Every time I talked to my four little nieces on the phone in December, I’d ask them what they were hoping Santa would bring them for Christmas this year. Their answer was always immediate and without hesitation, “an Adoption doll!  An adoption doll!” they would sing out together.  I could tell by the rise and fall of their voices that they were jumping up and down in their enthusiasm. Most of you probably aren’t even aware that the adoption dolls were the forerunner of the Cabbage Patch babies.  My little nieces had fallen in love with them while on a trip to visit us in Georgia. All the neighborhood girls were playing with them here.

Returning to Utah, my nieces hadn’t forgotten, and they all knew exactly what they wanted that year.  It made me wince a little because at that point “adoption Dolls” were a bit pricey. Each one was individually made by hand. This was before they became “Cabbage Patch dolls” and mass produced.  

By the time the phone was handed over to my sister, I could tell that she was a little stressed out by this. Of course she was!  After having four children, her husband had decided that his dream was not to build houses, but to become an architect and design them, so he had gone back to school. Funds were a little tight, since dad was now a student instead of a fulltime breadwinner. 

In my home, on the other hand, we had a different situation. My husband had graduated from law school, taken a job at a law firm as an associate and had put in the necessary number of years to be considered for partnership. Only one more year to go. Because of the funny way the fiscal years were tabulated at his firm, we had known in advance that the year he made partner, there would be no check in December as an Associate. The first check as a partner would come in January. We had been warned by others that the year you made partner, Christmas was likely to be lean.

This was a year before that. This year, we finally had enough money to get our kids what they wanted for Christmas. Knowing that the following year had the likelihood of being another lean Christmas, I went all out in buying presents this year.

In the December lead up to Christmas, every time I called my sister, I asked if she had gotten the girls their adoption dolls, and she always hesitatingly said, “I just don’t see that in the budget this year.” Finally, right before Christmas she told me that she had found some Holly Hobbie dolls on a blowout sale for $10 each and had bought four. Even though it wasn’t exactly what the girls wanted, she figured it would just have to do.

I was miserable thinking of those four beautiful little girls getting up Christmas morning and not having the one gift they wanted so badly. I wasn’t sure Diana, my sister, would let me send money for the dolls. So, I called my mother and told her I’d like to send her some money to purchase four Adoption Dolls and asked her to take them to my sister.  My mom was thrilled to be in on this little ruse.

Christmas morning came. As my children were opening their presents, I quickly realized I had gone overboard. They actually got bored opening presents and wandered off to either eat a chocolate Santa or play with one of their presents. We had to coax them back to open their presents!  There were simply too many. An alarm bell went off in my head, “what’s wrong with this picture??”

After all the Christmas rush was over my kids wanted to call their cousins in Utah. The cousins gushed about their new adoption dolls! When Diana got on the phone, I asked her about them.  Yes, you’ll never believe this, but mom came over Christmas Eve with four Adoption dolls.  She said she just couldn’t bear the thought of the girls waking up to no adoption dolls. They were obviously a big, big hit!

I said, “Well, how fun that they each now have two dolls to play with”.  Diana said, “Well, actually, after mom came with the new dolls, I thought, “My girls don’t really need two dolls.  We have a family in our ward with six kids. The father has become very ill and as a result has lost his job. They have four little girls, so I took the Holly Hobbie dolls down to their mother on Christmas Eve. She was so thrilled to get them!

This hit me between the eyes like a lead bullet.  As we had been talking, I had been looking over the wreckage of our living room with presents and wrapping paper spread all over the room.  So many toys!  Too many toys! 

Sometimes in life I feel like we get a strong, undeniable message from the other side. This was one of those moments. I felt like someone was whispering to me, “Your little sister is teaching you a valuable lesson.”

We had a Family Home Evening with our kids the next week and we said we’d been thinking about the best way to celebrate the birth of Jesus. We all shared ideas about what kind of celebration might make Jesus the happiest on His birthday.

In the end we all decided that we would take my sister’s example of sharing. My children agreed that one toy would be enough. Then we asked if our family could spend the extra money on a present for Jesus?  After all, Christmas was HIS birthday! My oldest daughter mentioned that one of her friend’s family was sponsoring a child through The Christian Children’s Fund. “Maybe we could do something like that with any extra money?”  We looked up what a sponsorship provided a child in a third world country and how it affected their lives. They all agreed, this would be the perfect birthday present for Jesus.  My children got very excited about the idea and we all “voted” to make a change in our family Christmas tradition.

