A Christmas Message: Christmas as a Child
I’ve titled this chapter “Christmas Extravagance” because Christmas seems to be a time of delicious, glorious abundance, profusion, and excess—a real cornucopia of a time. I realized I felt this way about it as I listened to one of those presentations I’m sure we’ve all heard—about how you have to deal with the stress of the holidays by setting priorities, establishing limits, making yes-lists and no-lists, deciding what you’ll eat and what you won’t, working out a budget, a schedule, a plan. It all sounded very prudent, moderate, controlled, restrained. It all sounded very boring. It sounded like no fun at all.
Yet I realized that it made good sense, and I know that the Christmas season is ruined for some people by bingeing—they spend too much, eat too much, do too much, run too fast and too hard. They end up feeling sad, selfish, and sinful. So how could I actually want extravagance? Isn’t that awfully reckless and foolish of me?
I began thinking about where this idea of mine might have come from, and I realized it comes from thirty-three years in elementary school. Sometimes we complain that Christmas seems to start in the middle of November. Well, in elementary school, Christmas actually starts the week before Halloween. Remember that second-grade feeling when you got to magically transform your identity into that of a fairy princess or a cowboy and go out after dark to the homes of perfect strangers and chant some strange words like “trick or treat” and they would pour candy into your bag? If that’s not plenitude, what is? And the grown-ups who are always saying “We can’t afford it” or “You haven’t earned it” or “Have you been a good girl or boy?” aren’t asking any of those questions. They’re just smiling at you and laughing with you and praising your magic wand or your furry chaps and dishing out the candy some more. Do you remember that second-grade feeling?
And then comes Thanksgiving, which has something to do with people in funny hats carrying guns with bell-shaped muzzles and turkeys and Indians and America but mostly being very thankful and grateful for all our blessings and going over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house.
And then comes Christmas, the red-and-green holiday, with trees and strings of popcorn and the incredibly delicious power of knowing that you’re making a present for your mom and dad and it’s your secret and they don’t even know about it because you’re doing it at school. And there are treats and Santa Claus and Christmas carols and people making wishes like “Merry Christmas,” and that’s magic, too, like “trick or treat” but somehow even better.
And you don’t find out about it at school, but there’s a baby—baby Jesus—who is an important part of Christmas, and a stable with a donkey with furry ears and a cow with gentle eyes, and the wise men in splendid costumes with the glamorous camels, and Mary and Joseph and the shepherds holding lambs and wonderful crooks. But they’re all looking at the baby, and on their faces is an expression that makes you feel a little funny inside. It’s a peaceful, thoughtful expression that brings stillness, even in the midst of the blinking lights and the ho-ho-ho’s and the “Merry Christmases.” And so you look at the baby too, and a little of the stillness comes into your own heart. And somehow you remember the baby, even while the presents get deeper under the tree and some of them have yourname on them, and you help your mom make the gingerbread house and you get to make shingles on the roof out of those nasty pink wafers that you wouldn’t touch at any other time of the year but somehow, they taste like Christmas.
And so, I have to tell you that I have a very second-grade approach to Christmas. It’s the culmination of three important months in a child’s life that start with an experience of transformation into someone special and an outpouring of grace—candy, not because you’ve earned it but just because you are—and then continue with a linking of hardship and thankfulness and culminate at the darkest time of the year in a festival of lights, music, singing, and jolly Santas with more gifts. And that baby. Don’t forget that baby.
So I’m not very sympathetic with the yes-lists and the no-lists. And it’s not just because they don’t sound very much like fun. It’s because they don’t sound very much like joy. If it’s true that you can never get enough of what you don’t need, then maybe it’s also true that you can never give too much of what you have in plenty.
Let’s think about extravagance for Christmas. Think about the plenteousness of Christmas—its abundance, copiousness, liberality, bounty, lavishness, exuberance, luxuriance, profusiveness; its unstinted, unmeasured, inexhaustible plenty. What can we be extravagant with? What do we have in abundance?
Christmas Message: Can be Simple Yet Powerful
Let me name a few things just to get you started. We all have an absolutely unlimited supply of smiles. Sometimes we save them just for the family. Or worse, sometimes we save them just for the people at work. Well, they are not in short supply! Let’s start passing them out, one per every pair of eyes we look into with a few left over so that we can catch ourselves smiling even when we’re alone.
