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Thoughts on Thanksgiving and Christmas

"Thoughts on Thanksgiving and Christmas"

I'm so grateful to Susan for that introduction and am grateful to be with you! 


This is probably the only devotional I get to do around Christmas and Thanksgiving. So I decided to talk about Thanksgiving and Christmas with you. I'll be following up on what I've written in the "Ponderings" written by my son that were sent out over Thanksgiving weekend. 

I wanted to do this less as a talk and more as a teaching because I really miss the classroom. So this is my chance to just teach. I wish we were a smaller group and we could have more participation. I wanted to just do it off some notes so that it could be a little more spontaneous, a little more real, and so that you could feel more of what it's like when I am teaching. 

So first I wanted to talk more about the Thanksgiving holiday with you. I love Thanksgiving! It's one of my favorites, if not my favorite holiday. I think I like it so much because it's least compromised by commercialism. At least until you hit Black Friday. Aptly named Black Friday. What an awful way to start off the Christmas season. I like it also because it is strictly American. I had relatives who came over on the Mayflower. It has all these traditions like a Norman Rockwell painting. It has deeply American roots but in addition to that it is also universal. Almost every cultural society has some sort of harvest feast. You can go to many different countries and it is celebrated in lots of different, distinct ways. I also like that it is ancient. Anciently there were feasts of the harvest and Jesus even participated in feasts of the harvest.

We are connected to all those who have held thanksgiving feasts and festivals over the years. But mostly I like it because of the idea of thanksgiving itself. I like the idea of gratitude. I think that gratitude is one of those fundamental virtues that opens up a lot of other virtues for us. It's kind of a prelude to many other good things that we can learn to be more thanksgiving and have gratitude in our hearts. Gratitude for example prepares us for revelation. In the Book of Mormon, just before the famous scripture in Moroni 10, it talks about what you need to do to prepare for that revelation. 

I think that we don't often pay enough attention to Moroni 10:3. He says that, "Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts." 1 In other words if you fill your heart with gratitude and thanksgiving then you open your heart to receive revelation. I think that is a true principle there, about revelation and gratitude. So gratitude kind of opens the way for us to know the Lord's will.

Gratitude also opens the heart to feel optimistic and hope. It's an antidote to discouragement and depression. It may sound a little trite but it's true when we sing, "When you are discouraged thinking all is lost...count your many blessings..." and as we focus on our blessings we get outside of ourselves. We see the world with a different perspective. So gratitude can open our hearts to get out of our depression and self-service. 

Service is often talked about taking us outside of ourselves a little bit. Gratitude also opens our hearts to feel more love. As we focus on how we've been blessed by others our hearts go out to love them. We often have testimony meetings that are more like thank-a-mony meetings because we are thankful for things. But that's the way our hearts overflow with love, often in gratitude.

Finally, I think gratitude is the sign of a good heart. It's the sign of a healthy spiritual life. C.S. Lewis wrote something in a little book that isn't read too much but I quite like it. It's called "Reflections on the Psalms". He said this, "I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits, and malcontents praised least...Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible..." 3 I like that. Praise is a sign of spiritual health, and it is the way that our hearts overflow with love and gratitude and praise. God Himself actually sets the pattern for us here. I don't know if you've ever thought about this, but I like the way that Genesis begins.

In some ways the Lord helps us prepare for all the feasts of thanksgiving in the first chapters of Genesis. In that, remember the Lord pronounces the world "good" six times over. "It is good....It is good...It is good...It is good...It is good...It is VERY (emphasis added) good..." 4 by the time he gets to the creation of man and woman. That sort of gives us a pattern of the Lord blessing creation. He's inviting us also to participate in the act of seeing in His creations, and in our lives, goodness. It's like a sort of hymn to thanksgiving right in the beginning of Genesis. I think that the He Himself, the Lord Himself, sets the pattern for us to live in a world with thanksgiving that He created for our good and for our blessings. 

Now how can we keep thanksgiving? I know we just passed it, but I don't like to keep it quite so quickly. How can we keep thanksgiving with more focus on its essential purpose of gratitude? I often think there is most with the encroachment of Black Friday, but I still think there are ways.

