Eric Huntsman: Christmas in the Holy Land
Eric Huntsman had an opportunity some of us only dream of—spending Christmas in the Holy Land. A former teacher at the BYU Jerusalem Center, Huntsman gives listeners an idea of what Christmastime in the Holy Land was like for him and his family. He also helps us dig deeper into some of the characters and traditions we celebrate at Christmas, and shares how autism has forever changed and blessed his family’s holiday season.
Christmas is a lot of fun. And we do get gifts and we do get joy giving gifts but that's just because we're following the pattern of the Magi and others who are trying to give gifts to the Baby Jesus. But most of all, 'God so loved the world that He gave His Only Begotten Son.'
Eric’s books: Good Tidings of Great Joy and God So Loved the World: The Final Days of the Savior’s Life
Jared Pierce piano album playing behind Morgan’s Christmas message: Christmas Piano
Eric’s blogpost that includes seasonal materials for the Christmas season: Preparing for Christmas
Eric’s blogpost about the family his Christmas spent in Bethlehem: Christmas Eve in Bethlehem
3:22- Christmas in Bethlehem
14:26- The Mother of a Special Son
23:11- Simeon and Anna
29:39- Sadness at Christmas
31:42- Christmas Traditions
36:00- Music at Christmas
38:57- Autism and the Holidays
Morgan Jones 0:00
The episode you’re about to hear will be our last episode of 2021. On the first page of the All In book, I wrote, "I truly believe time is valuable. Each second, each breath is a gift from God, and I am glad you have found this podcast to be worth your investment.” So, as we close another year, I want to thank you for spending time with me but even more importantly, thank you for anything you have done in the past year to strengthen your faith.
I believe we need faith now more than ever before and that, because Jesus Christ is the only One who saves, our individual faith in Him really can change the world. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas as you reflect on Him and his ability to make everything better. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas as you reflect on Him and His ability to make everything better.
I wanted to prepare a special Christmas episode for you this year. If you're like me, you've dreamt of what it might be like to visit the Holy Land. So my thought was, maybe we could have someone who has been there help us imagine what it would have been like that night in Bethlehem. And that is why I originally invited Eric Huntsman on the show, but this episode became something more as I learned about Eric's son, Samuel, who has autism.
I would like to thank Samuel who–unbeknownst to him–answered my prayer to make this episode something that would sink deep into people's hearts. It did for me at least, and I hope it does the same for you.
Eric D. Huntsman serves as an associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University and is affiliated with the classics and ancient Near Eastern Studies programs there. A graduate of BYU in classical Greek and Latin, he earned a masters and PhD in ancient history from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of multiple books, including Good Tidings of Great Joy. He is also a part of the Tabernacle Choir on Temple Square.
This is All In, an LDS Living podcast where we ask the question, what does it really mean to be all in the gospel of Jesus Christ? I'm Morgan Jones, and I am so honored to have Eric Huntsman on the line with me today. Eric, welcome.
Eric Huntsman 2:21
Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Morgan Jones 2:23
Well, I am so excited to have the chance to kind of dig into the Christmas story. This past week our podcast episode was all about Mary, and so I'm excited to kind of have the opportunity to talk about some other characters as we talk today. But I want to start out, you wrote this book about Christmas a few years ago, it's Good Tidings of Great Joy, is that right?
Eric Huntsman 2:49
Yeah. An Advent Celebration of the Savior's Birth is the subtitle, it actually came back in 2011. So it's been hard to believe, but it's been 10 years now.
Morgan Jones 2:56
Eric Huntsman 2:57
Yeah, time flies.
Morgan Jones 2:59
Well, and I thought it was interesting to note that when this book came out, you and your family were preparing to move to Jerusalem. You were a professor at the BYU Jerusalem center, and you took your family over there. And I can't tell you how jealous I am of this because my biggest regret in life is not having done the BYU Jerusalem program. And so I wondered if we could start out, I think a lot of people listening likely are like me, and they would like to travel there someday, but we kind of have to live vicariously through people like you who have had that experience.
So I wondered, what was that experience like? And how did it change your perspective of the Christmas story?
Eric Huntsman 3:42
Well, it was amazing. And at the time we're recording this, of course, we're still dealing with the COVID pandemic. I'm supposed to be in Jerusalem right now. I was appointed the Academic Director of the Jerusalem center, starting in August 2020 for a two-year assignment, and we've had semester after semester be canceled or delayed because Israel's had its borders shut during the pandemic. But we are hoping to leave in the spring and our clock will start ticking then.
So I'm taking my wife and our son with us for one, maybe two years. So we're going to have a chance to redo that experience, not that it wasn't great the first time. When I took my family at the end of 2011–it was August 2011 to August 2012 we were there–it wasn't my first time being there. I had been in Israel a handful of times already, but I'd never actually lived there for an extended period of time. Of course, it's very different when you're taking your family with you and the BYU Jerusalem students, of course, who really make the experience what it is.
But it was the writing of this book and its predecessor–about six months before I'd written a book called God So Loved the World: The Final Days of the Savior's Life that was about the last week of Jesus's life. And in preparing those two books, I really grounded myself in the gospel texts and what they said about Jesus's divine conception, miraculous birth, on the one hand, but also His salvific suffering death and resurrection on the other.