Something else that we’ve all got in unlimited abundance is a supply of greetings. “Merry Christmas!” If you think about it, it’s a wonderful greeting. It’s not just the marker of a day or a season, but it’s a profound wish for a certain quality, that this day or this season will be marked by the quality of a merry heart, one so full of happiness that it spills over into laughter and delight. Every time you wish someone a “Merry Christmas” it’s like a personal vote for that person’s delight and happiness.
You also have an unlimited fountain of song springing up. Don’t you just thrill to the exuberance and beauty of Christmas carols? It’s fun and easy to sing at Christmas. Every radio, every department store, every supermarket fills the air with seasonal songs. You may not like all of them, but you have good feelings about most of them because they are, after all, connected to Christmas, that time of superabundance. A song weighs nothing and takes up absolutely no storage space. It sounds better if you sing it out loud, but it doesn’t mind singing away all by itself in your heart while you’re on a crowded elevator or sitting in the world’s slowest-moving meeting. It improves immeasurably if you sing it with someone else, especially a child, and it doesn’t matter where it ends—even in the middle of the third verse when you can’t remember what line comes next—as long as you laugh about it.
Now, I happen to think that Christmas music fits any time of the year. I really enjoy requesting “Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plains” as a rest song when I go out on assignments—not only because I enjoy the song but also because I enjoy the startled looks on people’s faces when I ask for this song in the middle of August. But I also think that one of the most wonderful things about singing at Christmas is that all music seems to fit the season. If you want to sing “Jingle Bells,” that’s great. If you want to sing “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” that’s a reminder about the bounties the Lord has blessed us with. If you want to sing “Popcorn Popping on the Apricot Tree,” it’s a signal of the hope we have in Christ. I think it all fits.
But some of the most beautiful Christian music ever written was written for this season of the year. One of the new songs I learned as an adult—and it’s not a traditional carol at all—is called “‘Twas in the Moon of Winter Time.” It was written to the tune of an old French carol during the early seventeenth century by Father Jean de Brebeuf. Father de Brebeuf was a Jesuit missionary who worked among the Huron Indians in Canada (he died in 1649), and he wrote this carol to tell the story of baby Jesus to them in a language and with images they could understand.
This carol is extremely meaningful to me because, as a Japanese Buddhist, I always experienced Christmas as a borrowed holiday. There are no Japanese Christmas carols. There are no Buddhist Christmas carols. But for people like me, the many mansions of the gospel have open doors to accept us in our diversity and to welcome us in and give us a place at the table and a stocking under the tree. I cannot think of Christmas without thinking of the many people who generously translated the holiday into terms that I could understand, first as a little Buddhist girl, then as a shy new convert trying to understand Mormonism, then as a Hawaiian transplanted to Utah with its snow and lighted street decorations. I do not know Father de Brebeuf, but I am thankful in my heart to him for rewriting the Christmas story into Huron to open the doors of that miracle time to them. Because of his act of compassion, he has the honor of having written the first Canadian Christmas carol and perhaps the first carol in the New World. 1
‘Twas in the moon of wintertime when all the leaves had fled
The mighty Gitchee Manitou sent angel choirs instead.
Before their light the stars grew dim,
And wandering hunters heard the hymn:
Jesus, your king, is born. Jesus is born.
In excelsis gloria!
The earliest moon of wintertime was not so round and fair
As was the ring of glory on the helpless infant there.
While chiefs from far before him knelt,
With gifts of fox and beaver pelt
Jesus, your king, is born. Jesus is born.
In excelsis gloria!
O children of the forest free, O sons of Manitou
The holy child of earth and heaven is born this day for you.
Come kneel before the radiant boy,
Who brings you beauty, peace and joy,
Jesus, your king, is born. Jesus is born.
In excelsis gloria!
This song makes me think of the scripture, “For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have” (Alma 29:8).
Giving Our Time Can be a Powerful Christmas Message
Let’s look at what else you have to give for Christmas. You have time. Even though you may think that time is what you have in shortest supply, you have all the time there is, all the time in the world, the morning and the evening, the day that God has made for us to rejoice and be glad in. Think of it not as a machine to be used for maximum efficiency, but as a gift to be given with open hands and an open heart.