That was more than 30 years ago.  At first, I worried that when it came right down to it, the kids would resent this new determination to just ask for one gift. But surprisingly, they didn’t seem to mind. We got our first Christian Children’s Child and put her picture up on our refrigerator.  Our kids all wrote letters to her.  We included her in our family prayers. 22 5/16  4 3/8

Each year we would add another child. Soon our family was enriched with stories from children in many different countries around the world. We learned about their countries. We got excited with them as they graduated to a new grade each year. My kids loved picking out Christmas presents for each one. Over time, as the kids got bigger, they didn’t pay as much attention to the sponsored child, but all of them seemed proud of what we had chosen to do.

To be honest, some years I was better than others. Some years I would look at the one present for each of my kids and think, “They are going to be disappointed. Maybe I’ll just get them something a little extra.”  At one point, we added a “family present” to the one present/child rule. That gave me a little wiggle room.

The funny thing is that I don’t remember any of the kids complaining. I’m sure they must have.  But in the end, we generally stuck to this rule. I believe it made our Christmas’s better. For one thing, it freed up time. As our family grew bigger and bigger (eventually to ten children), I didn’t have to spend months shopping for Christmas. I could usually knock it out in one marathon shopping trip. It made more time for family activities in December: caroling to our neighbors, baking cookies and taking them to friends, trips to see the Christmas lights in different places, etc.  It took financial pressure off us. It truly seemed to bring a different Spirit to our family Christmas.

The other surprising difference it made is that the kids always seemed to be satisfied with their one present. Before, it seemed they were always comparing their “stash” to what their friends had gotten. No matter what we got them, some friend always had them one-upped. But making a conscious effort to keep the stash to one gift, somehow killed the insatiableness that had plagued us before.

I love the many traditions that I’ve been able to participate in since then as we’ve had children serving as missionaries in countries around the world. Each country’s traditions seem to deepen our own appreciation for this most miraculous of events—that God would send His Son to the earth as a tiny baby, who would one day grow up and through His incomprehensible love, bring to pass the miraculous Atonement that would save us all.

I know that every family has their own way of celebrating Christmas. There is no one right way! Other families have taught my family so much about creating beautiful, spiritual family Christmas memories. Materialism has a way of reaching out and choking the Spirit out of Christmas. We’ve all seen it and worried about it to one degree or another. I’ve had the opportunity to learn from so many of my friends’ families, as they’ve found ways to capture that true Christmas spirit in the midst of a world consumed with possessions.

One year, Allison, a struggling teenage daughter of one of my friends, shocked both her parents and me when she announced to her parents that she had enough “stuff” in her life.  Instead of them buying presents for her Christmas, she insisted they sponsor a child at Rising Star Outreach. That blew me away, and I thought to myself, “This girl’s going to be okay!”

Allison had inspired me and so the next year I asked my kids, instead of giving me their usual gift, would they mind sending money to donate towards a well for a colony of several hundred people in India that had no access to clean drinking water.  Each kid dug deep and my Christmas present that year was a picture of clean water flowing in the Gandhiji Leprosy Colony for the first time. I still get chills when I think about it!

Since Allison’s decision to sponsor a child as her own Christmas, at Rising Star Outreach we have had over the years a stunning number of other kids who have had the same idea.  They range in age from 5 to 18.  Instead of getting adoption dolls, these kids are “adopting” real children and giving them new life.  We’ve also had kids that had birthday parties with requests that their friends bring no presents, only enough money to help sponsor a child for a year. These examples are always pretty humbling and invariably bring a lump to my throat. I was not that kind of child! I’m humbled by the things that God is teaching me in this generation from the mouth of babes!!

We have all received so much from God! Today, even the lower middle class lives better than the kings and queens and royalty of ancient Europe and Asia. Instead of cold, dank castles we have heated and air-conditioned homes or apartments, with light at the touch of a switch. We have running water—clean water—even the luxury of hot water at the turn of a tap. We have sewage systems and information systems and education available for all. Instead of leeches for medicine, we have antibiotics, vaccinations against deadly diseases, modern medicines and surgeries. Instead of expecting to live 35 years we can reasonably expect to live 70.  Yes, God has given us so much!

What a blessing it is to know that once a year we can be creative in finding ways to give something back to God for His Son’s birthday! This year is a particularly challenging year. Due to the Covid pandemic there may be many surrounding us that will be in difficult circumstances due to losing their jobs. Food lines are longer than any of us can remember. More families in America are hungry this year.  If we are one of the lucky ones to still have a job, I hope we can have eyes to see how to share with those who do not.  If we are the ones who are without our normal financial means, I hope that this season there will be others who will reach out to us. Surely, together we can creatively find ways to use this pandemic to help us all become a little more of a Zion people, united in mind and spirit!