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Note from Carolyn: Last year I was blessed to be one of just two speakers for the Christmas Eve Sacrament Meeting in our wonderful Jackson, Tennessee Ward. We all felt the Christmas Spirit in such abundance at that meeting that there were many, many tender tears shed as we concluded. It is my own Christmas prayer this year that you, my dear Meridian friends, will also enjoy these stories and the Christmas – and lifetime — lessons they teach.

Good morning, my dear brothers and sisters – of all ages. From the Hubbard’s brand new baby, to Vanessa’s Harrells’ dad in his 90’s who is visiting today, Christmas is for each of us, at every age and stage of life!

If this were a classroom I would love to ask each of you what is your favorite part of Christmas! From the smell of a fresh cut Christmas Tree, to the gifts, the music, the lights. The food and the treats! It’s a magical kaleidoscope of things to see, hear, taste, touch, and to imagine.

For me, my favorite part of Christmas is the listening! Christmas is a time to LISTEN and to love the music, the laughter, the happy conversations that abound – and the stories. Oh, the stories just for this time of the year!  The beautiful, timeless story of the Savior’s birth brings all kinds of amazing stories to their own births and to life.

Jesus, as a little boy, must have loved stories, simply because all children do! It’s wonderful to imagine Joseph and Mary and his grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers and friends telling Him stories. I’ll bet some of them were very talented storytellers because He grew up to be a wonderful storyteller himself! Stories were frequently His preferred method of teaching. In His stories are hidden messages – but only for those with a listening heart and a desire to learn.

Our dear Prophet, President Monson joyfully followed the Savior’s example. He, too, taught frequently with stories.   So for this Meridian article, I am going to follow both the Savior and the Prophet with true stories!

Every child and adult knows the marvelous story of the Polar Express. When it first came out in 2004, we were living in the Washington, D.C. area. We took our children to see it at the big IMAX theatre at the Smithsonian. This is not your average IMAX theatre at your local shopping mall! It is 60 feet tall and 90 feet wide, which is as tall as a six-story building!

We waited in line, and got the special 3D glasses. When that train came roaring in, we were all afraid it was going to run over us. There were children in front of us crying it was so real on that massive screen! It was fantastic! As fantastic as the story itself, on an IMAX screen, it is the lesson at the end that is even more fantastic.

Do you remember? The last part of the story? About The bell? Yes, the little bell in the boy’s pocket.
As the children and the boy grew up, they gradually no longer heard, remembered, or listened for the bell.

Yes, the bell is a reminder of Christmas, the tinsel, the toys and the magic of Christmas – and childhood. But with those of us who love the Lord Jesus Christ, that bell is a symbol of the call for us to remember Him and His miracles. Especially the miracle that through his birth, we can be reborn again and again. The bell and its ringing is not for childhood fun, but for the covenant path and eternal joys.

First at baptism, and then as we renew those covenants each week as we take the Sacrament so that we can be worthy to return to Him. The sacrament can be a Christmas Bell to last our whole life long!

So, with the other two stories I am about to share, I hope you’ll pretend you’re in your pajamas with a cup of cocoa, and a silver bell in your pocket! And listen with your ears and hearts now so that you will never forget the importance of … LISTENING!

Many of us have had the wonderful opportunity to see the Nutcracker Ballet. It’s a Christmas treat with music that we all know and love. It’s especially precious here in Jackson, Tennessee as Sister Stephanie Freeman is the artistic director who helps choreograph and produce the big production here at the Civic Center. She told me the story I will share with you now of an unusual performance just last year.

Do you remember in the Nutcracker story that after the nutcracker has been turned into a Prince at the end of the First Act, Clara and the Prince are transported off the stage in a beautiful sleigh? It appears like magic from the side of the stage, all glistening and gold, with two dancers who push it on dressed as the footmen in fancy costumes and hats.

The music it at a high point as the sleigh arrives, telling the audience and the dancers that the first act is over. The sleigh carrying Clara and the Prince magically glides across the stage and the curtains close. It is brought on by the carriage footmen – two dancers in wonderful costumes with hats!

