EP 508 – Stories of Christmas 2

The TWiM family—and some special guests—recount meaningful Christmas stories designed to amuse and uplift.

Merry Christmas! As it’s Christmas week, we are setting the news aside and focusing on the wonders of Christmas. This is a season of giving, a season of hope, and we’ve needed that hope in 2020. Like last year, members of the TWiM family—and this year, some special guests—have been kind enough to stop in the studio and share their Christmas stories with us. Some are straight-up funny. Others are more spiritual. We hope you’ll find this compilation of Christmas tales engaging and uplifting.


Jared Jones

I have always loved being in a choir.

And a choir at Christmas time? It’s simply the best.

As a self-proclaimed choir geek I still remember some of the Christmas Anthems I sang in high school choirs and small groups. I enjoyed singing in sacrament meetings where my father often led the choir as I helped anchor the tenor section.

While in college I would purposely pick the fall section of the open enrollment choir so I could sing Christmas music at our semester-end concert.

My last year in college I finally auditioned to be in the Mormon Youth Chorus—an official church performing group for those age 18 to 26.

They would perform concerts in the Tabernacle, Assembly hall and would also sing at General Conference.

If you remember seeing them on church broadcasts you may remember that some of the youth didn’t look so youthful, but that’s a story for another day.

My schedule wasn’t a lot better than in years past but I decided it was something I needed to do. I scheduled an audition for choir and symphony director Robert C. Bowden at the Church Office Building and attended my first rehearsal later that evening.

The experience built my testimony of the Gospel and of Jesus Christ and I made friends I still keep in touch with even 20 years later.

I loved all the Christmas performances we had in MoYoC.

Each one was special in its own way.

In addition to major concerts, a portion of each rehearsal was open to the public and we performed a 30-minute “mini-concert.”

These were extra popular during the holiday season. I remember special performances of “Silent Night.” “Candelight Carol” and Even “Candles in the Window” from Home Alone that touched me on a deep level and helped me feel the spirit of Christ and Christmas.

One of my most memorable Christmas and choir experiences, however, took place before the holidays as we were preparing for the season’s concerts.

Around this same time church leaders decided to phase out Mormon Youth Chorus with the retirement of Robert Bowden.

They wanted to focus all efforts on making the Tabernacle Choir the best that it could be.

There were a lot of rumors as to why, when and how flying around rehearsal one night. We finished a full rehearsal by working on a few sections of the Hallelujah Chorus with the symphony.

Brother Bowden asked for our attention and said a special guest would be joining us.

President Hinckely then walked on to the conductors podium and spent some time thanking us for our efforts with the choir and explaining the reason for the change.

He finished his remarks and turned to go but Brother Bowden handed him a baton and called for everyone to get ready to sing the Hallelujah Chorus.

The Hallelujah Chorus is probably one of the most famous choral pieces.
It is the glorious climax of Part 2 of The Messiah. An Oratorio on the life of Christ by George Friederich Handel. This chorus is fun to sing because of all the moving parts and that come together in a Unified “Hallelujah”.

Brother Bowden got us started…we had practiced it so much we could do it without a conductor… but there was President Hinkley—awkwardly waving his arms in time with the music.

We sang the whole piece with Brother Bowden coming in to cue us on the final notes. President Hinckley just said. “That was great but I have to go!”

That night and in the coming months I remembered that experience for the novelty of it. It’s the Prophet—he’s leading a choir—isn’t that crazy? But later I remembered it for what it meant to have the leader of the church spend time with us and share in something that we all loved. He didn’t really want to lead the choir, but he did. Perhaps because he saw how much we wanted to share our testimonies with him by singing of the Savior. He decided in that moment to serve us. And that service brought a smile to my face and joy to my heart.

I hope you all have enjoyed that Christmas music that is special to you this year.

I hope it ties you to strong memories both past and present.

Merry Christmas.

Josie Gleave

Three years ago, my husband and I moved from Australia to France. It was just before Christmas, the first one we would spend without either of our families around, but we were excited at the idea of a festive Christmas in an idyllic French town. As much as we love each other, we didn’t want to just stare at one another on Christmas day playing Uno so we called an Aussie friend who lives in London, and as luck would have it, he and his girlfriend were staying in Europe for Christmas and didn’t have plans either. We met them in Paris and drove to Strasbourg.