So I was really prime–for lack of a better term–to go to the Holy Land, really ready to walk through Jesus's first days and His last days, if you will, of course, we study His entire ministry with the BYU Jerusalem center program, so that was wonderful. But I was already expecting to have a special experience in Bethlehem and in the holy land at Christmas time. And certainly that spring, we celebrated Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter, ready to really try to connect more closely with Jesus, and what He had done for us.
So that really kind of shaped the whole experience because I had these books and all the research and the writing I had already done in mind as I went to those sites. And as I said, I had been there before, my family hadn't. But you know, places I had been several times like the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, or the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, or Garden of Gethsemane–I mean, they just meant so much more to me because I'd really immersed myself in the scriptures and really tried to understand more about what Jesus had done. So that changed my whole approach to it, I guess.
Morgan Jones 6:09
Yeah. When you told me over email prior to this recording, you told me that you had a really special experience on Christmas Eve. So I wondered if maybe we set the stage by having you share a little bit about that, and then as we go through these different aspects of your book I'm thinking it'd be neat–any insight you have, from that time spent there in the holy land would be really special as well.
Eric Huntsman 6:35
Okay, so I was over there with my wife, Elaine, my daughter, Rachel, who was in 10th grade at the time, and our son Samuel, who's in third grade. And then my mother, who was recently widowed, and my niece came over to spend the Christmas holidays with us.
And I mentioned who the characters are, because my son Samuel on the one end of the age spectrum, and my mother, Marilyn, that's been on the other were the ones who really made this experience so special. I think we'll probably have a chance to come back to this, but my son Samuel has special needs and he is on the autism spectrum.
And really, I had been struggling in the first few months we were in the Holy Land, because I had all these great plans for my family and these experiences I wanted to give them. And my wife and my daughter, you know, they were right there with us. My daughter would come on the field trips with the BYU Jerusalem center students, but my son Samuel, you know, he can't stand crowds and noises. So it didn't work to take him on a bus with the students. And I would take him to these sites and it was just sensory overload.
And I just kind of felt like he was not getting these experiences I was hoping that he would be able to have to kind of connect more closely with Jesus Christ. So that's one part of the story, is that I had my special needs son with us on Christmas Eve.
And then I had my mother who had, as I said, lost my father, he had died of cancer. My mother was in very poor health herself. She and my dad had always wanted to come to the Holy Land. And that was a dream that they weren't able to do together. So when we were assigned to live there for a year, you know, she put all her nickels together so she could come out and spend the holidays with us.
And I knew it was the only time that she would ever have this experience. And I knew that she was at the end of a very difficult health struggle herself. So I have a special needs son on the one hand and a much beloved mother, who was just, you know, approaching the end of her life.
And so I had this prayer in my heart that this would be a special experience that would reach both of them. Now as chance had it, Christmas Eve that year fell on a Saturday and in Jerusalem in Israel–in the West Bank they actually celebrate church on Sunday like other Christians do, but in Israel proper, Latter-day Saint meetings are held on Sabbath, on Saturday.
So we actually had the usual kind of branch Christmas sacrament meeting that morning in the Jerusalem center, was very nice. We sang carols, we had some Christmas talks, but then the faculty family and our guests all loaded these vans that took us to Bethlehem.
So we went to Downtown Bethlehem, Manger Square, this big square right in front of the Basilica of the Nativity, the traditional spot where Jesus was born. Arrived, you know, late morning, and it was just packed.
I mean, this is the biggest–as you can imagine–holiday of the year in Bethlehem. Full of people, lots of local Palestinian Christians but the local Muslim Palestinians they celebrate it too, you know. Jesus is actually the second most important prophet Islam, a lot of people don't know that, but after Muhammad he says they call Jesus. He's really important to them and they do believe in the virgin birth with Mary and so they celebrate Christmas to a certain degree.
So Manger Square was full of local Palestinians, as well a lot of Christian pilgrims from all over the world. And it was a party. There were parades and there's a soundstage on Manger Square, monstrous Christmas tree, there were bands playing–it was just almost pandemonium. It was almost too much and of course, I was worried how my sensory processing disordered son's going to handle this, but no, he was excited to be where Jesus was and where He was born, and we got into the Basilica of the Nativity, the longest continuously used church in the world.
It was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, and has been in use ever since the five hundreds. And so we got into the Basilica, and of course, it was full, everyone wanted to get to the cave, which is under the church, which is the traditional place where Jesus was born. And so we're thinking, there's no way we're going to be able to wait hours to get through this long line to get down to what they call the Grotto of the Nativity, the cave, which is the traditional spot.
And so we're waiting in this long line, and I'm trying to decide, do we dare spend hours here we've got other things we want to do in Bethlehem, it's Christmas Eve day. And just then there is a Palestinian tour guide, who knew me from previous visits, and he saw me and he says, "Brother!"–they all call us 'Brother'–"Brother, you have your family here!" I said, "Yes." He goes, "The lines are too long." I said, "I know, and my mother's here." He says, "I take care of you." And so he took us to the head of the line, and literally stopped all the traffic. My wife called it the Bethlehem Fastpass. It's kind of like when you go to Disneyland.