You also have an unlimited number of prayers to offer during this season. You can pray for the people in the hospital as you drive by. You can pray for the policeman directing traffic after the basketball game. You can pray for the person you see on the news whose face and plight touch you, even if you see her face only in a crowd. You can pray for the clerk in the shoe store, for the Salvation Army bell ringer, for the grandchild in Florida, for the president of the United States, for the person standing in the detergent aisle trying to make up her mind what soap to buy. And this doesn’t even begin to touch the hundreds of people you know personally for whom you can pray.
Think of the power of that prayer. It’s as if you lift someone with loving hands and hold him or her up in remembrance before God. That person is in your memory, in your heart, in your thoughts. And now you have brought his or her name before God in joyous, sympathetic remembrance. What a wonderful gift of plenitude!
Now, perhaps you’re thinking, “But some of these people are strangers. I don’t even know them. I don’t know if they need my prayers. I don’t know if my prayers will do them any good.” That’s not the point. You’re not praying for them because they need it. You’re praying for them because you have a prayer to give. The prayer does not exist because of their poverty. It exists because of your richness.
And think what it means that you have this inexhaustible treasury of benevolence and bounty. Why, it means that you’re rich, wealthy, overflowing with abundance! You can lavish it, squander it. It doesn’t matter. You can never give so much that you’ll run out.
Think of the Christmas story. Isn’t one of the things we love about it the absolute feast or famine that characterizes it? Mary and Joseph were not only poor but homeless, not only away from their families but totally thrown on the mercy of strangers. These are extreme circumstances—extravagantly bad circumstances. The visitors who came to see the Christ child were not moderately well-off, moderately respectable, or cautiously optimistic. They were the extremes of society—poor shepherds and gorgeously appareled kings bearing fabulous gifts. The shepherds did not take a vote, arrange a sheep-watching schedule, and come to the stable when it was light enough to walk comfortably on the road. They left their flocks and came with haste in the darkness of night. God did not send a neatly typed heavenly memo to the religious and theological leaders of the day, but a multitude of angels filled the sky and the night with their song of glory and rejoicing.
Do you have faith that you can give to someone? This someone may feel that God is far away. But remember, you are not giving the gift because he or she needs it but because you have it to give.
Do you have a compliment to give someone out of your treasurehouse of appreciation? Do you have forgiveness to give out of your own rich sense of the Father’s endless mercy?
Did you get ideas from President Howard W. Hunter’s 1994 Christmas devotional speech about your richness? He said:
This Christmas, mend a quarrel. Seek out a forgotten friend. Dismiss suspicion and replace it with trust. Write a letter. Give a soft answer. Encourage youth. Manifest your loyalty in word and deed. Keep a promise. Forego a grudge. Forgive an enemy. Apologize. Try to understand. Examine your demands on others. Think first of someone else. Be kind. Be gentle. Laugh a little more. Express your gratitude. Welcome a stranger. Gladden the heart of a child. Take pleasure in the beauty and wonder of the earth. Speak your love and speak it again. Christmas is a celebration, and there is no celebration that compares with the realization of its true meaning—with the sudden stirring of the heart that has extended itself unselfishly in the things that matter most. 2
There’s Always Something You Can Give as a Christmas Message
What do you have to give? The keys to God’s storehouse are in your hands. You are richer than Midas. Think about your abundance! What extravagant gift can you give this Christmas out of your bounty?
“Give,” said Jesus, “and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over” (Luke 6:38). And how did Jesus give? Listen to what Paul says, and to how extravagantly he says it:
God loveth a cheerful giver.
And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work:
(As it is written, He hath dispersed abroad; he hath given to the poor: his righteousness remaineth for ever.
Now he that ministereth seed to the sower both minister bread for your food, and multiply your seed sown, and increase the fruits of your righteousness;)
Being enriched in every thing to all bountifulness, which causeth through us thanksgiving to God.
For the administration of this service not only supplieth the want of the saints, but is abundant also by many thanksgivings unto God . . . for the exceeding grace of God in you.
Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift. (2 Corinthians 9:7-12, 14-15)
You are the heir of eternity. All that the Father hath is yours. Can his storehouse ever be empty? There is no scarcity or rationing or restriction. When he pours out blessings, he opens the windows of heaven, and we cannot contain what he showers upon us. We are infinitely precious to him, infinitely loved, infinitely cherished. You can never give away too much of what cannot be exhausted in you—the inexhaustible, unstinted love of God.
Bursting out of the tiny package we call Christmas, I pray for all of us the merry heart that comes with Merry Christmas, the cheerful giving that God loves, the overflowing faith, the plenitude of hope, and an eternity of charity.