From the Church

5 of our favorite First Presidency Christmas devotional stories

The 2021 First Presidency Christmas devotional will be broadcast this Sunday, December 5, 2021 at 6 p.m. MST, with a real-time livestream available on the Church‘s website, the Church‘s YouTube channel and BYUtv. It will also be available to watch on-demand after the event through Gospel Library and Gospel Media. President Henry B. Eyring, Elder Dale G. Renlund, and Sister Michelle D. Craig will be speaking.

With this year’s devotional just five weeks away, and the celebration of Christmas Day shortly after, here’s a look back at some of our favorite stories shared over the years.

Image credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

2020—Elder Brent H. Nielson, General Authority Seventy

In another time and in another place far, far away from here, my father, Norman Nielson, was a very young man spending his second of four years fighting in the Pacific theater of World War II. Pictured here in front of his tent, he was an anti-aircraft specialist living in the jungles of Papua New Guinea. On Christmas Day 1943, he wrote this letter home to his widowed mother: “As you will notice by the date, today is Christmas. I got up at 7:00 a.m., had breakfast, and then worked until 3:00 p.m. when I went down to the creek to wash my clothes and take a bath. At dinner tonight we had a very small portion of turkey, some sweet potatoes, corn, dressing, and raisin pie. I would’ve liked so very much to have been home with you and the family putting my feet under the table and eating again all the things we used to have when we were together a few years ago. We are disappointed that our Christmas packages did not arrive before Christmas. There are many of us who did not get anything for Christmas. I remember you telling me many times that you never miss the water until the well goes dry.”

This past year my wife, Marcia, and my sister, Susan, wrote the history of my father’s four years of service during World War II. They compiled all the letters that he wrote home to his mother. I have to say that when I read this bleak Christmas letter, I was a bit incredulous. Although this may seem trivial to you, because this was my dad, whom I love, I wanted to somehow change the events of that Christmas Day. I cried out in my heart, “How much suffering can this young man from Idaho endure?” He lost his father to a heart attack when my father was only 12 years old. He was raised by his mother, he was drafted into the military, and he was now living in the jungle in the middle of a terrible battle. Couldn’t he at least get a gift for Christmas? As I pondered his situation, I felt the Spirit speaking to me: “Brent, you know how this story ends. Your dad ultimately received the most important gift and went on to live a faith-filled life with Christmas as his favorite time of the year.”

As I read further in my father’s history, I came to one of his last letters home to his mother in February of 1945. During his four years under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur, he had fought from Darwin, Australia, to Papua New Guinea, to Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, and ultimately to Manila, where he ended his military service and returned home. Most of the time he spent serving during the war there were no meetings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but once he arrived in the Philippines, toward the end of his service, he was able to find a meeting of the Church. After attending that meeting, he wrote this interesting letter home to his mother: “I went to Church yesterday, but didn’t care too much for the talk. Mother, a lot of things seem very trivial to me now that once were so very important. I don’t mean my belief in God, that is probably as strong as ever, but I look on God as a person who is loving and understanding rather than one [who] is always standing over you to punish you for every mistake you make.”

What the Spirit taught me is that through extremely trying times, having participated in a terrible war where many soldiers, nurses, sailors, airmen, and innocent civilians on both sides lost their lives, my father found the gift—he found the true spirit of Christmas. He learned that he had a loving Heavenly Father who understood him and was watching over him. The most important lifetime lesson that he learned was this: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” In his extremities, when pushed as far as he could go personally, my father found a loving, kind Heavenly Father. What my father found brought peace and joy and happiness to him in a world full of confusion and pain and suffering. As he left the war behind, he brought the gift home with him.

I am not sure I could have survived the difficulties that faced my father during those three Christmases away from home, but I do know that the lesson he learned and that I learned is that the true gift at Christmas, given by our Father in Heaven, is the Savior Jesus Christ. This Christmas, because of world conditions, some of us find ourselves in situations far away from family or isolated from them even if they live nearby. Some of us might feel this year like my dad did on Christmas Day of 1943. We might even wonder why we didn’t receive any gifts or visits. But if we look up and look to God and live, we will discover that Jesus Christ is the greatest gift. Opening that gift gives us the key to a wonderful, peaceful life.

Read Elder Nielson’s full message here.

2019—President Dallin H. Oaks, First Counselor in the First Presidency

One of my favorite Christmas stories was published in the Deseret News over 30 years ago. It tells of an 11-year-old girl and what she learned through her anguish about not receiving a desired gift and her peace at learning the meaning of what we celebrate by gifts at Christmastime. I share this especially for the children and youth among us.

An 11-year-old girl was grieving because she had not received the new doll she wanted for so long.