And so here are the five of us. I mean, six of us. So my wife, my son, my daughter, my mother, my aunt and myself, the six of us go down these narrow steps into this crowded little cave shrine. And my friend, the guide, held everyone at the top of the steps. Christmas Eve Day! The most busy day of the year in Bethlehem, and my little family of six had the grotto to itself for about seven minutes. I mean, it was amazing.
And you know, so that was neat that we came up and we watched the parades. And then we went and had this big meal at this place called the tent restaurant. But the most moving time spiritually for us was not all of the modern kind of traditional Christian ways of celebrating Jesus's birth. It was a quieter, more private experience that I and the other faculty families and our guests had on this open hillside, just north of Bethlehem.
There's this place called Shepherds Field, and there's a church there that commemorates the angel appearing to the shepherd, you know, while they were biding in the fields with their flocks. But we didn't go there, instead, we went to a place on the Israeli side of the line, which is an open hillside. And we sat literally on rocks between olive trees with stone walls and a few sheep wandering around, looking at the modern Palestinian town of Bethlehem on the hill.
And we sat there as the sun set, and we sang Christmas carols, and we read the Christmas story from Luke. And it was like we were there with the shepherds, that first Christmas Eve, whenever that happened, whether it was the spring or the winter, you know, whenever it actually happened. It was like we were there with the shepherds.
And of course, there's always going to be a first star every time the sun sets and night falls. But as we are singing Christmas carols, my little son who was quite shy, you know, he has autism, and we were with a bunch of people, all the faculty families, he interrupted the song, he said, "Stop! Stop." And we said, "What?" and he pointed towards Bethlehem and he goes "Look! The star of Bethlehem!"
And so you know, it was just the first star of the evening, but as chance had it, it looked like it was over Bethlehem. And so we all stopped and took a picture of it. It was just, it was just a neat experience. And in fact, it has become a family tradition, each Christmas Eve as we celebrate here in Provo, Utah, we almost always watch video clips from that Christmas Eve in Bethlehem at Shepherd's Field.
And we always tell the story of Sammy and the first star, the Christmas Star of Bethlehem that we saw. So it's something that we can still reflect back on and the feelings we had that night as we imagine what it would have been like. I have an ancestor McFarlane, who actually wrote the the hymn, "Far, Far Away on Judea's Plains." And it's very clear that brother McFarlane had never been to Israel. It's not a plane. It is a rocky hillside. But, you know, we imagine what it was like for those first shepherds as they receive those good tidings of great joy that the Savior of the world had been born, and that their salvation and ours was at hand.
Morgan Jones 13:55
Thank you so much for sharing that, that is exactly what I was hoping that you would be able to do for us is paint a little bit of a picture of what it would be like to be able to go over there. So thank you so much for sharing that.
I want to kind of dig into a couple of the things that you talk about in your book. One of them is that you explore, kind of some of the different characters in the story of Christ's birth. And one that really touched me–well, actually, before we move on to other characters, I want to kind of linger a little bit longer on Mary. And like I said, our last episode was focused–
Eric Huntsman 14:34
You had Sister McCann with you, didn't you?
Morgan Jones 14:35
Yes! Uh huh. We loved having her on and I just–there's one thing that you said in the book that really touched me, related to Mary. You said, "I remember distinctly and warmly the feelings that my wife Elaine expressed the first Christmas Eve after Samuel was born," which is your son. "That night she understood Mary's story perhaps more than she ever had before. Our son is also special, as is every boy and girl born on this earth. In our case, our son has special needs, but special gifts as well." And I wondered, as we kind of talk about motherhood and Mary, what do you feel like it was that your wife understood that night?
Eric Huntsman 14:38
Well, of course, that was her second born. So you know, every child is important. And your firstborn, her daughter, Rachel, you know, that's that moment, you know, after–in that case, it was almost a day worth of labor. And, you know, they finally handed us this baby. And they handed Rachel to me first, and I remember looking at Elaine and she was just exhausted. And as I put Rachel in Elaine's arms, she just had this smile, this look in her eyes–I'm sorry, you've got the weeping guest today, but between Christmas and family, you know all the emotional buttons here are being pushed.
Morgan Jones 15:52
We like emotion, it's fine.
Eric Huntsman 15:53
You know, and I know some of it's actually physiological, that when a woman gives birth there are hormones that are released, etc., that actually do help, you know, occlude the pain, and there is this feeling of release and there is this feeling of euphoria. But it's not just physiological. It's not just hormones. It really is this joy as you look at this new life, and you know, it had been this exhausting, difficult labor, and it just–that all just went away. And I just, and I thought I had been excited to hold my daughter in my arms, but I looked at my wife just stare at Rachel's eyes, and this look of joy.
And, and in that sense, the birth of Jesus wasn't different than any other birth. I mean, the joy of new life is there for each mother, for each parent. But of course in Mary's case, she had sacred revelation, she knew that this wasn't just her firstborn child. This was the only begotten Son of God, this was the Savior of the World. You know, so there was just this whole other layer.
