Michaelene P. Grassli served as a member of the Primary general board of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (sometimes mistakenly called “The Mormon Church” by the media),from 1975 to 1980, a counselor in the Primary general presidency from 1980 to 1988, and Primary general president from 1988 to 1994. She is the author or coauthor of three pamphlets and author of two books, What I Have Learned from Children and Leadertalk.
Christmas Message: Giving Gifts That Matter
Christmas was getting out of hand. Our children were beyond the magical, mysterious secrecy of childhood, yet they seemed to cling to the desire for that aspect of Christmas gift-giving. And so did their parents! It seemed to Leonard and me that it would take an upwardly spiraling cycle of materialism to continue to produce the Christmas morning thrills that had been so easy to achieve with simplicity when the children were small.
Our oldest was married and in college, the second had begun college that year, and the youngest was in junior high. As they had grown up, we had emphasized the significance of the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ, in our family home evenings and holiday preparations. Leonard always read the Christmas story from Luke on Christmas Eve.
Our ward had initiated a wonderful tradition where we “returned to Bethlehem” in simple, biblical costumes, ate pita sandwiches, and witnessed the reenactment of the nativity in the cultural hall. About that time, a member of our ward prepared a study guide for twenty-five December family discussions about the prophecies, events, and lessons of the Holy Birth of Jesus. The ward members gave generously of their means to help less fortunate families.
We had no lack of exposure to the reality of the Savior, Jesus Christ, and to the true reasons for our celebrating his birth. Yet our own family gift-giving seemed to fall somewhat short of the selfless love and generosity we should have been experiencing.
Leonard and I considered this together and decided to introduce an idea to our children. At Thanksgiving dinner we suggested that the gifts we gave to each other for Christmas that year should be something we created ourselves or that were gifts of service. We also suggested that the cost be kept to a minimum. I don’t recall whether we named a price limit, but we all knew we needed to be resourceful and conservative.
Our daughters and son-in-law initially were hesitant. School took a big block of their time, and these very personalized gifts would definitely take more time than stopping at the department store downtown and picking up a tie, a pair of gloves, or a sweater. However, after some persuasion and encouragement (after all, we argued, Mom had a demanding Church responsibility, and Dad was very busy with work—if we could do it, so could they), they reluctantly agreed.
The days passed, and when I talked to the girls and our son-in-law I would ask how they were coming with ideas. At first they’d roll their eyes and sigh. I’d make some suggestions. Meanwhile, I was sewing, something I had very little time for in those days. I had no idea what Leonard was doing. I must admit to some moments of uneasiness. I saw no evidence of any preparations at all. I really wanted this experiment to succeed and to be a joyous and rewarding time for the family.
Then the mood began to change. The family began to assure me that something really was happening. “Don’t ask too many questions, Mom!” they’d say. Our youngest, who was still living at home, seemed more excited about the season than she had been for awhile. My husband just smiled with the knowing twinkle in his eye that he gets when he thinks he’s got one on me. The only thing I discovered was that nobody knew what the others were doing. I started to relax as I sewed into the nighttime hours.
Christmas morning came. I don’t suppose anyone else would have enjoyed the morning as much as we did, because every gift was so personalized. But enjoy it we did—immensely.
Early in the season our youngest had written on small cards something she loved about each member of the family. She had placed them deep in the toe of each stocking hung by the fireplace, and her excitement was heightened by the danger that someone might find her notes before Christmas. She told us later that she could hardly wait for Christmas because she was so thrilled with her idea. She said she didn’t even wonder what she would receive—a real breakthrough! As it turned out, even Santa did not discover them when he filled the stockings. In addition, she had painted a watercolor of a series of hearts, titling it “Bundle of Love.” It still hangs on the wall with our gallery of family photos.
One daughter who has a talent for writing had written a thoughtful and perceptive description of each family member. Another searched carefully for quotes from General Authorities that would be helpful for each family member and their particular challenges at the time. She hand-lettered and matted them. Our son-in-law gave each of us a personalized certificate good for a ski-waxing, which he knew we hadn’t had done forever. I sewed I-can’t-remember-what for the girls and red Christmas ties for the men.
Leonard is a native of Switzerland (though now he is a U.S. citizen and has lived here longer than he did in Switzerland). His gift to us was a family logo or emblem. His design includes a depiction of the Swiss flag combined with the flag of the United States, his very distinctive Grassli signature, and the date 1412. That is the earliest date we can find the name Grassli recorded in Swiss records. He had the design screen-printed on T-shirts and sweatshirts for us. We all were thrilled with his creation.
All these gifts required thought and perceptivity on the part of family members. They became little labors of love. I suppose others have tried experiments such as this one, but I loved what happened in our family that Christmas. We sort of turned a corner in the way we thought about one another and in how we now prepare for giving gifts at Christmas [as we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ}. That is not to say that we always make everything we give, but we seem to personalize and think about what we do. I suspect that if we could ask the Savior how he’d like us to celebrate his birthday, he might be pleased with thoughtful gifts that require some sacrifice of time and self.
Now that we have two more sons-in-law and six grandchildren, maybe it’s time to try it again!