Along the way we stopped for groceries at Carrefour so as not to get caught out over the holidays with sufficient supplies. You would think that no shop in Europe is as big or monstrous as found in America, but we were immediately proven wrong by the rural French hypermarket, which was so immense the staff wore roller skates to zip around.

It took the four of us over two hours to navigate the produce and roam the endless aisles of cheese and yogurt, categorized by herd animal, looking for our various ingredients to cook a Christmas feast: cheese, saucisson, scallops, carrots, potatoes, pumpkin, and the main event of the meal – in my mind – a goose. I had never eaten goose, but it seemed like the thing to have at Christmas in France. The butcher looked confused, either by our poor French or the assumption that they would have a goose at the ready and convinced us instead to take home a foie gras stuffed capon, which we later discovered was a castrated rooster.

While exhausted and stressed from the re-enactment of shop till you drop, we visited the Strasbourg Christmas markets surrounding the cathedral and ate frogs’ legs and what the American part of me can only describe as “hot dogs” with cabbage slaw.

For Christmas Eve we were invited to a friend of a friend’s place near Pfzorheim, so we crossed the border to Germany, mostly to say we had been to Germany and were welcomed by a kind family of university professors, who I imagined were all born in their caps and gowns. Although that day the father of the house wore an apron embroidered with two copulating swine and the inscription “That’s how you make bacon” underneath. He was mystified when he removed the piece of meat he had been roasting from the oven only to discover it had shrunk to half the size, which still seems hard to believe, but we laughed and ate it anyway. We all wore terrible sweaters and lit small candles on the Christmas tree.

My Christmas stories are simple, but the memories that are most vivid all include food and the people I shared a meal with. Like picking tangerines off the tree in my childhood backyard so the family could have tart citrus juice after opening gifts. Or traditional feasts with mashed potato volcanos that took front and center on my plate.

My first Christmas in Australia I mistakenly filled up on fresh pasta in the first course without realizing there were 6 more to come, including a seafood platter after we swam in the pool. I discovered pavlova with fresh berries and kiwi tucked in to whipped cream and meringue and was truly disgusted by Christmas pudding – these fruit cake domes sometimes with a glistening whole mandarin in the center, because the wetter the better, like a dish sponge you can pick up and wring out.

Two years after Strasbourg and Pfzorheim, my husband and I called up our Aussie friend in London again. By this time, we were living in Singapore and were desperate for winter. We agreed to meet up in Hungary for Christmas and travel from there to Romania. Upon arrival in Budapest, we immediately went looking for the food markets. At the first stall we bought a spiraled roll of smoked cheese that we ate too quickly and returned to buy half a dozen more.

We visited Christmas markets in every town, eating hot onion and cheese bread, cinnamon chimney cakes, and marzipan. That year we abandoned the hunt for a Christmas goose and went vegetarian with several dishes of roast parsnips and potatoes, pumpkin and feta, crispy brussel sprouts, and so much cheese. We sang carols and swapped gag gifts and felt blessed to have friends we were willing to spend my favorite day of the year with in lieu of visiting family.

These Christmases were never heavy gift giving extravaganzas. We were all traveling, so luggage space was limited. But they were special all the same. Full of festive markets, freezing weather, fried breads, roasting nuts, spiced apple cider, dozens of cheeses, and other delights. Food was our gift. And the thing we shared together.

This year, we can’t travel out of Singapore. We are sad to miss visiting family or even meeting up with our friend. Instead, I have a tapestry of a Christmas tree hanging on the wall and a balsam candle to help convince me the tree is real, or at least 3 dimensional. I need anything I can get to help me feel festive in the Singapore heat. I turn on the air conditioning, put on some socks and a sweater, and make a buttered virgin hot toddy and sing along to Muppet Christmas Carol.

You can bet there will be feasting for days in the lead up to Christmas. It is one of the few times a year we eat for pleasure and without shame. I found a Mexican ingredient shop here in Singapore so I will attempt tamales and I’m on the lookout for a decent beef wellington that doesn’t cost as much as a cow.
So, I will don a Santa hat, plan a menu, invite some friends, and together we will sit down to make new Christmas memories and together we will eat.

Richie Steadman

Angela Brower

So, my relationship with Christmas has evolved over the years. My Christmas looks a little different than most people’s. I am single. I am also a performer, so usually I’m alone or working on Christmas. Very rarely have I been able to go and visit family on Christmas.