You know, sometimes I think–I'm really big into what we call holy envy, recognizing the good in other faith traditions and being inspired by their devotion and their sincerity. And, and sometimes, you know, we look at our Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic friends and say, "Wow, you know, they almost worship Mary, they pay too much attention to her."
You know, rather than be critical, I think we should say, "Wow, isn't it wonderful that they recognize what an important role Mary played." You know, Mother Eve, and Mary, Mother of Jesus, I mean, they are our Father in Heaven, our Heavenly Parents two most valued daughters. So without those two, it wouldn't have worked.
If it weren't for Mother Eve, we wouldn't be here. And if it weren't for Mother Mary, we wouldn't be saved. And I think–I often like to tell my students when I'm teaching New Testament, I say Mary is her son's ultimate witness, you know, we are so blessed in the restored tradition, the Restored Church, to have actual apostles who are special witnesses of Jesus Christ.
But there is no more special witness than Mary. I mean, after God Himself, there is no one who knew better than Mary, that this was God's Son. She was there. She conceived; she had all the witnesses at His birth. And then my specialty in terms of my scholarly research is the Gospel of John. And if you fast forward to John, chapter 19, Mary, the mother of Jesus was standing at the foot of the cross, getting this witness that her son had died for the sins of the world. You know, those are the two most important things we can know–who is Jesus? He is literally the Son of God, but He's also the son of Mary, He had the power to die, to lay down His life as an offering for sin. And that's the other thing, we have a witness of who He is and what He did. He suffered, He died, and He rose again. And Mary is at the front of that. And she bore witness by her mere presence at the birth and at the death of Jesus.
Morgan Jones 18:43
That's beautiful. Thank you so much for being willing to kind of stay on that a little bit longer. But I know that you also have a very soft spot in your heart for Joseph and I want to talk a little bit about him. I love in the book how you point out that anyone who has adopted or fostered a child can relate to Joseph, but then you say, really, any parent can, because children are always the children of God and are given to parents on loan.
What do you think it is that Joseph teaches us about raising a child in partnership with God? And then I'd love for you to share any thoughts you have about Joseph because I know that you love him.
Eric Huntsman 19:25
Yeah, this was a little sidebar textbox on page 34 of my book, called "Joseph and Jesus are children in us," and I point out actually the Roman Catholic tradition, St. Joseph is the patron saint of foster fathers.
And of course, as we know that this was not his biological son, Jesus was not his son, Joseph is the ultimate adoptive or foster parent, if you will. But as you mentioned, I said in that little essay, that all of our children, even if we are their biological parents, they are just to us on loan because they are spirit children of Heavenly Parents. So in that sense, Joseph is the model for all of us.
He is a particular model for me as someone who has the blessing in this life of being both the husband and father, and I know many people don't, but I think even those who haven't had that opportunity can project or imagine what it's like for Joseph. He is the ultimate model in that sense.
You know, I think it's easy for us as people–not just men, we're talking about men and fathers here because Joseph was a man and he was a husband and father, but–I think it's easy for us sometimes to let our identity or our self-definition be too governed by worldly achievements. What is our career? What are our callings? What is our recognition? You know, we let the world or our positions changing–as they often are–status fleeting–as it often is–define us.
But what really lasts, of course, is our relationship with God our Father, our Savior, Jesus Christ, and our family and friendships, you know, relationships. And so I look at Joseph, this man about whom we know very little, I mean, Matthew and Mark both allude to the fact that he was a craftsman, King James translates this "Carpenter."
So we know that he was someone who worked with his hands to support his family, but we literally know nothing more about him, other than what we read in Matthew One in terms of him receiving an angelic annunciation that his fiancée was going to bear the Son of God. We see him receive dreams in Matthew 2 to protect his family from Herod, etc.
He's a secondary character, Luke chapters one through two. And then he disappeared right outside of the infancy narrative. In Matthew, Luke, he's not a character in the rest of the gospels. The usual assumption is that he died by the time Jesus was 30, or whenever He started His ministry. So we presume Mary was a widow at this point.
And so it's not his career, or his life, or his callings that define him. It's his role as Mary's husband and as Jesus's adoptive or foster father and father for other children that they have. We have a little tradition–lot's of traditions, you can only imagine–but one of our Christmas Eve traditions is everyone in the family gets, you know, a postcard size picture of Mary and Jesus or Joseph and Jesus, or when Sammy was little he would get a picture of a shepherd and the baby Jesus, and you know, our gift to Jesus that year, we'd write privately on the back of the card, what our gifts to the Savior is going to be in that coming year, since we're celebrating, you know, His birth, so to speak.
I write the same thing every year, I write that I can be more like Joseph. That I can seek and receive revelation to care for my wife and my children to protect them, to guide them, and that if that's all I accomplish in life, and that's all I'm known for, it will be enough.
Morgan Jones 22:47
Thank you so much. I agree. I remember years ago seeing a movie that was about the Nativity and being struck by how Joseph just must have been so good. And I think that's one of the best qualities or compliments anybody could probably ever give someone is just to say that they are good. And so I love Joseph as well.
