Latter-day Saint Video Vault celebrates decades of uplifting, funny, weird, and sometimes cringe-worthy Mormon-related videos, most of which are now found on YouTube. Join Jared Jones every other Friday as he breaks down one of these classics.
I am normally a “put the tree up Thanksgiving weekend” kind of guy. I don’t enjoy seeing Christmas in stores alongside Halloween costumes. I may let some Christmas music creep in early because, well, I’m no monster. But we have a pandemic, and article after article talk about the benefit of putting Christmas up early. Clearly “We Need a Little Christmas, Right this Very Minute.” To that end, I am casting aside my Thanksgiving pre-prandial décor prejudice to bring you a quick review of a gentle classic. The Gift from 1978.
This 16-minute film was produced by Brigham Young University. Set in the mid-1930s, it tells the story of a farming family getting by through the depression during the Christmas season.
We open on a snowy farmhouse underscored by harmonica and acoustic guitar. The camera pans through the cold winter light into a bedroom where 12-year old Sam is asleep—snuggled under a heavy quilt. Suddenly, his father cracks the door and breaks the 4 a.m. silence. A shaft of light falls across Sam’s face.
“It’s so early!” Sam protests.
“Cows need tending. Chores need doing no matter how tired you are.” Dad replies.
Sam slowly gets ready, rubs the sleep from his eyes and heads outside. His dad asks him where they should start and Sam picks the cows. They pitch hay from the loft to the barn floor. They clean the stalls and slop the pigs. Sam falls asleep while milking a cow and then spills some milk as he strains it into a milk pan. His dad chastises him each time. They finish and head inside to breakfast.
Sam heads upstairs to clean up and Mother and Father chat over breakfast. This was the first day Sam woke up early to help with chores. Mother wondered how he did. Father assured Mother that Sam did okay and it will get easier as time goes on. They contemplate an alarm clock for Christmas and Father said he will eventually be able to do it for himself.
Mom joins Sam in his room. He never came down for breakfast. Sam asks what Father means about “doing it for himself.” He also comments that Father was always getting after him.
Mother asks him what he would most like to be.
“Well,” Sam replies. “My own man I guess.”
“I expect that’s what he is trying to give you.”
They continue to talk about expressing love. Words are difficult for his father, and they talk about many other ways to express love. Sam wonders what he can do for his father to show him how he feels.
We cut to Sam looking at a large catalog. He is looking at ties, but is unconvinced it’s the right gift for his father. His sisters wrestle the catalog away from him so they can look at the dolls and Sam looks thoughtful.
It’s Christmas Eve, and Sam and his father continue afternoon chores. They carry the milk to the dairy man and split wood. As they finish up, a clock bell rings and they pause. Father looks up at one of the first stars of the evening and likens it to seeing the Star of Bethlehem from long ago.
Inside, Father reads the of the shepherds coming with haste to visit the baby Jesus. Sam is amazed all that happened in a “plain old barn.”
“Just like ours?” a younger sister asks?
“I don’t know about that, but it shows that it’s such an amazing thing it could happen anywhere.” Father said.
After bedtime Sam rummages through his drawer and opens a package that came earlier. He sets it aside and smiles as he has decided something important. He sets a pocket watch on his night stand and goes to bed. He wakes up several times in the night and checks his watch only to go back to bed. Finally, the time is right. He gets up, dresses and slowly creeps out of the house and heads to the barn alone.
Sam proceeds to do all the early morning chores by himself. He doesn’t even spill a drop when he strains the milk. He can’t moves the milk can due to its weight, so he wraps it in a blanket and calls it good. He checks the watch and it’s just before the normal wake up time of 4 a.m. He sees his father’s light click on and he quickly goes into the house and under his covers—fully dressed.
Father comes in to wake him.
“Ahhhh Daaad!” he fakes his early morning weariness.
“We have to get up, even if it’s Christmas,” Father says. He relents a little bit and tells Sam not to be too long.
It doesn’t take long for Father to realize what Sam has done. He sees the clean straw for the cows, the fed pigs and the full can of milk. Sam is waiting for him when Father comes back in the house.
“Ahh Daaad, huh? Thought you could fool me? I thank you. No one has ever done a nicer thing.”
Sam says it wasn’t a big deal. That Father does nice things for them all the time.
Father considers going back to bed but we hear the other children excitedly stirring on Christmas Morning. Sam says he wouldn’t get much sleep and Father begins to tear up. He has never seen the kids’ happy faces on Christmas morning—he had always been in the barn. He tells Sam to light the tree. The other children run in and Father sits down at the table to watch. He and Sam share glances. Cut to a snowy, but somehow warmer exterior. Fade to black.
The Gift is a simple and effective holiday tale. It has a timeless quality and eschews analogies, allegories or parables to rely on story and character. Sam shows us there are ways to serve and love that don’t cost anything but thought and effort. He gives a gift that is meaningful and memorable. Something we can all strive to give this holiday season.
I am thankful for the time I spent with The Gift, and I’m thankful for this creative outlet as I go about my life as a stay-at-home dad. Finally, I’m thankful for all of you who read my sometimes-to-long ramblings about movies from silly to profound. Happy Thanksgiving.