Last year, however, in one performance here in Jackson, the music rose to the crescendo, which was the cue for the sleigh to appear … but the sleigh, sitting in the wings, did not move! The ballerinas on stage and all the backstage hands were wondering what was going on and what to do!

Nearly everyone in the audience was expecting it to appear too!  But it did…NOT. Without too much of a delay, the gifted performers did what they had to: they gracefully WALKED off the stage! No magical ride on in a sleigh with the beautiful music and the dimming lights as the curtains close. Not this time. No sleigh. They walked. The curtains closed. Intermission!

It was a happy intermission for the audience, but for the two young dancers who were to have brought the sleigh on, it was NOT a happy time. Everyone backstage must have been abuzz about these two! T

They were embarrassed and ashamed. They had missed their cue and botched a very important part of the show! They had been selected especially for their part as an opportunity to show that they could be trusted and were becoming older members of the ballet!

Where had they been? What could possibly have been more important than sitting in the wings, waiting for their cue? Even if it meant waiting for 30 minutes with nothing to do until their time came.

After a time the pieces were put together. They’d been sitting and talking in the dressing room, playing with their hair and their make-up, and laughing as girls love to do.

Nothing more than that. Gabbing back stage and fixing their hair. When they realized how close their cue was and ran to take their places it was TOO LATE! Of course, they felt terrible.

As awful and embarrassing as this was, however, it became worse. Instead of apologizing to the dancers and directors, instead of taking whatever scolding and consequences they deserved, they went home! They didn’t have the courage to stay for the Second Act!

Now, for most of us – the story would end right there with an “Can you believe that!” But our dear, Stephanie who was there for the whole thing as a show producer who has such a talent for learning and teaching in every situation, turned it all into a lesson, just as the Savior would.

As she told me this story, she said, with her Stephanie voice and smile,

“Really … How often do WE miss our own cues?  What if when we meet our Heavenly Father upon our return as we die, we realize – with the same horror like these girls — that we’ve been so busy with other things that we totally forgot HIM and the things He has asked us to do? Or to realize that we have not had the courage to repent when we missed our cues?”

Dear brothers and sisters, we are so blessed to have the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ in our lives! With constant guidance from our teachers, leaders, scriptures and Prophet, how can we NOT know our cues! To learn them and to repent when we forget and make mistakes is the Lord’s Christmas gift to us through the birth and life of his Son! Our first cues are to choose the right and be baptized, then to work our way through the years and programs of the Church so we can go to the Temple! Then the we have the rest of our lives to honor those commitments and become true Disciples every day.

To follow the Savior, to listen to his teachings and to follow in His footsteps is surely far sweeter and more important than any wrapped Christmas gift.

My next story has been one of my favorites for many years and is from a Guideposts magazine dated Christmas 1997, just over 20 years ago. But the story itself, which is true, happened in 1936 and goes back to the darkest days of the Great Depression when 15 cents was more like $15 … or even $50 dollars.

Dora Ward was a little girl of about 6 living in Florida. Her Daddy, like many at that time, had lost his job. Unable to pay the taxes on their home, they also lost it and had to move to a very small house that was literally right by the railroad tracks. Sometimes the house shook when the trains rumbled by. One day at school, the teacher asked Dora’s class to write letters to Santa for what they’d like for Christmas.

She was so thrilled to show her letter to her Mama! It was short because there was only one thing she wanted: A Shirley Temple doll. For you children now, Shirley Temple was a very pretty little girl who was a movie star. Just like now with popular movies, there were all kinds of toys with her picture and dolls that looked just like her, about the size of an American Girl doll.

But her Mama, who was sewing, wasn’t excited about her letter and said, “Sweetheart, If there aren’t enough Shirley Temple Dolls for Santa to provide for all the little girls like you that want one, I’m sure he’ll give you another one you’ll like just as much! I’m so proud of your penmanship and your spelling!”

Her mama went back to her sewing. She had much work to do as she was constantly re-making the older children’s clothes into smaller clothes for the younger children in order to keep her family dressed. In those days, flour for baking came not in paper bags, but cloth bags, and Mama would take the cloth from the flour sacks and sew them into underwear for the children. It was a difficult time.