Another person that you talk about is Simeon, and you share that it was the story of Simeon that brought you a lot of comfort when your grandfather passed away at Christmas time. Can you tell listeners what you love about Simeon and why that story brought–
Eric Huntsman 23:27
Yeah, sure. Real quickly a disclaimer, we're focusing on I guess, what's really meaningful about the Christmas story and it's a lot of stories about characters and a lot of personal experiences. And I'm the weeping guest here. I want to know the audience to know that this actually is a fairly scholarly book, I do a lot of what we call biblical exegesis, a lot of history, a lot of language–but the things that are coming to the surface at this time of the year, I guess, are the things that are truly meaningful. So just a sidebar there, this has more than just stories.
Morgan Jones 23:53
And it probably–that's probably on me, because I tend to dumb things down to my level. So just know, it really is.
Eric Huntsman 24:02
Oh no no, I don't see dumbed down. I think things float to the surface that are important. And these stories are important because one of the things you know, Nephi tells us we need to liken all the scriptures to ourselves, and all of these characters can be templates for us on our relationship with the Lord and how we should live. So Simeon is another one, you know, Luke, I'll be a little scholarly here for a moment.
One of the great things about Luke as a whole, but particularly in infancy narratives, the first two chapters is that he gives kind of equal treatment to men and women. He's kind of our gospel feminist, if you will. So he has more female characters than any other gospel. And he puts them in gender pairs, particularly in the opening chapters.
So it's Mary and Joseph, right. And then it–well, it actually starts out Zacharias and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, and then Simeon and Anna. So we're going to talk about Simeon, but I want you to keep in mind this other figure, Anna, who's described as a prophetess by the way.
So at the–towards the end of Luke chapter two, we have these two prophetic figures, Simeon and Anna, who are both what we would call temple workers. They're people who spend all their time in the temple serving through prayers and fasting’s and worship, and they are waiting the Lord's Christ. And so they both have been prepared through inspiration and prophecy, the testimony of Jesus that the Savior is going to be born.
So Simeon is this figure, and some of you may remember this, that when Mary and Joseph bring the baby Jesus to the temple as part of a purification, he meets them and takes the baby in his arm and gives a prophecy. And in traditional liturgy of your Episcopalian or Lutheran, or Roman Catholic, therefore we call canticle songs.
So you have Zacharias, the blessing of his Son, John the Baptist, you have Mary, what's called Magnificat, "My soul doth magnify the Lord," you have the angels, "The glory and excelsis, glory in the highest.” And the last of these four canticles is what's called the Nunc dimittis in Latin, which means–now you are sending. Because it starts out, "Now you are sending away your servant in peace."
Simeon had received this revelation or this promise from the Lord that he would not die, even though he's an old man, he would not die until he had seen the Savior. And now that he's holding Jesus in his arms, he says, "I can go in peace." It's a beautiful story. And actually, in a lot of traditional Christian practices, people will pray or read or listen to a musical setting of the Nunc dimittis at evening prayer because the idea is–I don't know if you remember the old prayer we used to say when we were little, "Now I lay me down to sleep if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take" the idea is we never know when this day is going to be our last day. So at the end of the day, you want to be right with the Lord.
Well, this is used a lot in traditional Christian churches because we should all be in the place of Simeon at the end of the each day and at the end of our life, we should say, "I have seen the Lord," or "I know Jesus." Okay, so that's just kind of the background of it.
I was putting this book together, writing it at the end of 2010. It was going to come out in 2011. And my grandfather, my paternal grandfather, Grandpa Huntsman died just a few days before Christmas. So I was still in–it would take me another couple months before this book was finished, but it was in process at the time.
Well, Christmas funerals are always hard when someone dies at Christmas time, right, supposed to be the happiest time in the world, but now you're the saddest, etc. So we all–we held the funeral off till the 27th and my family's from Southern Utah, my grandfather's from a ranch in New Harmony, which is south of Cedar.
So we drove down to Cedar City on the 26th and stayed in a hotel Hampton Inn, so we'd be ready for the funeral on the 27th the next morning. And my only, the only–well, I guess there's some more now, but I was the eldest of my grandfather's namesake grandson's, if you will, who bore the Huntsman name. And so for whatever reason, they asked me to give the funeral talk.
And it's one of those things you know, you try and try to put the talk together it just doesn't come together. It's usually you're getting a stupor of thought because you're not thinking the right things.
So here it is, the night before the funeral, and I still haven't read my funeral sermon. Well, we have lots of traditions in my family as I've already alluded to–we get together every night in December leading up to Christmas for Christmas Devotional with a story and a scripture and a carol. And we continue it for the few days after Christmas. I hate it when Christmas is over. Traditionally, Christmas is the season, the 12 days of Christmas are not the 12 days leading up to Christmas, it's Christmas day through January 5.
So we keep this tradition going after Christmas. And one of the first stories that we read after Christmas is the story of what's called the Presentation of the temple, the story of Simeon. So I'm reading this account in Luke 2 to my kids. And suddenly I realize–grandpa is Simeon. Grandpa was this older man, he was a temple worker, he had been a bishop, he was faithful. And I thought, just like Simeon served in the temple, and I thought–maybe Grandpa never actually saw Jesus, maybe he never actually had that kind of vision, but I know he knew the Lord.