So it’s been interesting as I’ve found myself in this situation and have been thinking about Christmas and what it means to me, and trying to find ways to feel the Christmas spirit and find traditions for myself.

A good friend of mine—my best friend, actually—said five years ago, “Hey, let’s start doing these carols. Let’s do Christmas carols. Let’s do 12 days of Christmas.”

So we started singing these carols, and we’ve shared them now on social media the past five years and it’s kind of caught on! Everyone always comments, “Oh, this is the best tradition, ever! And I look forward to it. It’s not Christmas unless I hear these carols from you guys.” It’s been really fun to establish that tradition.

I’d like to share this with you all now. I hope you enjoy this Christmas carol and have a very warm and special Christmas no matter where you are—if you’re alone or with family or friends. Christmas might look really different this year, but I hope you still feel the spirit of Christmas this year.

Jared Gillins

I came home from my mission in Phoenix, Arizona, on December 22, 2000, just in time for Christmas. But my family picked me up at the airport in Salt Lake, 835 miles from where I had wanted to land at Seattle-Tacoma International.
My parents had decided to move from the Seattle suburbs to American Fork just two months prior to my homecoming, so I came home to a place that felt foreign. My mom and dad spent the next four years living in my sister’s basement, and for the next 8 months I holed up in their spare bedroom. When I got there, my parents’ move was so recent that my room was wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling boxes. A bed frame and mattress were propped against the far wall, barricaded by cardboard cubes packed with 30 years of accumulated belongings. For several weeks I slept on the couch and spent portions of each day tunneling toward the bed wall, helping my parents unpack and organize while I dreamed of relative privacy.
When they picked me up I was overjoyed to see my family, but I felt ragged—worse for wear, like the two suits I had purchased at JCPenney in late 1998. In the last few days of my mission I developed what might still be the worst head cold of my life. It settled neatly in my throat and burned quietly, strangling my larynx and making breathing uncomfortable. I attempted to speak—briefly—at the final testimony meeting at the mission home. I hardly ground out a few coherent sentences before sitting back down. The group going home that transfer was unusually large since it was Christmastime. Several missionaries who would have otherwise returned in February were given the option to take off one transfer early, and they took it. There was no room in the mission home for me to sleep, so I was offered a humble stall at the APs’ apartment, where I weakly climbed to the top bunk of a sheetless bed. Sister Ferguson gave me two Tylenol PM tablets, but I stayed awake hacking in spite of them. I felt bad for the poor elder on the bottom bunk who I kept up all night.
The next morning a group of us were driven to the airport to board a flight to SLC. I sat next to a nice fellow from Argentina and was grateful to squeak out just a little more Spanish before fully returning to English-speaking life. I cried as the plane took off and we left the Valley of the Sun behind. Honestly, I never really liked that place, a too-hot city adorned in tones of brown and concrete. But I loved a lot of people there, and my life in Phoenix had shaped me profoundly.
I was overjoyed to see my family, and grateful that everyone had come for Christmas and my homecoming. It was also a little shocking. Of course people change in two years—I definitely had—but my dad had changed a lot. Depression and chronic pain had driven him from overweight to obese. His gray hair had turned white, and much more of it had fallen out. Though he was happy to see me, he was no longer happy. He should have had another 25 years in him—but at that point he had just over 10 remaining.
Still, I was back with my family. Someone proposed that we head over to the Joseph Smith Memorial Building and watch the relatively new Testaments film. I still felt terrible, but I was game for anything with this group. We watched the movie, got some food, and went to the stake center in American Fork for my release. I don’t remember much about my mission debrief. What I do remember from that evening is that as soon as we got back to my sister’s place, freshly decommissioned, I was told to sit down and stay awake. It was imperative that I watch one movie immediately before anyone could spoil the ending. So I ended the first day of my post-mission life watching The Sixth Sense. I love my family’s sense of priority. (The next night we watched U-571 for similar reasons. Never mind It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street. Make sure those plot twists are FRESH.)
That Christmas was difficult for everyone. I was adjusting to a new kind of life and a new home that I didn’t expect to return to. My parents were dealing with worsening health and financial problems that drove them to live in their daughter’s basement for four years. My sister’s family had their own adjustments to make on the other side of that situation. We all felt poor, rundown, and broken-hearted, including my other three siblings. We agreed that instead of exchanging purchased gifts that year, we would give things that didn’t cost money. I don’t remember what most of us offered each other (only that my brother-in-law burned everyone custom mix CDs with track listings by request. Napster was still alive but slowly dying in late 2000). But nobody missed the traditional exchange that year. Everyone wrote or made something from the heart, and did their best to infuse love into something simple. It was, despite everything else, a happy Christmas.
I was happy to be home, although it wasn’t my home, and happy to be relatively healthy, although I was sick, and happy to be warm and clothed and fed, even though we were poor. I was happy to be with my parents, though they weren’t the same people I had left two years before. I was happy to be with my family at Christmas. And—like my family knew I would be—I was happy that nobody had managed to tell me that (SPOILERS) Bruce Willis was dead the whole time.
Merry Christmas, TWiM family. God bless us to be happy here at the end of 2020.