Even with no money, however, Christmas was a happy time for this loving family.

They went and cut their own tree and decorated it with ornaments and paper and popcorn chains. A few days before Christmas, Mama gave Dora and her big sister Annie each 15 cents to buy their gifts for the entire family. They went to the store where the Shirley Temple Dolls were!

“Just wait til you see them!” Dora said to her sister again and again. But Annie was impatient and replied, “Oh, there are lots of beautiful dolls in the world!” When they got there, though Dora wanted to spend time looking at all the beautiful Shirley Temple dolls, her sister said, “Hurry up! We don’t have time to gawk!” And pulled her away from them to do their shopping.

At last Christmas morning came! It was their family’s tradition to eat breakfast first before seeing any of the presents or stockings! She could hardly eat because she was so excited to get to the living room. At last they finished and she ran into the living room with only one thought …

But she stopped short when she saw a doll leaning stiffly against the arm of the couch. She moved closer. The doll was the right size as a Shirley Temple doll, but she had painted hair! No golden curls framed her face. A chipped spot on one hand had been painted over. Dora picked this strange doll up awkwardly, as if she had been put there by some terrible mistake. Frantically she searched the room. There was not Shirley Temple doll anywhere!!!!

Unable to hold back her sobs, Dora ran to the little bedroom she shared with her sisters where she threw the imposter onto a chair, and herself onto the bed to cry. Her Mama was right behind her.

“Why, Mama, why! Why did I get this doll instead of the doll I really wanted?”

Her wonderful mama, instead of scolding her, scooped her into her arms and said, “Dora, I want to talk to you about the first Christmas. God loved us so much that He sent His son, Jesus.

And many people were disappointed. They wanted God’s son to be rich and grand, like an earthly King.
And sometimes …” Mama’s voice got softer so Dora had to listen harder … “Sometimes we don’t recognize the gift we’ve been given because it is not the gift we had asked for … or expected.”

“Dora, it wasn’t possible to provide a Shirley Temple doll for you. So our family worked together and dressed up a second-hand one to be just as pretty!” Dora looked and realized that the doll’s print dress was very cute! It had real buttons that worked! She had shiny white shoes with fancy straps that snapped open and closed perfectly. The little socks were trimmed with lace. There was another dress with a knitted cap and sweater to match. A nightgown, and even a skater’s outfit!

Mama put her arm around Dora and said, “Your big brother had been saving to buy a radio, but he decided to use that money for doll clothes. Annie and Patricia spent hours knitting and sewing. Look! She even has real underwear, not flour sacks. Your sisters made sure of that!”

Dora replied, “You did all that for me?”

“Yes, honey we did! We love you! Your kindness and love are the brightest spot in our home! Do you remember when Annie got that permanent that turned her hair frizzy? You told her she would always be the prettiest girl at school. And when Patricia’s friend gossiped about her and was unkind at school, you were her true friend so she wouldn’t be lonely.”

Then Mama straightened up and looked deep into Dora’s eyes. “Dora, I’m going to ask you to give the family the nicest Christmas gift you can give them. Her voice got louder and more firm. “Please go back and make them believe you are grateful for the doll and their hard work.”

And unlike the girls from the Nutcracker here in Jackson, Dora LISTENED.

She bravely marched back to the living room and prayed to be able to make them believe she loved this doll. As she went back to the living room, the tree was shining in the middle of the room with her family gathered around. She looked at each of them and remembered not the doll, but the wonderful things they each did for her every day. She thought of the radio her brother would now be waiting for even longer. And of all the times her big sister Annie let her tag along on her dates with her boyfriend. How her sister Patricia would take her to the park when she had homework or other friends to play with.

She ran to her Daddy, threw her arms around him and began to cry again. “Hey honeybun! We’ve been waiting for you!” he said with a big smile hugging her back. “Thank you for the doll! I love her! She’ll always be my favorite!” as she hugged him even harder and sobbed into his neck.

And that second-hand doll very quickly became Dora’s very favorite doll! Eventually things got better for their family. There were Christmases with fancier gifts. For Dora, however, this was the Christmas that she learned to love, to listen, and to know that love is a beautiful, eternal round of giving and receiving love not just at Christmas but all year round.

