A few years ago, I was my ward’s music chairperson. My duties included choosing hymns for sacrament meeting, arranging musical numbers, assisting the choir director, and writing the annual Christmas program, which consists of several musical numbers and narration. Between putting together multiple musical numbers, finding accompanists and instrumentalists, helping arrange practices, figuring out logistics and flow, writing the narration and finding readers, it’s a lot of work.
I had an idea for my first Christmas program: rather than the traditional model of a narrator reading quotes from a script, I wanted to ask several people from the ward to share personal stories and intersperse those between each song. But I was overruled by the bishopric, so I put together a traditional program with quotes (over half by women!) and had two narrators (male and female). It turned out fine and went well (here’s a link to it in case it’s helpful to someone) but it wasn’t anything special.
The next year, I followed my original vision (without asking permission this time), and folks: it was amazing. It was the best Christmas program I’ve ever attended, and people raved about it for weeks. You, too, can create the Best Christmas Program Ever, and here’s how.
I contacted people from various demographics in the ward so as to have several viewpoints and life experiences represented (a young mom, an elderly woman, a man in his 30s and one in his 40s, a middle aged woman, and me. A couple were very conservative and a couple were very liberal. Two were people of color. If I’d been aware of any LGBT+ people in the ward, I’d have invited them, too). I asked each person to write up a short experience and to time themselves delivering it to make sure it was under three minutes. Here is an example of the email I sent to each speaker after they agreed to participate:
Thanks for being willing to participate in our ward Christmas program! The program will be mostly music, and instead of narration between songs, I’ve asked you and a few others to share brief stories. I’d like you to share a time when Christmas became “real” to you, or an experience when your life changed because Jesus came to Earth. This could be a story about Christmas, or it could be an experience with the Atonement.
Here’s the catch: your story HAS to be less than three minutes. I’m on a tight timeline, and I want to keep the program from going over if at all possible. Because of this, I need you to write out your experience and time yourself reading it to make sure it’s under three minutes. I also need you to send it to me by Friday, December 1st at the latest so that I can write and organize the program.
Our Christmas program is during sacrament meeting on December XX. If this doesn’t work for you, please let me know as soon as possible. Feel free to contact me with any questions.
Your experience will help others feel the spirit. I’m excited to have you participate!
Once I received all of the stories, I matched them with the songs in the program. In a couple cases, I added a little tag at the end of the story to help it flow into the message of the next song. Here is the email I sent out once the program was put together:
Thank you all for your willingness to participate in the Christmas program this coming Sunday, Dec. XX, during sacrament meeting. Click here to view the document so you can see where you will be in the program.
Speakers: If possible, please come up and sit on the stand after the sacrament (you may return to your family after your talk if you wish). If you can’t sit on the stand, try and be at the podium as quickly as possible when it’s your turn to speak so that we don’t have any downtime. No one will introduce you, so you’ll need to pay attention and go to the podium at the proper time. I will send you your individual parts in a separate email. The only changes I made to your submissions were to remove any “opening” or “closing” statements (like “good morning, brothers and sisters” or “in the name of Jesus Christ, amen”) just to give the program a better flow. For a few of you, I added a couple lines onto the end of your talk to help bridge into the following musical number.
Primary: Sister X will invite the children to come to the stand after her talk. If the primary pianist could please play some music while the children come up, that would be lovely.
Choir: Sister Y, if you could please include in your reminders to the choir that they are to come sit on the stand as soon as the sacrament is over and remain there for the duration if possible, that would be great.
I am excited to celebrate the Savior’s birth and to feel the spirit through your testimonies and beautiful music. Please contact me with any questions.
I’ve included the finished program below (with personal details changed and names removed) so you can get a feel for how it worked. Some of the speakers were funny and energetic, some were nervous and quiet, but all of them were earnest and compelling. The personal stories did more to bring the Christmas spirit than any recitations of general authority quotes ever could have. It helped that the musical numbers went well, too, but even if some of the performances had been weak, this program still would have been moving and memorable. Stories are powerful. When people allow themselves to be vulnerable and share a part of themselves, it can change the hearts and minds of others.
Female Speaker (me!)
