When I was growing up two-thirds of a century ago in a small farming community in South Eastern Idaho, Christmas really was a magical time of year. We always woke up to three or four feet of fresh snow and since our neighbor’s houses were too far away to be seen, it was like we were in a kingdom all our own. My father made sure we had a fresh Christmas tree. It wasn’t necessarily the most symmetrical and there were spaces between the branches, but we thought it was wonderful. When we returned from the Neighborhood Christmas party on Christmas Eve where Santa gave each of us a brown paper bag with peanuts, hard candy and an orange in it, he would sit us down on the floor and read the story of Christ’s birth from Luke: 2 in his deep, melodious voice.
We never got much in the way of gifts because my father was a World War II veteran who came from an impoverished family. His father had died when he was a year old and his mother had to take in washing and ironing and clean other people’s homes to support her children. I only remember two gifts I ever got, what we called in those days – a lady doll and a baby doll with a soft body and a hard head.
But I do remember thinking what an enchanting story Christ’s birth in a manger was because I grew up around animals, and they were never pleasant nor serene. The chickens would peck my hands when I went to gather the eggs. The cows would toss their heads around when they were milked, and we had to be careful not to get the stepped on. The horses were big and frightening. The sheep were un-cooperative and not terribly bright, and the pigs were right down offensive and disgusting.
The barn was a converted Army barrack that leaked when the snow started to melt. Shepherds were rough-looking men with bad hygiene who lived in one-room trailers and only came around civilization when it was time to sheer or sell the sheep. As for the Wisemen, I had no idea what they did, but apparently they could afford some very nice gifts.
My misconceptions about a lot of things did not change rapidly. I learned songs at church like Give Said the Little Stream, Popcorn Popping on an Apricot Tree and Jesus Wants me for a Sunbeam. And our lessons were more about being good little boys and girls than about learning who Jesus really was and why it was important to become more like him.
I’m not sure when thinking about the way Christ’s birth has blessed my life even became part of my thought process. My childhood and youth seemed to be nothing more than one tragedy after another, and it was all I could do to survive, but I have come up with a few pivotal examples from my life that have helped me see both the beauty and the necessity for challenges that force us to our knees and give us a chance to learn the principles Christ taught throughout his earthly ministry in a way that became personally meaningful.
The first happened when I was five and taught me about the need for obedience, watchful care and the value of life. It was a cold spring morning and my father was busy in the field preparing the tandem disc for plowing up the fields. My mother allowed my three year-old brother and me to go outside. Since I was the older sibling, I was told to watch him. I’m not sure what happened, but the frost hadn’t even left the grass when my father came running towards the house with my little brother’s body dangling in his arms and calling for my mother to get the keys to the jeep because this beautiful little boy was dead. My father had accidently run over him.
My mother turned to me and said in a tone that crippled me for years. “If you had been watching him the way I told you to, this never would have happened.” He spent six weeks in a coma, and while he survived, the extent of his injuries meant our family life was never really happy again. My guilt over something that wasn’t my fault is still there, but it taught me not to take unnecessary chances and to listen to what people I needed to trust said.
When I was in the 3rd grade, I learned about compassion for others and acceptance of what cannot be changed. I spent 6 months in bed with Rheumatic fever that damaged my heart and made it impossible for me to even take part in physical activities while growing up. I was ostracized and made fun of simply because I was unable to do so many things, but those experiences helped me to see inside people’s hearts. I found myself always fighting for the underdog and wanting to be kind to people who were not readily accepted by others.
There were many other experiences that challenged my formative years, but the most gripping tested my childhood faith and belief in miracles to nearly the breaking point. I found my father dead in the bathroom of our small home from suffering a massive heart attack when I was thirteen. I loved him dearly and got up before dawn each morning to drive the tractor while he threw hay to the animals in the fields. Sometimes it was so cold my toes and feet would be numb the entire time I was outside, but with 7 children and no one else old enough or willing to help, I was always his right-hand man.
I remember being told by my mother to take all of my siblings down the road to the neighbor’s house and stay there until someone came to get us. No one was at home, but people never locked their doors so we waited for hours and prayed continually that we would be the recipients of a miracle, but it didn’t happen. In fact, life became even more difficult because my mother went through a complete breakdown that forced me away from my home before I graduated high school. My grandmother, the only person other than my father that I ever felt close to, took me to BYU so I could utilize an academic scholarship, but she died before the end of my freshman year.
Now you might wonder why I’m relating such sad stories at Christmas. For me these challenges, along with losing every baby I tried to carry as an adult, have given me the basis for what I consider the greatest blessings of my life because they forced me to reach inward and upward for survival. I know God lives. I know he sent his son as a baby in a manger to bless the lives of everyone who even attempts to believe in and trust him.
If I had no knowledge of Christ and his mission to bless and redeem, I would be just like all the other billions of persons who have lived through the centuries wandering aimlessly in a dark and frightening world, accepting mediocrity, living for the moment, taking what was wanted, and dying without knowing what my purpose was for even being here.
My blessings are the gifts that come from learning hard lessons and accepting what Christ has done for each one of us individually because he set the perfect example. Now that I’ve finally come to understand things more clearly than I did as a child who only recognized the magical beauty of the season, I know the types of blessings I’ve received. It’s being obedient and humble enough to ask for guidance and direction. It’s the ability to get an education so I could stand on my own without letting fear debilitate me. It’s the capacity to love my siblings, children, grandchildren and friends without having to accept everything they’ve done. It’s being guided and protected on a daily basis and finally getting it that all of our prayers will not be answered the way we might like in this life.
Because of Christ, I have a reason to live joyfully. I have hope that things are progressing as they should and have clarity of mind and peace that fills my heart and soul. My belief in something greater than I can comprehend fills every part of my life, if I will just allow it to. In Hebrews 5:8 we are told that we learn obedience by the things we suffer.
My life has been blessed greatly over the years, even when I couldn’t see it. And I know it will continue to be that way until my mission is complete. I rejoice each day that I’m still able to get out of bed and go about my day with purpose. I might not get as much done as I once did, but I still make lists and check off goals that have been completed.
I treasure my time spent doing things for others, and writing books that share Christian beliefs and gospel principles with people around the globe. I’ve been unfriended and ridiculed because I write about what I believe, but I want others to know what I do about Christ, his teachings and enduring to the end. It’s a beautiful time of year, and I don’t appreciate it nearly as much as I should.