We all love stories with a happy ending, like this one! But what I personally love even more is thinking about them for hidden messages that can be like Christmas presents!

In this story, Dora received a second hand, used doll. It was not what she wanted or expected. But through the loving support of her family, it became a wonderful doll … because Dora was sweet enough to accept their love … and the doll. Although it was still a second-hand doll, it soon became even more lovely than a new doll, and especially as the years went by and she grew, as Jesus did, in wisdom and understanding.

May I suggest, this lovely Christmas Eve of 2018, that we embrace Dora’s lesson? How often our own lives, like Dora’s are not what we expected?

With disappointment, do we cast aside what we have received? Or realize, as Dora’s Mama was able to show her, that true beauty and joy are to be found in what we DO have right now. With perfect faith that all is well with whatever we or others might see as lack … yes all is well right now, and will be forever.

And why is it so very, very well?

Our beautiful, marvelous Savior humbled himself to come as a baby. It was a choice. Yes, it was His Father’s plan, but HIS personal choice. For reasons that are too glorious to comprehend: that He might understand us as fallen mortals, He made that choice for each of us.

And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. (Alma 7:11-12)

And thus He was gifted with the compassion and empathy to become our advocate with the Father. He came that He might atone for us and our sins. He marked the path and led the way and every point defines.

His life started long, long before Christmas, as the creator of the world and the God of the Old Testament. He became the Messiah, and his role, as God’s son who lived and died for each of us personally. His service and love from his days upon the earth continues into the eternities!
This we know through the scriptures and the Testimony of the Living Christ from our Prophet and Apostles.

Dora’s loving family helped her to love a second-hand doll. It turned into something to cherish throughout her life. Our Savior does the same, but in a divine manner for each of us! He gives us the strength to endure the challenges of our often difficult mortal lives and the promise of what awaits for our eternal lives!

But only If we will LISTEN … for the BELL and for the CUES like Dora did. The cues are to accept Him, to graciously accept what IS, our own weak selves, to repent, and to LOVE and forgive … both ourselves and those around us.

Brothers and Sisters, this precious Christmas with all its beauties is fleeting. January 1, 2019 with grey winter days and a long time until Spring is but a few weeks away. I believe that Christmas itself, with so many symbols, can be symbolic of earth life in our mortal journey. It is a fleeting time, yet is so significant!

Elder Quentin L. Cook, in his magnificent Conference talk from October 2017 ”The Eternal Every Day” expresses his feelings of the Savior’s example as a gift – even a Christmas Gift – so very, very well! He says:

It is important to understand the magnitude of Christ’s humility, righteousness, character and intelligence as exemplified in the scriptures! It is foolish to underestimate the necessity of continuously striving for those Christlike qualities and attributes on a day-by-day basis.

He continues, the scriptures are clear that “while this life is relatively short, it is incredibly significant!”

I bear my testimony, that Christ lives. His birth and life, are God The Father’s gift to us for Christmas. For this day and every day, for always. His perfect Son who came as a baby to teach us, as only babies can, to love. And then as He grew with His perfect love that teaches us how to love – each of us in our own used second-hand conditions, and to turn this precious mortal experience into immortality and eternal life with Him, and his Father, who loved us enough to send us Son.

If we will but listen …. And follow the priceless path of his Divine Son, born as a baby to become our Redeemer and King.

Merry Christmas!

With much love,

Your sister in the gospel, Carolyn Allen

Carolyn Allen is the Author of 60 Seconds to Weight Loss Success, One Minute Inspirations to Change Your Thinking, Your Weight and Your Life. She has been a columnist for Meridian Magazine for 11 years, providing mental and spiritual approaches for weight loss success and happy living both online and in the Washington, DC community since 1999. She has presented for Weight Watchers, First Class, Fairfax County Adult Education and other community groups. She and her husband, Bob, are the parents of five children and grandparents of a growing number of darling little ones. They are now happy empty nesters in Jackson, Tennessee, close to Memphis, where they center their online business for an amazing herbal detox. CLICK HERE