The Christmas season is a magical time. Our hearts seem to be more united with friends, family, and even strangers, bound together by threads of shared traditions and faith. But the magic of Christmas is more than just a stronger feeling of goodwill toward men. It is a time we can reflect on the gift of Jesus Christ.
For each of us, there is a moment when we feel the power of the atonement on a deeper level–when Christmas, the birth of Christ, becomes real to us. For me, it was my first Christmas away from home on my mission.
I had been on my mission for two months when, two days before Christmas, I received some devastating news from home. The next day, Christmas Eve, was pretty awful–I was so consumed with grief and worry about my family that I couldn’t function or focus on anything or anyone else. I’ve never experienced spiritual anguish like that before. That night, after my companion went to sleep, I knelt in front of the Christmas tree and poured my heart out to God. “Heavenly Father, I want to be a missionary, but I can’t stay here and serve others when I feel like this. Please take this away, or I will have to go home.”
I woke up to my alarm at 6:30 on Christmas morning, groggily pulled myself out of bed, and knelt to say my prayers. It took me a few moments into my prayer to realize that something was different. The weight that had incapacitated me the previous two days was gone. I no longer felt the empty hopelessness inside. I still mourned for my family, but I was filled with peace and joy and light. The difference was night and day. It was the Savior’s Christmas gift to me.
I recognize not every prayer is answered in such an immediate way, but this experience taught me that God is mindful of His children, that the atonement works for me in my life, that Christmas is real.
It’s been thirteen years since that Christmas on my mission, but I remember it clearly. Many things still haven’t healed with that family situation, but I gained a testimony that Christmas of the peace and the healing that come through the atonement of Christ. I know that burdens can be lifted, that hearts can be healed, that joy can fill the empty space of sorrow.
Today, we will hear music that celebrates the Savior’s birth, and we will also hear stories of how that birth continues to affect lives over 2000 years later. We invite you to reflect on experiences in your own life when you were changed because Jesus came to earth.
Choir: The First Noel, with violin
Many years ago I was a new missionary in a foreign country. My first area was a small village. As December came around I was expecting the Christmas season to start, but many things that were from Western culture had not made it to that small village. The celebration of Christmas was only celebrated by the local branch as far as I could tell.
Two weeks before Christmas I was transferred to a larger city. There were signs of Christmas in some of the shops. Christmas was celebrated more as an American holiday or reason for shopping than a religious celebration.
While there were signs of Christmas it did not feel like the holiday I knew from home. I believe I had taken Christmas for granted when I was growing up because it was celebrated by so many and it was everywhere you turned. The real reason for Christmas had not really become a part of me.
We were serving in a small ward, maybe 100 members if memory serves me correctly. Soon it was the time for the ward Christmas party. I remember entering the building and seeing all the work of the members.
I had been in the country for only two months at this point and did not have a good grasp of the language. Cultural customs and the food was different from what I had become accustomed to while growing up. But the thing I remember most was the spirit that was present. That felt familiar.
In those circumstances, with so much of what I physically accredited to Christmas gone, I came to understand what was important. It was Christ. He was the reason Christmas was special.
My mission also changed, I realized for the first time the real reason for me being there. It was to bring a knowledge of Christ to those I was to serve.
This, this is Christ the king whom shepherds guard and angels sing.
Haste, haste to bring him laud; the babe, the son of Mary.
Instrumental solo: What Child Is This
I love Christmas–the lights, the music, the joy, and the many reminders of God’s love for us. I can’t remember a time when Jesus was not a focal part of my life. When my sister and I were children, we participated in the Lutheran Christmas Eve Nativity program. Then we were given an apple, an orange, peanuts, and candy in a brown paper sack. Later we listened to my grandfather read the Luke 2 Christmas story. These traditions were the beginnings of the testimony-building lessons that taught me that I could depend upon Jesus for guidance and strength.
Ten Christmases ago, my sibling died of cancer only two months after being diagnosed. Everywhere I went, there were the happy holly jolly Christmas songs, but that could not ease my sorrow. I was grateful that I had learned that faith and prayer would provide me with the solace and understanding that I was seeking. When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the words “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” our country was in the midst of the Civil War, and he despaired that the angels’ message of peace and good will must be lost. But then, as Longfellow continued to listen to the bells, he came to the realization that “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail with peace on earth, good will to men.”