And when the moment came for him to actually die, you know, the 23rd, or whatever it was 22nd or 23rd, I have this confidence that it was sweet for him, you know, Section 42 promises us that, you know, death will be sweet to those who know the Lord. And that he was able to say like Simeon, Now I can go in peace, because I have seen the Lord's Christ.” And so I actually used that story as the basis of my talk the next day. A way of honoring grandpa, remembering Simeon, but also kind of holding up the bar, the standard, to the rest of us, that we should be like that. We should really be seeking to know the Savior so that when our time comes, we can go in peace.
Morgan Jones 29:37
I think that's profound. I just heard this week about a woman that I know from my hometown who was a really strong Christian and she passed away suddenly and unexpectedly and my heart has just been aching for her daughters. And just thinking about the comfort that can be found in knowing that somebody has lived a Christlike life and to have that hope at Christmas time in particular I think is really, really beautiful.
Eric Huntsman 30:08
Well . . . in the book at another point when I talk about the slaughter of the innocents, you know, when the babies of Bethlehem are killed. I have a little sidebar there called "Sadness at Christmas time." And you know, there's a haunting carol called, "Lullay my little child," it's the Coventry Carol, and it's about the mothers of Bethlehem, you know, weeping for their babies, which sounds kind of dark and macabre at Christmas time.
The reality is, Christmas can be hard for a lot of people. If you're alone, if you've lost someone, if life's difficult, when it's so joyful for everyone around you, it makes your sadness or your disappointment, your heartache, seem almost all the worse by contrast, right?
So sometimes it's really nice to find some comfort in saying, yeah, things have been hard historically, for lots of people. And you know, it was really sad when grandpa died that year. But as time has passed, we now look back at that experience, and we can take comfort because of the comparison with Simeon. I do think it's really important while we are happy, and as we're celebrating that we be very aware of those who are alone, or those who are sad, or those who've lost somebody who are suffering, and not kind of run over them in our joy, if that makes any sense.
Morgan Jones 31:25
For sure, for sure. Okay, so we talked about some of these characters. And I love that–I will put in a plug for your book, because I loved everything that you have in there about Zacharias and Elizabeth.
But, I want to kind of transition to–you talk about some of the aspects of Christmas and their origins within religious history. You write about the role of gifts in our celebration of Christmas, and how the ultimate gift is the gift of the Son of God. I love all of the traditions that you and your family have and in particular I love the ones–it seems like your family is really focused on keeping Christ at the center of Christmas. And so I wondered if you could share with listeners a thing or two that you and your family have done that emphasizes the celebration of Christ at this time of year.
Eric Huntsman 32:21
I mentioned earlier, as we're talking about the Simeon and the Grandpa Huntsman story that our family makes a point of every day in December, taking some time–usually in the evening–to sit down, even if it's just for 10 or 15 minutes as a family. You know, we're going to do our scripture study and our family prayer anyways.
So it seems like the normal place to say, "Hey, let's do a little Christmas." So we have a little book that we put together that has a Christmas story. Some are fun, some are thoughtful, some are heart rending. And then we have a scripture and a carol for each day from December 1 to December 24.
I pick the scriptural passages and put them kind of chronologically, starting with Adam going all the way up, you know, through that famous passage in Third Nephi 1 when the Spirit of Christ talks to Nephi that night before he's born.
And so we read their Christmas story, and we read the scripture together, and we sing the Carol, then we have our family prayer. But what it guarantees is that each day we are thinking about what the season is about. And all the scriptures come from the Old Testament, or the Pearl of Great Price, or the Book of Mormon leading up to Jesus's coming. So it's just really keeping us focused.
We also picked up–a few years after we put this Christmas book together–this tradition, in Western Europe it's Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic–Advent. The four Sundays before Christmas. So this is usually the first Sunday after Thanksgiving even before we start our Christmas devotionals in December.
You know, we have an Advent wreath of the four candles and it's a more involved devotional and we light the candle of the week. And we have a number of scriptures we read and we talk about that week's theme. And then we sing and we pray and then we usually make cookies or do something to make it fun for the kids. That's another thing.
So those are very kind of formalized things, but we have other things that are small. You know, my neighbors call our house little Temple Square, I put up more lights than you can imagine. And we have choir music blaring out the speakers, you know, Christmas songs and I just love decorating for Christmas and making it a happy time.
We have a tradition–a small one Christmas morning–that we started one year when we had some family visiting and things were tense and you know, I had all these nice warm quiet traditions with my little family, it was just Elaine, Rachel and I at the time, and I felt like the holiday had been kind of disrupted and there'd been some–not contention, but just . . . it was just chaotic and I just felt like before we can open our gifts Christmas morning I want to have prayer.
Elaine's like, "We're going to pray?" You know, my parents families here, what's going on?" And so we just meld together and before we even open any gifts, we just offer the simple prayer which is become a tradition, you know, you thank Heavenly Father for the gift of His Son Jesus. And we're grateful for the bounty which allows us to give and give such gifts each year.