I want to share a little tradition we have in our family. It began with something my parents did, and my mother invented this for us. What we did in our family when growing up was that mom would have a dish of popcorn or corn (think about the pilgrims). She'd have each of us take a kernel of corn. As we passed it around we shared something that we were thankful for that year. We all knew this was coming so we thought about what we were most thankful for. We had a little thankful service. Some of you do that but I don't know if you do it with corn. Now we've done a new version of this in our family. We use candy corn and rather than have them in the dish, kind of symbolically planting it, we take corn and eat it as we talk about some blessings. From the little children to the adults, all of them are able to participate in this little "corny" activity. Which is actually quite affective, though corny. So my mom had a kind of gift for that sort of thing and we've continued doing that. I suggest you think of doing something like that. It's a way of keeping us focused on that we feast on love, we feast on thanksgiving, we feast on each other's testimonies, before we feast on turkey. It's a really great little tradition.

The scripture says that we shouldn't just observe thanksgiving once a year. The scriptures say in the Book of Mormon that we should "live in thanksgiving daily". 5 That's an interesting challenge. How do we now extend the thanksgiving holiday and extend this idea of thanksgiving throughout the year? How do we do that daily year round?

I didn't tell Susan this, but I think I'm going to invite her to come participate with me on this. I would like you to share the traditions that two of our daughters have of "Five Greats and Rejoicings". 

[Sister Tanner] One of our daughters doesn't let herself get out of bed in the morning until she has thought of five "greats", is what she calls them, which are five things she is grateful for. They have to be very specific to her life currently, meaning that they can't just be five things that are wrote. That really starts her day off right and now she has her children do it. She says they can do it either when they go to bed or when they wake up. She does it in the morning. Our other daughter has little children and every night around the dinner table they all tell one of their rejoicings that day. So what made you rejoice today? What made you grateful? What made you happy? They do it every night. 

[President Tanner] Thanks! It's really fun to go over to their house and see the rejoicing. It helps my daughter to do the "greats" in the morning because she is like her mother and she wakes up happy. For some of you it make work a little better in the evening. But if you're from a Winder stock, a dairy family, it's always better in the morning. Susan says things are always better in the morning and so it's a great time for them to think of their "greats in their" life, the ways they have been grateful and the great things that have happened to them. They can be little or they can be big. So another way to remember to live in thanksgiving daily is to remember to live IN thanksgiving. The way we live in thanksgiving is not just to be thankful for good things that have happened to us, although that's good.

An even deeper way of living in thanksgiving is to give thanks in everything. In Thesselonians, "In everything give thanks..." 6 We give thanks in everything. We give thanks even in our circumstances, when we're having trials because we live in thanksgiving and not "if" or "for". There's a similar scripture in 59 and President Uchtdorf gave a wonderful talk about this once. 7 We have to live in thanksgiving and not just for things because of our lives and we are blessed so much. So it's a way of living in the world. It doesn't just occur on thanksgiving.

Now let me turn briefly to what I called in the recent "Ponderings" on our "thanksgiving temple". If you read it you'll remember that the Temple, our beautiful Temple in Laie, was dedicated on thanksgiving day in 1919. We talked about that in the "Ponderings" that it can make us be thankful for it and it can make us be knit together as sheaves. I wanted to talk about a little incident, this happened in 1915 when the sight was dedicated. This is also just a wonderful little story about our temple and how we got this wonderful temple here. It's really quite remarkable. This temple which was the fifth operating temple built in the Church was dedicated first as the one after the Salt Lake temple. It was very much a pioneer temple in a way. The first one outside of the continental United States, but how did it come about? Well the story is really a remarkable one. President Joseph F. Smith, Iosepa, who loved this Hawaii and loved this place was here with one of the Apostles, Reed Smoot, and the Presiding Bishop, Charles Nibley.

One night they were in the mission home, which was on the other side of where the current Temple President's home sits. He says come on a walk with me and they walked to a chapel which was near where the Temple is now. The I Hemolele Chapel. Now I want to tell you in the way that it was told in Reed Smoot's language. "President Smith came to me and said, 'Reed,I want you to take a walk with me.' As we went out the door, he said to Bishop Nibley, 'I wish you would accompany us.' I never saw a more perfect night in all my life..."

It was one of those I love Laie nights and I always think of this whenever I experience one of those nights, especially near the Temple. And he says, "...the surroundings were perfect. You who have been in Laie know the surroundings; and nature smiles. We walked toward the meeting house. Nothing was said of what we were going for until we stood at the back of the meetinghouse. President Smith then said, 'Brethren, this is the birthday of President Brigham Young, June 1, 1915. I feel impressed to dedicate this ground for the erection of a Temple of God, for a place where the peoples of the Pacific Isles can come and do their temple work. I have not presented this to the Council of the Twelve or to my counselors...'" imagine that! He hadn't even told the First Presidency or the Twelve that he was going to do this. He just felt the Spirit flowing up from the ground and the beautiful atmosphere. He says, "'...I feel impressed to...but if you think there would be no objection to it, I think now is the time to dedicate the ground.'" Then Reed Smooth continues, "I have heard President Smith pray hundreds of times. He has thrilled my soul many times with his wonderful spirit of prayer and his supplication to our Heavenly Father. But never in all my life did I hear such a prayer. The very ground seemed to be sacred, and he seemed as if he were talking face to face with the Father. I cannot and never will forget it if I live a thousand years."

