not just during moments of traditional giving.
Since it is the Savior’s birthday, why not consider giving Him a gift that will last all year? Think about a cause that matters to you and then make a commitment, in writing, to serve in that cause all year long. You might commit to take time to visit a lonely neighbor several times a week, to take food to a food bank, to shovel an older person’s walk when you shovel your own, or sign up for a volunteer job.
Beyond that specific and planned service, train yourself to see service needs every day. Remember the old Boy Scout motto: Do a good turn daily. Service doesn’t have to be planned, expensive, or time consuming. Sometimes the most memorable service projects happen on the spur of the moment, and often, you may not even know what your little gift meant to another. A smile offered at the right moment, a spontaneous compliment given when someone is feeling down, or a moment to help a parent get a stroller and several children through a door might be just what someone needed to get through a difficult moment.
To do this type of spontaneous service requires you to become watchful. It’s hard to see a need when you’re wearing headphones, talking into a cell phone, or watching television. As you walk down the street, consider using the time to think and to people watch. Smile at everyone and pay attention to someone who might need even the smallest service, like a door held. Invite the person behind you in the grocery store line who has only a few items move ahead of you when you have a large order.
Notice if a short person or someone in a wheelchair is staring at the top shelves and offer to reach something for them. Offer an encouraging statement to an embarrassed mother whose child is having a public tantrum. Inject a compliment when others are criticizing someone.
If someone is sitting alone at church, join him. Praise your child’s teacher to her face and behind her back. Pass along compliments you’ve heard about others because somehow second-hand compliments seem more believable. Compliment a complete stranger, perhaps a parent whose children are well behaved in a restaurant. Offer to take someone’s grocery cart from them if they’ve just finished unloading their groceries into their car.
Doing service at Christmas is wonderful and there are certainly a great many special needs to be met at this time of year. Taking that special spirit of Christmas giving and continuing it all year long, though, lets us take the specialness of Christmas into the new year and helps us to become more Christlike.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.