And now, when the kids were little, and we'd go down to the family room for you know, the mythologically delivered gifts, right, the Santa Claus gifts, even before we'd go down there, we'd gather around the Advent wreath and have that prayer before we went down and you know, tore apart those packages, or before we came back up to the living room to open the gifts from each other, you know, the family gifts around the tree, just . . . so we just wouldn't, we wouldn't just start with gifts, right?
We would start by lighting our candles and having a prayer and offering thanks for Jesus and recognizing that, yeah, Christmas is a lot of fun. And we do get gifts and we do get joined giving gifts. But that's just because we're following the pattern of the Magi and others who are trying to give gifts to the baby Jesus. But most of all, God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son
Morgan Jones 35:55
That–I think those are such great ideas. I especially love that last one. One thing that people may or may not know about you, Eric, is that you have sung for years in the Tabernacle Choir on Temple Square. And I always recognize you there in the choir. And so I wonder, what is it about music that speaks to our souls? And why is Christmas music so special to so many?
Eric Huntsman 36:23
So when I started out with the Tabernacle Choir in 2003, it was actually the year Sammy was born. So that's how I remember how long I've been in the choir. I just remember how old Sam is, so it's been 18 years now.
Craig Jessup was our music director. And I actually was doing a show for what was then called the Mormon Channel and, and so I interviewed him and our organist Rick Elliot about Christmas and music and how it speaks to us. And Craig had this wonderful expression he said, "Music is the first language." It's the language of the heart.
And I have since kind of paraphrased that. I wrote a book on worship a few years ago for Deseret Book and in the chapter on "Music is Worship." I paraphrased the hymn, you know, “Prayer is the Soul's Sincere Desire,” well, if prayer is the soul's sincere desire, then perhaps music is its most earnest expression. It's a way for us to express not just what we're thinking, but what we're feeling right. And even if you're not a singer, you can be moved by music and you can appreciate music.
My mother, whom I mentioned earlier when I was talking about Bethlehem, our Christmas in Bethlehem, Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, was a great musician, as my grandfather on her side was. And my sister and I always say, one of the greatest gifts that our mother gave us besides what she taught us not only about who Jesus was, but how to serve Him, the other great gift she gave us was music.
You know, we played the piano, and we learned violin, and we sang in all of our choirs. And you know, it doesn't matter where we live New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, our ward no matter how small it was, had some of the best Christmas and Easter programs.
And so we very early learned that music was a way of worshipping, and particularly honoring and commemorating the birth, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
You know, I have a–my daughter laughs at this, I have an iTunes playlist Christmas playlist that's 3.2 days long. Every song you can imagine, and my wife used to have a firm rule, no Christmas music till you know, after Thanksgiving dishes are done. My daughter and I used to always sneak it early.
But you know, once we've gotten permission from mom, music is playing constantly in our house. And you know, I have a playlist that's tailored for Sunday, which is a little bit more reverent. But we have that 3.2 day playlist has every Tabernacle Choir song ever recorded for Christmas, but it also has all the fun ones and all the carols and King's College and Pentatonix, you know, Noteworthy–I mean its got every kind of music you can imagine, because just having the music in our home just brings Christmas, right.
And there's an appendix in the book, which is called "Christmas with Autism" that we may or may not have time to talk about it. But you know, we had all these traditions and a lot of them involve music. And when Sam was–even before he was diagnosed at four, things weren't working out with our traditions.
We didn't know what his issues were. We knew he was developmentally delayed, and we knew that he had sensory issues because lights and music and loud noises and flashing lights were just trouble for him. But Christmas drives him crazy. And it's hard for a lot of people on the autism spectrum because you know, strange smells, strange lights and when they're kids, "Why is there a tree in the living room?" And why are things different? A lot of people on the spectrum like the uniformity of normal patterns, and everything's turned upside down at Christmas.
And one of the things that was hard for Sam because he had sensory processing disorder was loud noises, which included loud music. And when we would have our daily Christmas devotionals and I would sing, I sang my heart out when I'm in the choir loft, I blend you know, Dr. Wilberg and Dr. Murphy they insist that we blend so you don't stick out when you're singing in a choir.
But you know when I'm singing in sacrament meeting, or temple preparation meeting before my shift each week, or when I'm singing with my family, I let it rip. [Laughter] I figured this is how I worship and I'm going to sing–in fact, real quick story.
When I was first a new bishop as a young man, I had a sweet old lady came up to me, she goes, "Bishop, you sing too loudly." And so for two or three weeks, I hardly peeped. I just sang so quietly. And Elaine finally pulled me aside, she goes, "Eric, you look so miserable. Who cares what people think?" She quoted that great passage, "The song of the righteous is a prayer unto me," she goes, "Eric, that's how you worship. And I know you have to blend into choir, but when you're singing hymns, you just, you sing." So I would sing!
You know, and Sam, little three-year-old would covers his ears and scream when his daddy sang, and this is my way of worshipping, I thought, "Oh my gosh, Christmas is ruined." You know, how will it ever be the same if we can't do all of our traditions, and we can't have the music, etc. And it was actually my little daughter who began the journey of kind of recovering Christmas for us. I often say that Rachel was Sam's first and best therapist. She just loves her brother, I really believe she was sent first to our family because she was prepared to take care of him.
