The faces of Christmas

Americans mailed over 1.5 billion (billion!) Christmas cards in 2010, about 45 percent of all greeting cards sent in the U.S. throughout the entire year. For me personally, there are few Christmas traditions I enjoy more than sending and receiving Christmas cards. But why? What is it about Christmas cards that makes them such an enduring part of celebrating Christmas?

I think the first Christmas when cards really stood out to me was Christmas of 2004. I was in graduate school in Austin, and my wife and I were 1,300 long miles away from home. It was the second Christmas since our wedding in 2003, but our first Christmas with a baby. And our first Christmas alone. Just the three of us. Our eight-month old daughter was too young to take on a trip back home to see family, so my wife and I put up a small, artificial Christmas tree (discounted at Walmart) in the only small space we could find in our two-bedroom apartment and tried to make our apartment look and feel something like our memories of the Christmases we had enjoyed with family and friends in the past. I wondered if Christmas could possibly be the same on our own.

To be honest, I was pretty sure it couldn't. Our daughter was still too young to realize there was anything to celebrate, our lives were busy with work and school, and there was something a little unexciting about the thought of the three of us opening presents by ourselves on Christmas morning. We couldn't really afford to buy much for each other anyway. And to top it all off, I was pretty sure it would be the first Christmas in my 27 years of life that there would be no snow anywhere to be seen. Dreaming of a white Christmas, indeed.

Into that setting of our first Christmas on our own, a Christmas card or two arrived in the mail in early December. Then it seemed like a steady flow of one or two additional cards would arrive most days.  Some from friends in Texas, some from family and friends spread out around the country, but most of all they were cards from home. Almost without our noticing it, something about the cards brought a little more of Christmas into our apartment that year. We began taping the cards to the back of our apartment front door, and before we knew it, our apartment felt a little more like home.

The cards didn't fill every void we felt that Christmas, far away from home. It was still the quietest, smallest Christmas celebration of our married life. But at one point, it dawned on us that the first Christmas was celebrated by a pretty small family too. I like that part of our memory. And the cards on our door helped us to feel the love of family and friends out of sight--but definitely not out of mind.

Every Christmas since that year (most of which we've spent in Texas, separated from our extended family), the essence of the Christmas spirit is the joy and laughter and love we see in the faces of the people in the beautiful cards that arrive and brighten our celebration of Christ's birth. The faces of Christmas. Our eight-month old baby is almost ten years old now. She and her siblings enjoy seeing the cards as much as we do. Whether we are close to home or far away, Christmas cards will always be one of our favorite parts of celebrating the Christmas season. Looking at a few of our cards from this year, I think you'll see why.

Nate Sharp is an associate professor in the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University and currently serves as bishop of the College Station 3rd ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He grew up in Holladay, Utah, served a full-time mission for the Church in the Korea Seoul West mission from 1996-1998, and later graduated from Brigham Young University and the University of Texas at Austin. He married Holly Carroll in 2003, and they are the proud parents of five beautiful children.

My ESPN/BYU football Christmas miracle

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

Most of us receive the blessings of heaven silently, in small moments of our lives, to lift us up when we are down or to help us in great times of need. The Lord entered this world in a small and silent way. He came on a quiet night to a little stable in Bethlehem. But that quiet, little stable held the Savior of the world, who would give us the greatest gift of all.

Christmas is a wonderful time to remember our Savior. It is a wonderful time to reflect on the many, many blessings of Heaven He has given us. This week, my mind has gone back to a Christmas miracle I experienced just seven years ago.

Morning came way too early for me on Dec. 21, 2006. My alarm clock blared at 3:30 a.m. I hit the snooze button several times over until the last possible minute. I dragged myself out of bed, got dressed, grabbed a few things, and set off to pick up some of my friends.

We were headed down to Las Vegas to work for ESPN at the BYU vs. Oregon bowl game. As a future sports broadcaster, I was excited to get ESPN on my resume. I had offered to use my car for the drive down. It was a Ford Focus that was only a few years old and my first real car. I loved that little silver thing. My parents helped me buy it during my junior year of college so I could travel back and forth to the BYU Broadcasting building, which was several miles south of campus.

A few weeks prior, my fellow broadcasting students and I found out we were hired to work the game. My friend James* had offered to drive down in his little car, but I shrugged off his offer---my car was newer, bigger and would be a lot more comfortable. Plus, this was the first time that I could drive out of state with my own car. It was a pretty selfish and prideful reason.

The moment I made the decision to take my car, I felt uneasy. I wasn’t quite sure why, but I knew something wasn’t right. I called my dad and asked his opinion. He said I should take another car and leave mine in Utah. But no, no, my dad doesn’t know what he’s talking about, I thought. I brushed off his warning and made plans to take my car.

