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.
Happy Holidays. Today we complete the holiday triple feature that was traditionally available in the Temple Square Visitors Center theaters. Last year we covered Mr. Krueger’s Christmas, and a few weeks ago we covered The Story of the Other Wise Man. Today we finish up with Nora’s Christmas Gift.
Nora’s Christmas Gift was created as a 1-hour television special. It was produced by Bonneville Communications under the direction of the church Missionary Department and aired on broadcast television throughout the United States in the 1989 holiday season. The film was based on a story by Michael McClean, who also directed, with music by Merrill Jenson and Sam Cardon.
The movie opens on a snow-covered home decorated for the holidays. We pan through the interior of the home and see pictures and memories of Nora’s life. The focus shifts to the kitchen as soft Christmas themes play in the background. The kitchen is a mess. Ingredients are scattered all over the table and boiled over toffee splatters the stove.
Finally, we see Nora. She is an old woman sitting in a darkened living room while her friend Madeline tries to get her attention. Nora is clearly upset and wants to isolate herself from the world. Madeline tries to get her to turn up her hearing aid and find out what’s wrong.
Nora is sad. Her eyes are going, she can’t hear well, walking is difficult. Life is over from her perspective and it’s time to die. Madeline reminds her she tried to separate herself from others when George, Nora’s husband, died. Friends and family continued to inviter Nora out.
Cut to Nora with family and friends at a basketball game. She cheers a long and has a good time. After the game the family and friends arrive at Nora’s house. All of a sudden, the lights go off—one does NOT simply use the toaster oven or microwave when the Christmas tree lights are on. As they gather in the kitchen they ask Nora to help chaperone the shut-ins to the annual Christmas concert outing. She reluctantly agrees.
Nora insists on driving the bus—her late husband insisted she get a chauffer’s license but never let her use it. The drive reveals how Nora is getting older. She insists the passengers sing carols louder as she can’t hear, and she misses seeing the sign for the turn off to Salt Lake City. Soon we see flashing lights and the bus is pulled over by the state police.
“How fast were you going?” her adult nephew asks.
“How should I know?” Nora replies. “I’ve got my ‘far’ glasses on.”
The state trooper enters the bus and is surprised by the group she finds on the bus. She also asks about Nora’s speed.
“Ma’am do you have any idea how fast you were going.”
“Young lady, it’s a far better thing that I know where I am!”
Cut to the bus group walking through the lights of Temple Square. Nora was let off with a warning and they prepare to listen to the concert as they marvel about the lights—which seem to multiply each year.
Inside the tabernacle we see the Tabernacle Choir—led by Jerold Ottley. They sing Joy to the World and then launch into the Hallelujah Chorus. Nora begins to sing along at full volume from her seat in the audience. She gets up and asks others to sing along. Finally, Jerold Ottley turns around and begins leading the congregation as well as the choir. He lets Nora signal the final notes of the piece and everyone applauds the choir and Nora.
As the group exits the tabernacle, Nora catches a glimpse of the Christus through the Visitor Center window. She leaves the group and slowly walks up the ramp to see the statue surrounded by its galaxy backdrop. She sits to take it in and holds her own hand as we hear present day Nora explain to Madeline how that was her after-concert tradition with George.
Nora and Madeline get up to clean the kitchen. As they clean Nora remembers it was that night she came up with the idea for the Bennington town Christmas Pageant. Madeline argues that it was actually her idea. They go back and forth and then we cut to a scene of them before the town council asking for permission to do a Christmas Pageant that will involve the whole town—just like the Passion Play done in Oberammergau, Germany. The town agrees and moves on before they are brought back into the meeting with a request for money.
Later we see the pageant production in full swing. People are building sets, practicing music and running lines. Nora is frustrated with Madeline as she keeps adding scenes from Christ’s life to the script. Madeline insists their pageant will be special because we will show how Jesus blesses people.
“That’s nice, but that’s not the Christmas story!” Nora said.
At a different rehearsal we see Madeline giving the speech Nora finally agreed to put in the pageant in exchange for Madeline no longer insisting the pageant was her idea. This is all done in the school “auditorium” which is clearly a meetinghouse Cultural hall.
It’s finally time for the first pageant! We hear children sing O, Little Town of Bethlehem, and the cast of the pageant walks onto the stage. An actor portraying Jesus walks among the cast blessing each one in turn as Madeline gives her speech.
“Jesus’ entire life was spent among humble folk. And he went through the holy land working mighty miracles such as healing the sick, raising the dead, making the lame to walk, the blind to receive their sight and curing all manner of diseases.”
Back in the kitchen Madeline talks of Nora’s long-term civic involvement in Bennington. Nora was always at the forefront helping out with causes and events. Everything from quilting bees to saving the whales.
“You were wonderful.” Madeline whispers—saddened by the state of societal withdrawal Nora is going through now.
We cut to another past scene. Nora is playing with a niece and a nephew in a park and gets winded after they fly a kite together. She lays down and sees a black spot in her vision as she looks at the clouds. She goes to the doctor and learns she is suffering from macular degeneration—a loss of sight for which there is no cure. She says she wasn’t expecting a cure—just to die.
In present day, Madeline says that is her initial reaction to every new challenge—it’s time to die. Nora says Madeline’s reaction is always to pull Nora out of her house, and she remembers one time that forced activity wasn’t welcome.
We see Nora at another trip to the Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert. She can’t really see the choir as the macular degeneration has gotten worse. She also can barely hear the choir sing Silent Night—even with turning her hearing aid all the way up. She gets up and leaves the concert to sit outside. Madeline quickly follows with a coat. She drapes it around Nora’s shoulder and Nora begins to cry. She leans into Madeline for support, and Madeline also begins to cry.