Trying to give comfort, her mother said, “You’re outgrowing things like that.” Had she really outgrown Christmas? her daughter wondered. Her father explained:

“My dear, dear little girl. There’s so much pain, and joy, in growing up. No, child, you haven’t outgrown Christmas. Something far more important is happening to you. You are growing up to realize that many things have deeper and more significant meanings than as a child you were able to understand. … You have heard it said that we give gifts on Christmas because the shepherds and wise men brought gifts to the Christ Child, but let me tell you of the real first Christmas gift.”

Her father then testified of the great love our Heavenly Father had for His eldest Son, “who had been loyal to Him through much trouble and rebelling and who had even helped Him create the world on which we live.” He told her how our Heavenly Father had given us that Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to be our Savior.

He read from the Book of Mormon how this Son “shall come down from heaven among the children of men, and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay. … And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people. And he shall be called Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of heaven and earth” (Mosiah 3:5, 7–8).

Closing the book, he explained:

“Even though our Father in Heaven knew these things were in store for His beloved Son, He, in His infinite love and wisdom, gave Him to the world. And the second part of this wondrous gift is that Christ, the Son, knowing, too, all this, gave Himself willingly that we might have eternal life.”

Years later, the woman who grew from this little girl wrote these words:

“That was the first Christmas night I could remember that I didn’t go to sleep with my Christmas doll on my pillow. I had something better. Within my heart was a new and thrilling peace. I had found a gift that could not be worn out or lost, a gift that I could never grow out of, but one that, with God’s help, I must grow into. … And I prayed … that someday I would have real children, and then I would know the rest of the Gift of Love.”

Read the full message here.

2018—Sister Sharon Eubank, First Counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency

I want to tell two stories that happened to me which have stayed in my mind for many years and even now are teaching me lessons I need.

The first one happened when I was 6 years old. Our music chorister in the Hunter 5th Ward was Sister Beverly Whitley. I realize now she was probably not even 40 years old, but she had teenaged children and seemed very mature and wise to us in the junior Primary. She was fun and treated us as if we were mini adults, and we liked that. We admired her and wanted to please her. She would tell us that we could sing out so big that our parents could hear us in the other room. Not to shout—but to really sing! And we sang with all our hearts. She also taught us a song from the adult hymnbook, saying she knew we were mature enough musicians to be able to memorize the difficult words. And then she explained what all the words meant so we would understand. She taught us that every song has a special message just for us and, if we thought about the words, we would find the message that was especially for our own lives.

That Christmas, I tried to apply what Sister Whitley had taught us, and I learned all the verses to “Silent Night.” Now, I apologize in advance to the translators because this will be tricky. As a 6-year-old, I thought hard about the words in the third verse, but I didn’t understand the punctuation. Instead of singing “Son of God, love’s pure light,” as in Jesus is the expression of light that flows from pure love, I understood it to say that the Son of God loves pure light—He adores anything made from pure light. Thinking like Sister Whitley, I tried to figure out how I could “love pure light” the way Jesus does.

The second story happened when I was 9 years old. Like a lot of kids, I was taking piano lessons. I wasn’t particularly talented, and, maybe to encourage me, my bishop asked if I would play a Christmas song at the sacrament meeting on Christmas Eve. I decided to play “Silent Night.” My piano teacher helped me prepare. My parents listened to me play it literally 100 times on our black upright piano that was in our basement. Someone mentioned that perhaps I could memorize the song and not use the music, but I was so nervous about playing in front of everyone in my ward that I couldn’t memorize the music. Instead, I came up with a plan. I would take the music with me, but instead of putting it up on the piano, I would lay it on my lap. I could look down at my hands and see the music, but it would look like I had memorized the music. This plan worked beautifully for 20 seconds. I had put the music on top of my taffeta Christmas skirt, and as I began to play, the skirt fabric was very slippery and in the middle of the first verse, the music slid off my skirt and disappeared completely underneath the piano. I was completely stuck. There was no way to get the music back, and my mind was a blank. I gritted my teeth and tried to do the best I could. It was a complete disaster.

I painfully plunked wrong notes, and I could see people cringing in the audience. I blundered through the second verse. I wisely omitted the third verse and rushed down the aisle with a red face trying not to cry. My parents whispered, “What happened? You knew the song so well.” I couldn’t wait to get out of church. I didn’t want to see or talk to anyone; I was humiliated and embarrassed. As the meeting ended, my elderly Sunday School teacher, Sister Alma Heaton, approached me. I tried to dodge her, but she took my hand. Instead of telling me how good it was, which everyone knew was a lie, she said something that I will remember for the rest of my life. She said, “Sharon, it doesn’t matter how it turned out. Everyone could see how much effort you put into it, and we love you whether you can play the piano or not.”