I share that so that sometimes you may think of that as you walk those temple grounds. I also wanted to share the dedication because I wanted to talk in thanksgiving before I turn to Christmas. About what it means to have the Temple in our midst. That act of dedicating the ground for the temple changed Laie forever. It is really the reason that we are here. I'm convinced that David O. McKay established the university here to be in the shadow of the temple. It's the reason that so many people came here and that this continued to be a Zion place, a place of refuge and of gathering.

In fact, what happened after the Temple was announced was there was a community of Latter-day Saintes living in a little village called Iosepa in Skull Valley. Hawaiians were in this desolate place and when they heard of the Temple and the encouragement of their Iospepa, Joseph F. Smith, they came back in a wonderful mass migration from Zion back to Zion.

Many others have come here for the same reason; to receive their Endowments. In fact, when Joseph F. Smith went back and announced this in conference he said that this place, as he said to the brethren, would be a place not only for Hawaiians but for the peoples of the Pacific until they could have their own temples in their own places. He specifically mentioned New Zealand and Tonga and Samoa and French Polynesia, but the whole Pacific.

So that's the other consequence of having a Temple here is that Laie became international. We as an international university with our flag circle. PCC is an international gathering place. That's really an extension. We are extensions of the Temple. It became a sight that people came to from many different countries. That's another blessing of having the Temple here. Of course, another blessing of having the Temple here is that it's given people a way to have their Endowments.

Again, I'm convinced that you, young people especially, will become the leaders you need to become. Not just from the lessons you learn here but lessons you will learn in the Temple. 

Go to the Temple often. It will become like a sacred place for you. It is like the waters of Mormon. You can kind of paraphrase that scripture in the Book of Mormon about the waters of Mormon. Just substitute the word Laie in it. And it Says, "All these things were done in the waters of the waters of Mormon," and so forth. "Now it came to pass that all of this," All these ordinances, all these blessings, "were done in Laie, yea by the bay of Laie, by the palm trees that was near the beaches of Laie, yea in the place of Laie, yea in the beaches of Laie, yea in the palm trees of Laie, how beautiful are they in the eyes of them that came to a knowledge of their Redeemer and how blessed are they and they will sing His praises forever more." 8

And many people who've come here to Laie and received their Endowments sing the praises of this place because of the Temple. You can have that same experience and try to seek it out.

Finally, the Temple sets a standard of beauty for us. We need to take that seriously here in our university. I've challenged our facilities people, I've challenged us as students and faculty and staff. We need to keep this place clean and beautiful so that it's fit company for our Temple.

When David O McKay dedicated the university he encouraged the people here to make this "village', he called it, beautiful. To make this campus beautiful, to have an aura of light shine from it I encourage you and I to do the same thing. When you see something that needs cleaning up clean it up as you walk by. Keep this place comely and beautiful. We are going to continue to focus on that so that it can be worthy to be in the shadow of the Temple. So my invitation for you for this first part of my talk is that you go to the Temple often. Prepare yourselves to be leaders not only by what you learn here but by what you feel and learn there. Keep your lives and your campus just as beautiful as the temple. 

Now I want to turn to the Christmas thoughts. We all love Christmas don't we? I love it. In fact, it's many people's favorite holiday. The challenge with Christmas is that we almost love it too much. It's so popular that we've decorated it. We've adorned it and we've embellished it with popular accretions. They're not bad, but sometimes they distract us from the meaning of Christmas.

You know we have Santa Clause which isn't bad but sometimes can be distracting. We have all that shopping that can take us away from the holy day and make us thing of the holiday. We have traditions that are pagan in origin, like Christmas trees, which are fine.

However, some even misinform us of what happened in the scriptures. For example, Christmas Crèches. I love Christmas Crèches. In fact Nativity scenes are one of the few things Susan and I will (we aren't shoppers) but when we travel we often try to get one because they often express the love of the people. They are set with African settings or South American settings. We have a wonderful little Brazilian one where the people look like they are from Brazil.

