My parents were divorced when I was 11 years old, and we were snatched away from the safety and beauty of our valley and the mountains of the Wasatch, which I loved with all of my heart. (Salt Lake City was a sheltered environment in the 1950s. In my sixth grade year we had a Presbyterian boy in our class — most of us had never even heard the word before. And divorce? In that day it was largely an inconceivable, unacceptable thing.)
Now we four girls found ourselves in Northern Illinois with our mother and an excommunicated stepfather. Everything was different. Everything was insecure. And we were suddenly something we had never been before: poor.
As Christmas approached, my sister and I knew there would be no money for gifts. I was in the junior high chorus, Jeannine in the high school. She needed a certain color of sweater for her performance; I needed black patent leather flats. Those were our pre-Christmas presents. We talked with our mother and agreed that what money there was should be used to help Santa provide a decent Christmas morning for our two grade-school-age sisters.
But I was stunned. How could Christmas come and go, really and truly without presents?
Henry Ward Beecher said, "It is not what we take up, but what we give up that makes us rich." As the days progressed, I felt a growing lightness about my heart. It was as if some burden had been lifted and a whole pre-occupation of self-interest removed from my life. I became excited at helping to prepare Christmas for my younger sisters. I watched the wild Illinois snow swirl through the bitter gray sky and fall down thick for hours — and for more hours — creating a landscape of radiance and beauty I would not have thought possible. I listened to Christmas carols and felt them in the depth of my being, through an atmosphere that seemed pure and uncluttered, where the Spirit seemed to fold around me with a warmth I could feel.
On Christmas morning my grandmother brought over yarn dolls with full skirts she had made for me and Jeannine, which we could set on our beds. And my quiet-spoken Baptist grandfather sat us down and gave us each a beautiful, illustrated Bible, which he had dated and signed. I had my Primary Book of Mormon; I had never owned any scriptures other than that.
I can remember the joy that went through me, just touching those pages. I can remember the love in my grandfather’s eyes.
That Christmas I learned things about giving that have remained with me and enabled me to perceive and accept challenges of giving and self-sacrifice that I might not have been capable of otherwise.
Kahlil Gibran taught, “You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.” And C. S. Lewis, as usual, minced no words: “I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare ... if our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us ... they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do — because our charitable expenditures exclude them.”
There, as always, is the spoken ideal held out for our hearts!