There cannot be many horrors greater to a child than to learn that Christmas, that wondrous once-a-year daydream come true, is not going to happen. The toys, the treats, the anticipation — all gone with the words, "Christmas is canceled."

That was our mother's response to eight bickering and whining kids who had forgotten what Christmas was all about. Lost in all the fighting over the 1977 J.C. Penney toy catalog and the arguing over which kid had been naughty or nice was the true spirit of Christmas — the spirit of giving, of generosity, of peace on earth.

Mom had a flair for the dramatic, so we weren't entirely sure she meant it. One sister tried to call her bluff by taking the Christmas decorations down. Perhaps it was that that firmed Mom's resolve, but either way, she did the unthinkable and taught us something we'd never ever forget.

"Instead of having Christmas, we will go out in search of 'the Christmas Spirit,'" she said to us, our faces dejected and sagging.

Christmas Day dawned, and sure enough, Santa had not made a stop at our house.

But there was little time to dwell on it. We were going out in search of the Christmas Spirit. And amazingly, though there were no gifts and goodies for us that morning, we felt a sense of anticipation at the adventure. This was going to be a very different Christmas.

And it was. That was the first day we saw a homeless man. It was cold out and there was snow on the ground, and as Dad pulled our van to a stop at a downtown Nashville intersection, we saw the man, beating through bushes on the side of the road with a stick, perhaps looking for something to eat. He had on only a thin jacket and we could see his breath in the cold air. Mom rolled down her window as we stared, called to the man, and then handed him a loaf of warm banana bread. He took it, with a slight look of puzzlement on his face, backed away from the car and then broke into the loaf ravenously.

That was also the first day some of us entered a prison. Dad was a friend to a young man who, under the influence of drugs and bad friends, took part in a convenience store hold-up. Tragically, the clerk ended up dead and the young man in prison for the next 20 years. Dad didn't want him to be alone in prison on Christmas. As young kids, we were a bit afraid and clung to our parents as we passed through the clanging metal security gates. And yet, when we met him, Steve wasn't at all what we expected. He reminded us of the young Grizzly Adams, bearded, kind and smiling. We could tell he was glad we had come.

We spent the entire day in search of the Christmas Spirit. We crowded into the tiny dwelling of one of my father's sickly elderly patients to sing carols. We delivered diapers and baby clothes for a young family with a new baby. We brought a Meals-on-Wheels Christmas dinner to a shut-in elderly couple. We left inexpensive gifts for our best friends on their doorsteps, running out of sight at top speed after ringing the doorbell. We brought boxes of food to a family struggling to make ends meet. It was truly an amazing day.

When we got home that night, my parents gathered us together, and my mother put around each of our necks homemade medals, fashioned with red cording, shiny canning lids, glue and glitter. We had found the Spirit of Christmas.

And guess what? The next day dawned, and much to our absolute shock and delight, Santa had come. (Perhaps our parents really don't have it in them to truly cancel Christmas.) And it was wonderful.

But we'll tell you what we remember most about that year. It wasn't the toys and treats. It was the joy of spending Christmas Day bringing happiness into the lives of others — the joy of visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned and welcoming the stranger.

Christmas seasons came and went, and our family went back to celebrating Christmas on the actual day. But that changed with a devastating accidental family death on Christmas Day in 1982. The following year, we put off Santa's visit for a day and spent Christmas first visiting a snowy cemetery and then driving around and spreading Christmas cheer again, bringing treats and gifts and singing carols to friends and neighbors (now in Idaho Falls, Idaho). To this day, our parents keep the tradition that started the year Mom canceled Christmas.

This is one of six winning, original stories in the annual Deseret News Christmas writing contest, "Christmas I Remember Best." The authors of this story, Ruth Liljenquist Pagan and Sarah Liljenquist Jarman, are two of 15 children in their family. They were born in Nashville, Tenn., and when they were 10 and 12, their family moved to Idaho Falls. Sarah has been married to Paul for 18 years. They have six children. She attended BYU and graduated with a degree in humanities. Paul and Sarah met in Israel while attending school there. Sarah enjoys reading, participating in triathlons and just trying not to go crazy with six kids. She is a stay-at-home mom.

Ruth and Eduardo have been married for 10 years and have three children. She is the editor of Catholic Charities Magazine. Ruth attended BYU and graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees in English. She later earned another master's degree at the University of Maryland. Ruth enjoys cooking, participating in triathlons and watching her husband on "History Detectives." They reside in Peoria, Ariz.