I love that but almost every Crèche you'll see Mary on a donkey, three wise men at the Manger, and a star at the manger. Actually none of those are in the scriptures. There's no mention of Mary on a donkey in the scriptures. She might have had a donkey she might not have come on a donkey. There were three gifts the Wisemen brought but it never mentioned that there were three that came. Much less their names. Much less if there was a fourth one as the story goes. We just invent a lot of things about Christmas. The Magi is a story told in Matthew and it says that they found Christ not in a manger but at a house and that they were led there by a star and the star isn't mentioned at the manger. So it just kind of conflates things and it's not bad.

However, I'd like to spend just the last part of this talk just taking us to the scriptures for a minute. I wish you were in my home or my class and we could have some conversations. So, let's just turn to the scriptures and see what they say. Luke 2 and 4 talk about the journey. I want you to read the scriptures now with your imagination, with your focusing on the words, focusing on what they say and what they might imply. That journey, "And Joseph also went". 9 Well what do we know about the journey? How far is it from Nazareth to Bethlehem? You can read that in a split second. What does it mean to walk it? Well I've driven it. We were filming about Christ, "The Messiah", it was called and we drove from Nazareth to Bethlehem and it's a long way. 

It's about a hundred miles maybe ninety-eight miles it depends on the road. It's a long ways and how did they get there? No mention of a donkey they might have ridden they might have walked. How did they do it? What was the terrain like? Well if you read the scriptures you often read about the hill country of Judea and the way that you go from Nazareth to Judea. There were two basic roads. You would either go down to the River Jordan, it was a smoother route, and then up from Jericho to Jerusalem, or you'd go from Samaria, which is quite hilly but a little more direct. Either way there are a lot of hills. If you went the Jericho route from Jordan that's one of the lowest places on the earth. You go up from about 900 feet below sea level to about 2500 feet above sea level. You are talking about a long hike at the end of the journey.

Now when Susan was pregnant with our first child she had endema, which is a swelling of the ankles. How was Mary doing on that journey? What was the terrain like? What was that journey like? I think we need to think about that, not just the decorations, but what are the scriptures inviting us to think of. How far along was Mary? We don't know. It says she was pregnant, and I love that in King James it states she was "great with child." 10 She may have been far along on that journey. It just says the days were short from when she was going to be delivered. How many days? How was the journey? How did Mary and Joseph take that journey? Then, vs 7, which is rich with meaning for us, "And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn." 11 Let's slow down and talk about this. She brought forth. How long was the labor? What was it like? What did Mary and Joseph know about child birth, especially Joseph? Had he ever seen a birth? Not likely. Had she? Were they alone or was anybody with them? Was Elizabeth there, a cousin? Was a woman there that could help Mary? Again we don't know, but the picture we get is of just these two and it says she brought forth.

I know as a husband that there is only so much you can do what the best of intentions. In the end it's about the woman. It's about the woman who has to face that birth. She brought forth her first born son. Was there any water to clean the baby? To clean the mother? It said that she had linen there, "swaddling clothes". It suggests to me that Mary might have prepared in advance. Maybe she knew this was coming and she wanted to have some linen there. Maybe but we don't know that. There is much more about those swaddling clothes and the traditions of the day. "And she laid him in a manger". 12

As a boy I thought the manger was a pretty cool place to be born. I had all the visions of the crèches. It looked kind of beautiful, kind of lovely. What was the manger? Well it comes from the French, from the word "manger" which is "to eat". It's probably a feed box or a trough. It could be a whole stable. But in any case it probably isn't that clean. Maybe Joseph had to sweep away the dung. A manger. The sign that the Shepherds were given was that the baby would be lying in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. Swaddling clothes were pretty common and most babies would be given, but a manger...a manger was unusual.

The manger is contrasted to the verse with the inn. The manger verses the inn. There was no room for them at the inn. Now what is the inn? It was probably kind of like a hostile. It wasn't a Hotel Marriott but it was better than a manger, than a stable. It was where travelers stayed. Now because there was no room for them at the inn, I like to emphasize it this way: that there was no room for THEM in the inn. There might have been room if it had been someone else. At least maybe in their day in our day money talks. Do you think they might have been poor?