Dec. 21 was a cold day in Provo. My friend James offered to drive first. We were all so excited to be on the sidelines for the game, as we were all avid BYU fans. We chatted back and forth until we got to Beaver, Utah. That’s when the trouble started.

The little Ford Focus revved its engine but was stuck in second gear. My friend James tried to get the car to shift up, but it wouldn’t. My heart plummeted to my stomach. We were going to be stuck on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. I realized what happened while I was on the phone with my dad--- the Holy Ghost was warning me not to take my car.

At that time in my life, I was busy with school, work, friends, my first college boyfriend. The Lord came too far down on my list. Yes, I believed, but I was too busy to read my scriptures every day. I gave  half-hearted prayers before bed at night. I was 20 and my world revolved around me. I wasn't thinking of Christmas or the birth of our Savior. Even though it was days before Christmas, I was thinking of myself.

But as soon as something went wrong, I turned to God. My faith might not have been strong enough at the time, but I believe the faith of the others in the car with me was strong. With the help of prayer and determination, we slowly made our way to a mechanic in Vegas, down the street from the stadium.

We waited for about 45 minutes until the mechanic came out and gave us the diagnosis---it was bad. He needed four days and $1,000. I. Freaked. Out. All four of us riding in the car had to be back in Provo the next day to make our flights home for Christmas. I called my dad crying. My dad, ever calm, gave me the worst case scenario: I would have to leave my car and rent one to get back to Utah, then somehow get back to Vegas to pick up my car and drive it home. Praying silently, I asked Heavenly Father to please let us get back home okay. I said the prayer, over and over and over. Please let us make it home in time for our flights.

Unsure what to do, we all decided to head over to the stadium. To my surprise, the car made it there okay. From there, however, we got even more bad news: the worst storm of the season was headed right in our direction. We would be crossing a dangerous mountain pass between St. George and Cedar City, right in the middle of what was supposed to be a blizzard. I knew my car couldn't make it up those steep hills with snow and ice on the ground when it was working normally. But now that the transmission was not working right, I knew in my heart it would be a life-threatening situation.

I couldn't enjoy the rest of the day, even while working for my dream-job company, ESPN. My stomach was in knots as I prayed harder than I ever had before in my life. Please, Heavenly Father, help us to make it home. I know I haven’t been as faithful I should be lately, but hear the plea of my heart. Help us to make it home before the storm.

I repeated this prayer in my head for the rest of the day. BYU won 38-8. We helped put away the equipment and ESPN let us off after 11 p.m.

My heart was heavy as James, Taryn* and I made our way to my car. James held the Melchizedek priesthood. I put my faith in his faith and the power of the priesthood and asked him to say a prayer before we started our journey. He did, asking the Lord to bless us with safety, bless the car that it would work, bless us to beat the storm home. I immediately felt the Spirit strongly in that little car. I knew that everything was going to be okay. I had a feeling of peace in my heart.

James took the first shift driving. We turned the corner. Entered the street. And the car shifted fine. We made our way to the freeway. And the car drove perfectly. We got onto the freeway, and the car shifted up to fourth without a problem. The check engine light was gone.

At that moment, I knew I was witnessing a miracle. I wasn’t sure if it was because of my faith, the faith of my friends, or the faith of our families praying for us, but we were truly blessed that night driving home.

Thousands of stars sparkled in the winter night. There was not a cloud in the sky the entire way home. There was no dangerous storm in our path. We were passing cars on the freeway who did not know of the miracle that was happening in our car. We passed cities that were unaware that the Lord was giving us heavenly blessings. Why? Why would the Lord so mercifully bless someone who had neglected Him for months?

How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv'n!
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heav'n.

My faith was strengthened and renewed during that quiet ride home to Provo. I will never forget that tender mercy of Heaven. It was just a little thing, so inconsequential-- to make it home in enough time to make our flights home for Christmas. But the Lord heard our prayers and my heart was turned toward Christ.

It is still easy for me to get distracted. I have two little girls, a job, a home to take care of, friends to see, parks to go to, gym classes to attend, dates to go on with my husband, who is in turn equally busy with grad school… it is still so easy to forget who should be at the center of my life. I want to always remember Him. And it is my job, my responsibility and my deepest desire to teach my daughters to always turn to Him, too.

That’s why Christmas time is so special and powerful and wonderful. If we let it, we can take a step back from our busy lives and reflect on the Savior, the greatest miracle of all. We can right our course and let Him become the center of our lives again.

The quiet miracles of Christ are still ever-present in my life. I am grateful for the chance every December to remember the blessings of Heaven in my life.

I invite you to reflect and write down your small, quiet miracles and blessings of Heaven you have experienced and let Christ enter in to your heart this Christmas season.

How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv'n!
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heav'n.
No ear may hear his coming; but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.