At another scene nearer to but not quite at present day Nora is greeted in her home by Jenny from the Blind Center. She has come to stay with Nora to help her gain the skills she needs to cope with her blindness. Nora is surprised that Jenny is blind too, but she quickly learns how capable Jenny is. We see Jenny teaching Nora how to organize her clothes, cook and go about other activities of daily living.
Jenny comments how Nora’s life has changed. She used to be in a position of power as she helped others and now she is the one who needs to let go and receive some help.
Nora pauses from her efforts of filling a salt shaker to answer the phone. She puts the salt cannister—with its spout still open—on a shelf above the stove. It’s Madeline on the phone. They talk about plans for the carolers to come to her house for toffee before they all go to the pageant together. Madeline offers help with the toffee, but Nora says no. Jenny just shakes her head.
Nora puts on Christmas music and happily goes about making her toffee. She is organized and things are going well. Sets the timer and puts the toffee on the stove to cook. As she puts the timer back she knocks some cookbooks and it bumps over the open salt container. Table salt pours into her toffee. The toffee then boils over as she takes her attention from it to answer the phone. Later that night Nora is excited but her triumph quickly turns to deep disappointment as the tries the overcooked and salty toffee.
The carolers arrive but Nora turns down her hearing aid and refuses to greet them. Her nephew knows she has to be there and uses his key. They find Nora sitting in the dark. She is upset. The toffee is ruined and the kitchen is a mess. Her nephew assures her it’s okay. They can go to the pageant and clean it later. She is wallowing a bit in her errors.
Madeline has had enough. She turns up the hearing aid.”
“Your toffee wasn’t that good anyway!” Madeline comments.
Nora is surprised and asks if everyone has a secret hatred of her toffee or of all the other things that she has done over the years.
“Oh Nora, we like all those things. But mostly we like YOU!” a friend comments.
Nora feels patronized and tells everyone to go. They sing a sullen We Wish You a Merry Christmas as they walk out with Madeline staying behind to help her friend.
We are now back to the present day. The kitchen is cleaned. Madeline begins to fix some hot chocolate but blows the fuse and Nora is out of them. They decide to sit by the fire. Nora grabs a light and leads Madeline through the darkened house. Nora asks Madeline to “read her the story.”
Madeline opens the bible and begins to read—not the Christmas story—but from John 9.
“And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth.”
“And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”
“I don’t get it.” Nora said.
“You really don’t do you?” Madeline says. Madeline then sings Joy to the World with the hopes that the words spark something in Nora. Nora finally realizes something and decides she must rush to the Christmas Pageant.
Nora asks to be taken on the stage. She dons a costume and files on to the stage with the rest of the cast just as the speech about Jesus’ life begins. The actor portraying Jesus comes to Nora just as the narrator says “the blind receive their sight.” The actor pauses and moves forward with the motions.
Nora then whispers. “It’s a miracle, I can see!”
The audience is confused. Can she really see?
“I guess not everyone needs to go blind to see, but I’m so stubborn I guess I did.”
Nora relates how she always wanted to be part of this town. She wanted to be the start of the show because it felt good to give. But everything changed. She became like one of the “humble people” Jesus ministered to.
“This Christmas story isn’t about giving. It’s about all those things we can’t possibly give. You can’t make my eyes work again or bring my George back. I can never cure the secret ills of your hearts.”
“But someone was born to do all those things. And he’s been trying to tell me, Nora! Let go. Let me do it! Let go. Now…I see. Let Earth Receive Her King. I’ve never heard those words before. Let me…. Let…me.” Nora said.
One of the actors on stage begins to sing Joy to the World and the leads the rest of the cast and audience in song. The picture freezes on a smiling Nora, and we hear the Tabernacle Choir repeat the final phrase.
Although Mr. Krueger’s Christmas is viewed as the gold standard by many, Nora’s Christmas Gift is still compelling. The church again invested in solid storytelling and excellent actors to create something worthy of broadcast TV. Through Nora’s journey we learn the power of the atonement is far reaching and does not end with the babe in Bethlehem.
This concludes our broadcast year for the Latter-day Saint Video Vault. I hope you enjoyed learning about the popular and little-known films associated with the church. Please reach out to [email protected] and let us know what films you would like to revisit in the new year.
Thoughts, Musings & Trivia
- Nora’s Christmas Gift was also distributed on a Stories of Christmas VHS/DVD that featured all the films mentioned above plus The Nativity short film.
- The Oberammergau Passion Play has been performed every 10 years in Oberammergau, Germany since 1634. It begins with Christ entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and tells the story of the Last Supper through the Resurrection. Because of COVID the next play is scheduled for 2022. Back in the day, the townspeople decided to perform the play in the hopes their town would be spared from the bubonic plague.
- The Tabernacle Choir, Nora, and the pageant cast sing the words “Heaven and Nature Sing” in Joy to the World. Although the music is by Handel, the original lyrics were by Isaac Watts first published in 1719. W.W. Phelps adapted Watts’ text for the hymnbook published in 1835. He updated lyrics to focus more on the millennial Christ. The hymn in the hymnbook and app now reflect a mixture of both Watts and Phelps, but Saints and Angels remains in the LDS Hymnal. Numerically, Joy To the World is either the last Easter hymn or the first Christmas hymn based on how you consider the text.
- On a side note. Joy to the World and There is a Green Hill Far Away can exchange hymn tunes. Try it.
- Celeste Holm plays Nora. She was a veteran actor of the stage and screen and won an Academy Award for her role in Gentleman’s Agreement. She also received an Academy Award nomination for her role in All About Eve.
- Elizabeth Wilson Plays Madeline and was also a well-known actor. She is a Tony award winner, and also has many TV and film credits including The Graduate, The Prisoner of Second Avenue and 9 to 5