I’d known for weeks, if not months, the Sunday after Thanksgiving would be December 1st; that we’d drive twelve hours back from visiting my sister’s family in San Diego to the advent of the Christmas season.
And I’ll admit, with a pounding headache and an aching back I was tempted to skip church this morning; tackle the massive mess in my house, start my December to-do lists. Because no matter how hard I try to keep Christmas simple, there’s simply a lot to do.
But if I missed church every time I felt overwhelmingly busy and headachy I’d never go, so I put on my red skirt, my sparkly earrings and scurried to the car with my family.
Our bishop began the meeting by talking about our ward Christmas tradition. Every year, rather than exchanging gifts with our friends and neighbors, we donate the money to a ward project. With our combined efforts, the amount creates enormous good– we’ve paid hospital bills for a needy family, sent sewing machines to South America, clothing to Africa, helped refugees in Salt Lake City. I absolutely love this tradition. All the mothers of the neighborhood are saved the extra stress of creating and exchanging little gifts and the money blesses God’s children. As our bishop spoke humbly about the needs he’d love to fill this year we all felt his excitement. As followers of Christ, what better way could we show our love to each other and to Savior than by helping others?
The first Sunday of the month marks testimony meeting in Mormon churches, which means anyone in the congregation can stand, express their feelings and bear testimony of Christ. One after the other, each person spoke of marking Christmas by showing kindness.
I especially loved the words from our friend Stan Pugsley. He spoke of driving home from Thanksgiving dinner and seeing parking lots teeming with cars and eager shoppers eager to catch the sales. And while there’s nothing wrong with shopping and presents, those should only be a small part of our Christmas celebrations. He named his family’s goal to read the Gospels during the month of December.
Then to Relief Society where our instructor read stories from Christmas celebrations in the 19th and 20th centuries, where good food, family gatherings, a warm fire and token gifts marked the holiday. She also told a truly remarkable story about Joseph F. Smith and his determination during the Great Depression that no family in his stake would go without food and toys for the children on Christmas. The entire community gathered together and formed a Santa’s workshop of sorts where they refurbished old toys and accepted donation of food and clothing. Like the bread and fishes, a congregation where 60% of household providers were out of work, were able to feed, clothe and delight more than a thousand needy children.
Sometimes church feels like just a repeat of words we’ve already heard, ideas we know by heart. And it is. I’m not telling you anything new– our children will remember our traditions much longer than what they unwrapped on Christmas morning, we should spend this month searching for ways to be kind and serve others, gratitude creates happiness– but we are human and need to be reminded. I get caught in the lists and the bustle and the thousands of ads and emails filling my inboxes. And I’m grateful for a place I can go every Sunday; a place where we sing “I Heard the Bells of Christmas Day” (my favorite), “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “O, Holy Night.”