By Michael D. Williams
I had been encouraged to write about how we can avoid unnecessary stress and frustration during the holiday season. But I get tired of those kinds of talks and articles; they seem too negative at a time when I want the world and my home filled with joy.
So I decided to write about the most enjoyable Christmas seasons I've experienced. I was interested to note that there was something special about the trees that decorated our homes at those times. So I've decided to indulge myself...and write about those trees.
When I was about ten years old it looked like we might not have a tree at all. With only a couple of days until Christmas we didn't have one and we kids were pretty disappointed. So I was stunned when the door burst open as my father and uncle dragged in the biggest one I'd ever seen. It was huge-too tall to fit without trimming and beautiful branches that stretched into the middle of our modest living room. We six kids literally danced with excitement.
But I was confused by the less-than-thrilled looks my parents exchanged with each other. It made more sense months later, when I noticed the large tree in the back yard sporting a flat-top, and 12 feet shorter than it used to be. Years later my mother explained that they were simply too poor to afford a tree, and they had "made do" with what was available. Knowing how my mother also cared about the appearance of the yard I realize that this was a real sacrifice for her. I still smile when I think of that wonderful tree and the way my parents made it special for us.
My second favorite tree was not really a tree at all. I arrived in Denmark to begin missionary service on Thanksgiving day, and was assigned to a small branch where there had been no missionaries in two years. My companion and I quickly learned of the Danish tradition of celebrating "Yule" throughout the month of December and that it had little to do with the Savior.
This made door-to-door contacting especially unproductive. The irony was not lost on me, as people routinely shouted, "No, I don't want to hear anything about Jesus; it's Christmas!" (Any reference to deity before slamming the door was anything but reverent.)
So we set about making Christmas cards and improvised chocolate chip cookies, which we delivered to anyone who had spoken with us for even a few minutes. I was struck at their surprise that we should be thinking of them when they had nothing to offer us in return, and I am still touched as I think of how good it felt to do even small acts of service for anyone who would allow it.
On Christmas morning Elder Sederholm and I exchanged gifts in front of the small pine bough taped upright on the wall above our table, doing its best to imitate a Christmas tree. It was decorated with paper chains, a star, and the cards we had received from home. I loved that "tree"; it represented forgetting about myself and losing self in service of others.
But the tree of which I am most proud was the one I cut from a tree lot in Nipomo, California about 20 years ago. Money was tight for us that year-not an unusual situation, really. My wife, Ruth, had asked me to get any tree we could afford on the way home from work and was excited when I saw a sign pointing to a cut-it-yourself lot near the freeway.
As it was late in the season there were few trees left, but they were only eight dollars so I felt the pressure to make one of them work. I was thrilled when I spied a perfectly symmetrical spruce near the middle of the field. One problem: it has a gaping hole-10 inches high and 20 inches wide-right in what would otherwise have been the ideal front of the tree. But with an idea (and a little trepidation about what Ruth might say) I paid the eight dollars and began cutting.
When I got home Ruth sized up the tree, congratulated me on my thrift, and expressed disappointment that what would have been the prettiest side would have to face the corner. I asked her to trust me and dressed it with white lights, careful to make the wires inconspicuous. The kids and I then arranged her prettiest nativity scene carefully within that gap. It was not easy to get all the figurines to stand up, but I still believe it is the most beautiful and reverent of all the Christmas trees we've had over the years.
As I write this, it occurs to me that I actually have stumbled upon three keys to enjoying this season: Make do and be grateful for what you have right in front of you. Avoid the mistake of trying to impress someone with going beyond your means. It won't matter anyway.
Lose yourself in service to others, perhaps even those who cannot fully appreciate what you are offering right now. Joy almost always sneaks up on us while we are busy doing something good without any expectations.
Place the Savior at the center of your celebration.
Merry Christmas...and may you keep "the reason for the season" in plain view.