And you know, when he got in kindergarten, he had an aide who said, "Sam always needs to know what is next." And so she worked with this kindergarten teacher to always make a list on the board–this is what's next. And later aides would have a clipboard, they would actually lay out what was happening that day and what the assignments were. And we put a big whiteboard on our wall with each day and each part of the day, little, you know, magnetized stickers, you know what's going on when so that he could plan and prepare for it.
So Rachel said, "Sam needs a Christmas checklist." And so she made this Christmas checklist of everything we did on Christmas Eve day, Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. And she decorated it with pictures, you know, there's Santa Claus, and there were gifts, and there's food and all these different things.
And you know, he would never be in the nativity play well, one of those things was: write a nativity play, act in the nativity play. And so she very patiently helped this little five year old autistic boy write a play, in his words, of the story and practice this part with him.
And you know, it's become such a tradition, even though Sam is very functional now, you know, I ordained him a deacon, a priest, he's now taking classes online at UVU. I mean, we've seen such miracles with him.
But even as an 18-year-old, fairly functional boy, one of our Christmas traditions is the Christmas checklist. And you know, he's still decorates it with pictures, and it's not Christmas list, he can check each of those things off. So it's like: family prayer, thank for Jesus Christmas morning–check. Go downstairs and get the presents from Santa–check. Go upstairs and give gifts to each other–check. Make Christmas dinner–I mean, he doesn't need it anymore. But it was just the way Rachel helped him negotiate the differences and what–and now when we sing, we do our Christmas devotionals and it's–my daughter's married now so usually, it's just me Elaine and Sam, the three of us sit together, even though he's 18 years old, pretty big and doesn't usually want dad to hug him, when we do these Christmas devotionals we'll read the story, he will put his head on my shoulder lean up against me. It's the closest we are now that he's big, right? And he sings his heart out. He can give his baritone in Tabernacle Choir dad a run for his money when it comes to singing Christmas carols with his heart.
Morgan Jones 43:35
Well, I cannot thank you enough for sharing all of this. I keep thinking how I feel like Heavenly Father sometimes leads me to certain people for this podcast. And this is one where I feel like it turned out exactly like it was supposed to, that there's some reason somebody out there that needs to hear this or a lot of people that Christmas might look a little bit different, but that we can still celebrate the Savior and do it in a way that's special. And so thank you so much for sharing all that with me.
Eric Huntsman 44:11
Thank you for having me. You know, the only thing I love to talk about more than Christmas is Easter. So if you want another thing, let me know. You know President Hinckley gave his Christmas message in, I think it was 2000, he said, "If it were not"–you know–"the babe in Bethlehem would have been just another baby if it were not the for the redeeming Christ of Calvary and the empty tomb."
So, and if people can't get a copy of the book, I don't know if it's out of print yet there may not be a lot of copies, google “Eric Huntsman” and “Latter-day Saint Seasonal Materials” and I put a lot of these ideas on a blog that they can refer to and maybe if they want some of those ideas, but if not, just pull out the scriptures and let the Spirit be your guide and it will help you know how you can best honor the Savior.
You know, we just had a devotional here at BYU with Elder Anderson where he said the best gift we can give the Savior right now is to spend time with Him at Christmas and all the time. And it's really worth taking time out of our busy schedules to each day, reflect on who Jesus is and what He did for us.
Morgan Jones 45:13
Absolutely. I loved that talk by Elder Anderson. So I'm glad that you brought that up. Last question for you, Eric, is what does it mean to you to be all in the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Eric Huntsman 45:24
Well, you've probably already gotten a hint of this, that's kind of my personality, whatever I do, I do all the way.
I love the original meaning of the word gospel in Greek it means "Good tidings." That's what the title of that book, Good Tidings of Great Joy. It's our word, evangelical, but it's when you're sharing the good news of who Jesus is and what he did for us. And when that becomes the defining factor of your life, that you're not just the son and daughter of God, because you're spirit children of Heavenly Parents–although that's a precious gift.
We become begotten children of our Father in heaven, we become children of Christ as King Benjamin puts in Mosiah five, when we enter in a covenant take on ourself the name of Christ, and He becomes the center of our life. And e becomes the motivator. And there's that great line in first John 5, we love Him because He loved us first.
When we recognize how much Jesus loved us, that He was willing to die for us, and then rise again, you know, we should live for him. Yeah, it'd be great to die for your testimony if that's what you're called upon to do. But what most of us are called to do is to live for Him. And to me being all in is to see the majesty of the Restoration and the fullness of the gospel through the lens of its first principle, because there are always challenges, you know, we can always have faith issues or questions. But when you are firmly anchored in Jesus, those other things, they'll fall in place in time.
Morgan Jones 46:57
So, so, so, so well said thank you so much, Eric. I appreciate it. And I hope that you and your family have a very Merry Christmas.
Eric Huntsman 47:05
Oh, Merry Christmas to you, Morgan, and to all of your listeners.
Morgan Jones 47:09
We are so grateful to Eric Huntsman for joining us on today's episode, you can find many of Eric's books including Good Tidings of Great Joy on DeseretBook.com. Thank you so much for listening. We will be taking a three week break but we'll be back with new episodes beginning January 12. Merry Christmas to you and your family and a very happy New Year.