There is some indication in scripture that they were. In Leviticus it says that if you don't have enough to sacrifice a lamb for the first born son you can sacrifice two turtle doves. 13 Joseph and Mary sacrificed two turtle doves. They were probably poor. Maybe there was no room for THEM in the inn. Now the Joseph Smith Translation makes this even clearer. If you can compare the two the JST "because there was none to give room for them in the inns". 14 The emphasis isn't on the absence of room in the inn, it is on the absence of the room in the hearts of those in the inn. There was none who would give them room and it doesn't just say "inn" here it says "inns". The suggestion is that they were repeatedly denied room in inns. That perhaps someone with a more generous heart would have made room from them. Might have made room for the Savior of the world, who would soon make room on the cross for us in mansions above.

Now I would like to turn to the Shepherds. I think I'll do this very quickly. I love the story of the shepherds. It's story for me of humble people who are good people. In Alma it says that they were just and holy men who heard the angel. 15 They were common sorts. They weren't kings but they were transformed by what they had heard that night. They came hasting and they leave as the first missionaries proclaiming the first tidings of what they had seen. Jesus makes everything better. He makes common men uncommon. 

I love something that a colleague of mine once wrote about the transformative power of the Savior in a Christmas essay. "When Jesus entered the world all things were transformed. Not because they looked different but because He was in their midst. He knew the real worth. As an artist takes common colors and blends them into beauty, Christ took common things, like these shepherds, and raised them into sanctity. He led men to see as they had never seen before. The hidden holiness in the world. The leaven and salt, wind and sea, publicans and sinners, all revealed before his eyes the inner goodness." 

So He revealed and brought about in these shepherds a transformation. They became ambassadors. They became courtiers who knelt at the feet of Christ. They became his emissaries. This babe, this little baby who once was Jehovah, who's hands spun the stars, now had a hand small enough just to place in His mother's hand.

He condescended to become our Savior. He took upon Himself flesh. He allowed himself to be transformed into a mere human who could become a baby. Now He's the Lord of the Earth and he demands of us more. He asks us to become something too. To become the light of the world.

On December 1st we are going to light the lights of the university and begin inaugurating the season. The Church is also celebrating us becoming the light of the world. That's what this season means. The Lord doesn't need admirers. He doesn't just need people to sing carols to Him. That's great, but He needs us to serve others. He needs us to represent Him. To represent Him in the world and become His disciples. Now in conclusion, I'd like to do two things. I'd like to share with you something that I shared last year but I'd like to have it sung. I'd like to share a carol with you that I wrote when I was thinking these thoughts a few years ago and it's called "One Night in a Stable." It focusses on Joseph and Mary in the first verse and in the second verse on the shepherds. The words read:


"One night in a stable, the fair Virgin Mary

Gave birth to a baby while far from her home. 

With no but Joseph to comfort or carry

The wonderful knowledge that this was God's son. 


While warm in the inns wealthy lodger lay dreaming,

A savior was born who would love them so well,

The he made them room, while his mother was weeping (This is at the cross),

In mansions so splended as no tongue can tell." 

And then the Shepherds


"That night on a hillside poor shepherds heard singing

And, summoned, came hasting to honor the Lamb. 

With wonder they worshipped, from poverty bringing

Such rare gifts as pure hearts, bent knees, and clean hands.


No kings from the East could have brought to the stable

More dignified gifts-not gold, incense, or spice.

And there at the manger, by God's grace enabled,

Poor people like us were made courtiers of Christ." 


And then after the song and the prayer I would like to share fudge with you. I was inspired by Susan's example and the past couple of weeks I've made batches and batches of fudge. So there should be one for each of you as you leave the building. Susan's bread was a reminder to share the bread of life. The Savior said we should be the light of the world and He said you should be the salt of the world. I guess we are the sugar of the world. 

Can you be sweeter because of this? Treat each other with more Aloha, with more love, with more compassion and consideration because of this sweetness. I bear my testimony to you my brothers and sisters that we love you. I love the Lord. I want to be like Him. I'm far from that. This is a season of the year in Thanksgiving and Christmas where we can all strive a little better to be like the Lord. To bring light to the world and to bring goodness and sweetness. 

I bear testimony of Jesus Christ, that He lives. I bear testimony that God lives. I do this in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen. 



 [1] Moroni 10:3

 [2] LDS Hymnbook: Hymn #241

 [3]"Reflection on the Psalms" By C.S. Lewis

 [4] Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31

 [5] Alma 34:38

 [6] 1 Thessalonians 5:18

 [7] Doctrine and Covenants 59:21

 [8] Mosiah 18:30

 [9] Luke 2:4

 [10] Luke 2:5

 [11] Luke 2:7

 [12] Luke 2:7

 [13] Leviticus 12:8

 [14] see Joseph Smith Translation for Luke 2:7

 [15] Alma 13:26