That was the honest truth. But it didn’t sting as much as I expected it to. The truth was I had worked hard, and they loved me even though I couldn’t play the piano. I smiled a little smile and she gave me an old lady hug, and suddenly it was all fine.

Now, Beverly Whitley and Alma Heaton did nothing extraordinary. They didn’t write anything down in their journals. Nobody in their families knows these stories. They were simply teaching little children how to sing and how to understand the gospel. What could be more mundane? Except it wasn’t. If you ask me what it looks like when a person “loves pure light,” it looks like Beverly Whitley. It looks like Alma Heaton. Each of them could recognize the “pure light” of a little child trying as hard as she could and love her for it, even if it didn’t work out perfectly.

Our Heavenly Father is exactly like this. He sees us, His little children, trying. Our efforts don’t always succeed, but He knows how hard we are working—sometimes gritting our teeth and plunking through a disaster—and He loves us for it. For all of our dissonant, out of tune, unrecognizable music, He sent His beautiful Only Begotten Son, who is love’s pure light. Jesus Christ will repair every bad note and redeem every sour overtone if we turn to Him and ask for His help. Because of the birth, the Atonement, and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can all “sleep in heavenly peace.”

Read Sister Eubank‘s full message here.

2017—Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

In my early childhood, my Christmas wishes always included a picture-perfect winter, and I know I am not alone in this. To me this meant frosty winter air, crisp blue skies, and a thick blanket of fresh, white snow. Instead, the weather almost always differed from my winter wonderland dreams, often with gray foggy skies, slushy wet snow, or even rain.

Nevertheless, on Christmas Eve, my mother would bundle us up in warm winter clothing and our father would walk with us through the streets of our town.

We children knew the real reason for this annual walk—Mother needed time to decorate the Christmas tree, put the gifts under the tree, and prepare our living room for the holy night. We tried every trick to make this walk as short as possible. But our father was extremely creative in adding another loop or one more turn to give Mother the needed time.

In those days, the streets of Zwickau, Germany, were quite dark in the evenings. This was just after World War II, and street lights were scarce. Only a few shops were open, and some were located next to bombed-out houses, which still had the strange smell of war.

There was one part of the walk we all liked a lot—a stop at the cathedral in midtown Zwickau where we listened to beautiful Christmas carols and majestic organ music that always seemed to be playing on Christmas Eve. Somehow, this music made the humble lights of our city appear suddenly so much brighter—almost like sparkling stars—and filled our young hearts with a wonderful spirit of anticipation.

By the time we returned, Mother was finished with her preparations, and we would file into the living room one by one to behold the wonder of the freshly-decorated Tannenbaum. Trees were hard to come by in those days, and we took whatever was available. Sometimes we had to add quite a few branches to make it look like a real tree. But to my young eyes, the Christmas tree was always perfectly glorious.

The flickering lights of the wax candles brought a mysterious, almost enchanting glow to the room. We looked with excitement and delight for the presents under the tree and hoped that our secret wishes would be fulfilled.

The excitement of receiving presents was almost matched by the thrill of giving them. Often these gifts were handmade. One year when I was very young, my present to my brother was a picture of him I had drawn. I was very proud of my masterpiece. And he was very kind and gracious in his words of gratitude and praise.

I will always treasure these sweet memories of my early childhood in East Germany.

Read the full message here.

2016—President Henry B. Eyring, First Counselor in the First Presidency

When our children were little, we created a family Christmas pageant with all the words drawn from scripture. We performed the pageant on Christmas Eve. Many of you have done something similar.

The early drafts of our pageant called for a limited number of players, all playing parts from scripture. I was Joseph, my wife was Mary, and a doll was the Christ child. The cast filled out over time. We added a small actor who portrayed the baby Jesus, then came shepherds—dressed in bathrobes—to worship at the manger, and next we were able to add kings bearing jeweled boxes to honor the newborn King.

After a few years, we opened the pageant with a child who portrayed Samuel the Lamanite standing to testify with prophetic power of the future birth of the promised Messiah. In time, we added a disbelieving crowd armed with aluminum foil balls to throw at Samuel as he stood before them. Each year, as the members of the angry mob grew stronger and more accurate, we had to remind them forcefully that Samuel could not be hit because he was God’s protected servant—and because we were inviting and celebrating peace!

We needed parts for the smaller children, and so we added sheep and lambs to crawl behind the shepherds to the manger.

But then time passed—as it does. The players grew up, and now we are back to the beginning. I have watched those Josephs, Marys, shepherds, sheep, lambs, and kings move on to teach their own loved ones of the Savior and about the peace His birth makes possible.

They were blessed to learn in the parts they played in our pageant something about the Savior and why we love Him. I am grateful that our children and their children saw us honor the baby Jesus, born to be the infinite sacrifice, the priceless gift of peace Heavenly Father gave to all His children.

Read the full message here.

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