Hailey Smith

There is one Christmas season from my childhood that I will never forget. I think I was in seventh or eighth grade, and we lived in the suburbs of Chicago at the time. And most every year for Christmas, we just went to a local tree lot to pick out our Christmas tree. But this year, we wanted to do something exciting and grandiose, so we decided to chop down our own Christmas tree.

I don’t remember too much about the drive to go get our tree, but I remember it was a considerable distance away, since we lived pretty close to the city. And I do remember that we found THE perfect Christmas tree, cut it down ourselves, and my dad carefully tied it down to the roof of our car with twine. Everyone was in a festive mood as we drove home. We were cruising along, we were all singing Christmas songs at the top of our lungs and feeling so excited about our adventure, when all of a sudden, I heard the sickening sound of snapping twine and turned to watch as our tree sailed off the top of our car and landed right in the middle of the freeway.

All of us started screaming, “Pull over! Pull over! The tree! Pull over!” And my dad quickly pulled over and slowly eased his way backwards on the shoulder to get closer to the tree, as the rest of us just looked on, just staring in helpless shock, as we saw our little tree sitting out in the middle of the five-lane freeway.

Luckily, there wasn’t too much traffic and we were feeling pretty optimistic as my dad jumped out of the car and prepared to make a dash for the tree (and I’m a little ashamed to admit that at this point I was less concerned about my dad’s safety, and more concerned about Christmas being ruined.) All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a giant semi-truck appeared and plowed right over our tree. My mom and all four of us kids screamed, and I think some of us started crying., and I’ll just never forget the violence of all those needles flying everywhere, and we’re just standing there watching in helpless horror.

After that, my dad successfully retrieved the tree and we got it re-attached to the roof as best we could, and we continued our journey home, but this time there were no Christmas songs and we just kind of sat there in a trance.

Once home, my mom did her best to hide the damage, she turned the splintered trunk to the corner, and tried to arrange the battered boughs as best she could. It dried out much more quickly than any of our other trees and dropped its needles as if it were weeping over its own trauma, but we loved and cherished that tree until the bitter end.

I’ll never forget that memory, not only because it’s straight out of a Christmas Vacation movie, but also because I really did learn the important lesson that things that are broken and beaten down are still beautiful and worthy of love. And also, NEVER use twine. And I think that those are both really great lessons to remember at this time of year. Merry Christmas!

Geoff Openshaw

Thank you so much, Hailey. That was great. And you’re right, that story sounds like it came straight out of Christmas Vacation.

I had something kind of similar happen once. My sister and I picked up a Christmas tree that turned out to be poorly tied to the roof of my Camry. So we stopped at a grocery store and picked up a bunch of ribbon, thus tying the tree down in rainbow, satin glory as we made the way back to the house, praying the evergreen would not fall off the car.

It is incumbent upon me to share with you a Christmas tale, and I’ll start off with one I find more amusing, and I want to preface it by saying Dad, I love you.

I don’t know if the year was 2005 or 2006, but I know I was home from BYU for Christmas. We traditionally spent Christmas eve with my father, since my parents are divorced. So there we were with my dad and my then-stepmom, enjoying food, songs, and company.

We proceeded to open gifts, and I should inject here that my dad has always been far too generous with gifts. He goes well above and beyond that which is necessary, and he’s always been this way. He’s a generous man.

As we neared the end of opening gifts I had deliberately held off on a larger and weighty gift. I’d say it was about the size of a box you’d use to package a record player.

I opened the wrapping to discover that the box said it contained a pizza oven. What was this? What is a pizza oven? Why was it given to me? What was happening?

My dad was so happy about this gift. He beamed, saying, “No you can be the pizza man!” without a hint of sarcasm. In his mind, he was easing a pain point for me in that he was providing me an oven specifically designed to make pizza.

