Christmas I remember best: Best Christmas is learning the true meaning of the holiday

By Reed Wahlquist

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 20 2011 11:35 p.m. MST

Editor's note: This is the second of six winners in The Deseret News' annual Christmas writing contest, "Christmas I Remember Best." See the first winner here, the third winner here, the fourth winner here, the fifth winner here and the sixth winner here.

My most memorable Christmas played out while I was still a child. The Great Depression of the 1930s was in full swing, and my family had been particularly hard hit. My parents had been forced off their small farm by the Dust Bowl and their inability to pay their taxes. They just abandoned the farm and started over again in the city. Dad took many odd jobs while trying to get an education at the local college. He worked as a custodian in exchange for a waiver of tuition, and finally had enough credits — two years of schooling beyond high school — to be hired as a teacher.

I was just a child and knew nothing of financial hardships, my father's ominous health issues, mounting bills or the constant worry about coming up with next month's rent. What I did know was that Christmas was coming, and Santa Claus would surely bring me and my brothers some amazing gifts.

Mother suggested that I write Santa a letter, so he would know what I wanted; but she cautioned me that with so many children in the world, he would have to limit everyone to just one present. Dad asked if I would like to go with him to a store to get an idea of what to ask for.

We walked downtown and Dad led me to Kress's, the local "five and dime" store. We wandered through the store, just my Dad and me — an experience I still remember with great sentiment. I hurried us past the boys' clothing department, which Dad seemed to favor, and headed to the back where all the wonders of the world were waiting for our consideration. There were goldfish that made my heart jump just to think about. Or an American flag mounted on a stick, or a sheriff's badge and gun.

Then I spotted it. It was an illustrated book of Bible stories for children. The cover simply took my breath away. There in full color was a picture of the boy David, with his sling, getting ready to take aim at a monstrous-looking Goliath. Inside were pictures and stories of Daniel in the lion's den, the fiery furnace, the handwriting on the wall, Noah's ark filled with wondrous creatures, the Roman soldiers leading Jesus away. To own such a book, with colored pictures and a hard cover and all those stories I could read and reread — there was no need to look further. I announced my decision to Dad and could hardly wait to get home and write the letter so Santa Claus could reserve that book just for me.

After a torturous wait that only children can appreciate, Christmas morning finally arrived. As was always our family tradition, we sat around the Christmas tree and waited for each person in turn to open his present.

After what seemed an eternity, Dad handed me my present. It was rolled up rather than flat, and I was completely puzzled. I unwrapped it quickly and found it was a comic book. In horror I read the title: "Illustrated Classics Stories from the Bible." There had been a terrible mistake! Instead of a hard cover neatly bound, I had some black and white newspaper pages held together with two staples. I think it had cost a nickel.

I cried and asked if I could write a letter to Santa and have him correct this awful mistake. Many decades later, I can only imagine the heartbreak and pain I must have caused my parents by my response.

It did not take long to complete the distribution of presents, and Mother then called us together for breakfast. Only after did Dad ask if he could talk with me. We walked back into the front room. Dad put a lump of coal in the stove, moved his chair up closer to the fire and then had me sit on his lap. He quietly, and with great tenderness, explained to me what most children learn only several years later. He explained further that gifts can not be judged by their cost alone. Sometimes the most precious gifts have no monetary value at all. He said there would be better years ahead, with nicer gifts. But this Christmas, I had received the very best he had to give.

I sat cuddled in the chair with my Dad for a long time while we watched the flames dance up from the coal. I think I knew then, but as the years went on, I knew for a certainty, that no child ever received a greater gift than I had just received. What king's ransom could possibly purchase what I already had: parents who loved me, who cared deeply about my happiness, and who always gave me the very best they had.

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