As people contemplate how they are going to spend money to buy gifts this holiday season, let them also plan for how they will spend their time in order to help bring the true spirit of Christmas into the lives of others, said President Thomas S. Monson.
"The Savior gave freely to all, and His gifts were of value beyond measure," said the leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "Throughout his ministry, he blessed the sick, restored sight to the blind, made the deaf to hear and the halt and lame to walk. He gave cleanliness to the unclean. He restored breath to the lifeless. He gave hope to the despairing and bestowed light in the darkness.
"He gave his love, his service, and his life.
"What is the spirit we feel at Christmastime? It is his spirit – the spirit of Christ."
Speaking during the annual First Presidency Christmas Devotional, President Monson offered a message of peace and hope to thousands gathered in the Conference Center, which was adorned with Christmas lights, trees and poinsettias. His counselors in the First Presidency, President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor, and President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor, also offered holiday messages centered on the Savior.
Hundreds of thousands of LDS Church members around the world heard the devotional, broadcast on the church's satellite system, BYUTV and on KBYU in Utah.
Music for the evening was provided by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square.
During his address, President Monson said no other time of the year yields as many poignant memories as does Christmas. "The Christmases we remember best generally have little to do with worldly goods, but a lot to do with families, with love and with compassion and caring."
This thought, he continued, provides hope "for those of us who fear that the simple meaning of the holiday is diluted by commercialism, or by opposition from those with differing religious views, or just by getting so caught up in the pressures of the season that we lose that special spirit we could otherwise experience."
He said that usually, however, the special spirit of the season somehow finds its way into people's hearts and lives despite the difficulties and distractions that occupy their time and energy.
For example, he spoke of having read of an incident that occurred in December 1970, when an ice storm caused thousands of travelers to become stranded in the airport in Atlanta, Ga. The midnight hour had tolled and passengers clustered around the ticket counters, conferring with ticket agents.
"When an occasional plane managed to break out," he said, "more travelers stayed behind than made it aboard. The words 'standby,' 'reservation confirmed,' and 'first class passenger' settled priorities and bespoke money, power, influence, foresight – or lack thereof."
President Monson said Gate 67 in Atlanta was a microcosm of the whole cavernous airport. Except for a few passengers traveling in pairs, there was little conversation. A salesman stared into space, a young mother cradled an infant in her arms and a man in a finely tailored gray flannel suit seemed impervious to the collective suffering. A person observing this busy man might have identified him as an Ebenezer Scrooge.
"Suddenly the relative silence was broken by a commotion. A young man in military uniform, no more than 19 years old, was in animated conversation with the desk agent. The boy held a low-priority ticket. He pleaded with the agent to help him get to New Orleans so that he could take the bus to the obscure Louisiana village he called home.
"The agent wearily told him the prospects were poor for the next 24 hours, maybe longer. The boy grew frantic. Immediately after Christmas his unit was to be sent to Vietnam – where at that time war was raging – and if he didn't make this flight, he might never again spend Christmas at home."
President Monson said the agent was clearly moved but could offer only sympathy – not hope.
Finally, the agent announced that the flight was ready for boarding. Travelers, who had been waiting hours, shuffled onto the plane until there were no more seats. The agent turned to the frantic soldier and shrugged.
"Inexplicably the businessman had lingered behind. Now he stepped forward. 'I have a confirmed ticket,' he quietly told the agent. 'I'd like to give my seat to this young man.' The agent stared incredulously; then he motioned to the soldier. Unable to speak, tears streaming down his face, the boy in olive drab shook hands with the man in the gray flannel suit, who simply murmured, 'Good luck. Have a fine Christmas. Good luck.'"
President Monson said no more than a few among the thousands stranded at the Atlanta airport witnessed the drama at Gate 67. "But for those who did, the sullenness, the frustration, the hostility, all dissolved into a glow. That act of love and kindness between strangers had brought the spirit of Christmas into heir hearts."
Finding the real joy of the season comes not in the hurrying and the scurrying to get more done or in the purchasing of obligatory gifts, concluded President Monson. "Real joy comes as we show the love and compassion inspired by the Savior of the World."
During his remarks, President Eyring said it is wonderful to remember the Savior always, "but especially as we celebrate His birth."
"We can choose this Christmas and every day to create a small part of the Christmas story in our own lives. We can accept the invitation of living prophets to help those who are lost along the pathway and have wandered to come back to it. We can offer the gospel, which is the only way home, to all we meet along the way. We can lift up those who are tired and hungry and lonely, as the Savior did and now invites us to do with Him. As we do, they can feel how much the Savior loves them and wants to lead them on the way to the God He loves."
President Eyring said the story of Christmas is a story of love.
"True stories of Christmas always increase that faith in Him and in His mission," he said. "And with that faith our determination grows to join with him to help in His loving mission of mercy and rescue."
President Uchtdorf also asked that this December be a season of seeking the Savior.
"I promise that if we unclutter our lives a little bit and in sincerity and humility seek the pure and gentle Christ with our hearts, we will see him, we will find him — on Christmas and throughout the year."
He said the spectacular displays and decorations of Christmas can be beautiful and uplifting, "but if that's all we see, then we're missing something that's in plain sight. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we become so preoccupied with responsibilities, commitments, and the stress of our many tasks that we fail to see with our hearts, that which is essential and most sacred."
This is a season of rejoicing, he said, "a wonderful time when we acknowledge that our Almighty God sent his Only begotten son, Jesus Christ, to redeem the world, to redeem us."