Now bear in mind this is the sort of oven you would see at a convenience store or a gas station for heating up frozen pizzas. It was not designed for raw dough and cooking pizza from scratch, at least I think it wasn’t (I never found out).

My dad was just so earnest in delivering me this gift. He kept repeating, “They’re going to call you the pizza man! They’re going to call you the pizza man!”

Now the beauty of this was it became a bit of an inside joke with me and my sister. “I’m the pizza man! The pizza man!” This beautiful pizza oven was part of my life from that point forward.

(My dad doesn’t listen to podcasts or participate in social media, so there’s little chance any of this will come back to him. Still, if you know him, don’t tell him I related this story!)

The enthusiasm of christening me the pizza man was something else. This was what would finally get me a wife! This! This would make me the social god I had already been in waiting! I’d be the pizza man! The pizza man.

This was, without a doubt, one of the most random gifts I ever received, and I loved it and loved the thought that went behind it.

So, Jared’s story made me think about my mission and meaningful Christmas stories. We’re very jokey in my family, so we naturally gravitate toward stories like the “pizza man” incident over others, like how last year I shared the saga of the Beavis and Butt-head calendar, which remains a family tradition 27 years on.

I was set apart as a missionary on January 1, so Christmas was something of a time marker for my mission: the first Christmas I was basically halfway done, and upon reaching the second, I was a dead man walking.

I think to that first year when I’d been out for one year. It was very special. Sure, we called our families and did typical Christmas things (and having divorced parents means two calls – lucky me).

But what also comes to mind is what we did that afternoon. We held a multicultural Christmas celebration. At the time, a number of us in the zone were teaching a few families of Romanians; there are Romanians all over Spain and Italy.

Members of the ward, whether Spanish, Latin America, African, or Eastern European, convened in the cultural hall and celebrated one another. They learned from each other.

I can still see the picture in my mind of three tables set up in a U shape, and how powerful it was to see people loving each other, striving to be one, striving not to let differences define us.

If we remember the admonition from Christ that if “ye are not one, ye are not mine,” we will be blessed. And I saw that manifest that Christmas day with a diverse cadre of saints and members of the community.

Now if we fast forward to the second Christmas on my mission, it was very different for me. This time around, the southern half of the Barcelona Mission gathered together for a massive zone conference.

After food and pleasantries and singing, as it was custom, we had a testimony meeting where they asked the missionaries going home to speak. This was extra special because so many from my group were there.

But what jumps out at me the most was near the end, when we watched the movie The Other Side of Heaven, which I’m sure many of you have seen. This is an earnest film and a great mission story.

As the film nears its conclusion, Elder Groberg is forced to say farewell to the people on the tiny Tongan island he had called home for many years. By that point, it hit me: This was it. In a week I was going to be gone, away from a people and country I had loved so much.

Where had two years gone? Did I feel like I had accomplished everything I set out to do? Did I feel like the Lord was satisfied with my sacrifice?  Those questions populated my mind in general as I propelled toward the end of my mission.

But as those closing scenes on the island hit the screen, I lost it. Had you been there, you would have seen Elder Openshaw sobbing in his chair, unable to hold it in, realizing this was actually happening. This experience was ending!

This story wasn’t Christmas related, per se, but it was incredibly meaningful to me to be reminded of how wonderful it was to be a missionary and serve the people of Spain.

It was one of those moments when everything was distilled into realized God was pleased with me and I was a changed man.

I think like many of you, I’m not thrilled with everything I did or failed to do after my mission. That’s part of life.

But service is such a great gift. What greater gift can we give than our service?

It’s time to ask ourselves if we’ve given the Savior everything. 2020 has been a hard year. It’s been super hard. I feel immensely blessed. I’m healthy. My family is fine. We had a baby during all of this pandemic, but all is fine. And I recognize that my trials pale in comparison to those of others.

But it’s been a bear of a year, and what a wonderful blessing it is that when there’s one week left in the year, we can commemorate the birth of the Savior of the world. We can be extra mindful of what a great gift the atonement is for us and what an incredible miracle it is that Christ was born.

That’s powerful and that brings me joy, way more joy than the festivities, lights, presents, and Christmas spirit that we talk about.

We have a Savior, and that is something to be celebrated. I certainly hope that all of you will find time and ability to celebrated that, somewhere, somehow.


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