These words remind me that Jesus taught us to look for the good that surrounds us and to pray for the best outcome. How sad my life would be if I did not know that my prayers are heard and answered, and that we have continuing revelation given to our prophets today, such as President Gordon B. Hinckley’s counsel, “Be believing. Be happy. Don’t get discouraged. Things will work out.” Every day I see evidences of the grace and countless blessings from our Heavenly Father and Jesus that bring me peace and comfort at Christmas and always.
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wiseman, I would do my part.
Yet what I can, I give him: give him my heart.
Choir: In the Bleak Midwinter
We celebrate Christ and that’s wonderful. With all the noise in the world, it’s hard to focus on the meaning of Christmas. You see, Christmas isn’t about receiving presents. Of course, as a child that’s all I thought of, receiving gifts from family and friends. As I gained wisdom, my perspective and views about Christmas changed.
Today, I will share an experience of when Christ became real to me. I haven’t always been a member of this church but Jesus Christ has always been apart of my life. Jesus Christ has always existed and faith was taught to me at a young age. My mother taught me Faith, prayer and the importance of living the gospel.
As a teenager, I started to develop a health disorder. There’s no cure but treatment is available. My father too developed this health disorder in his adult life. I clearly remember him desperately seeking for a cure. I was worried and naturally confided in my mom. My mom told me to pray. I clearly remember her telling me to get on my knees and pray fervently. I did just that. I prayed to be healed from the disorder my body was experiencing. I opened my heart. I expressed my fears and concerns. What happened next, some may think is a coincidence, but to me my prayer was answered. In time, he healed me. My body no longer showed signs of the health disorder. My father in heaven didn’t just answer my prayer but I was also transformed into the person I am today. This experience taught me that Christ is real. He lives!
During this season let’s remember him. Remember, he’s with us. He hears and answers our prayers. Let’s find time to turn our hearts unto him.
People the world over looked forward to the Savior’s birth. In the Americas, Christ spoke to the prophet Nephi: “Lift up your head and be of good cheer; for behold, the time is at hand, and on this night shall the sign be given, and on the morrow come I into the world.”
We would like to invite the Primary children to please come to the stand.
Primary: Christmas in Zarahemla
After waiting my whole life, I finally received a call to serve a mission. I was to report to the Missionary training Center, or MTC, just in time for Christmas.
President George Albert Smith was described as having an “enthusiastic desire to share The gospel.” That was me. We pulled up to The MTC and I hopped out of the car saying “see ya,” to my fam and walked away with my luggage. The missionaries waiting there to help me told me to hug my mom, so I did. Then onward, ever onward!
The people in charge of the MTC tried to make Christmas for us very special. They had lights strung up, Christmas trees, and Christmas movie nights where they popped about 2,000 bags of popcorn, one for each missionary. There were missionaries caroling in the courtyards in different languages with soft falling snow. It was magical! Even though popcorn and lights are awesome, those weren’t the things that made Christmas there unforgettable.
Everything there is about Jesus Christ. We are kept away from all outside influences, focused on His teachings, changing our weaknesses to better represent His name as His servant, and adopting His purpose as our own. Christmas, for once for me, was all about HIM.
The enthusiasm almost came to a screeching halt. If you can picture a little girl running inside, because she saw there was ice cream, then getting knocked out by the sliding glass door, THAT WAS ALSO ME when I realized how many weaknesses I needed to change.
But, there was a man who sang the hymn “Hark! the Herald Angels sing,” at the top of His lungs and with his whole heart. These words pierced me –
Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Ris’n with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man NO MORE may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them SECOND BIRTH
Heavenly Father needed someone to save His children from sin by sacrificing their life. Because He loves us, Jesus Christ volunteered Himself. The realization that HE ACTUALLY CAME TO EARTH on that first Christmas and did what He said He would FILLED MY SOUL! Was I one of the angels singing at His birth? I’m sure I was singing somewhere! We can have a second birth! He came and showed us how to live! We can actually change, because of His Atonement! Take a chill- pill, I tell myself! Everything is ok and awesome!!!! This is all because of Christ.
Choir: Angels’ Gloria
It’s hard to think of a specific memory of when Christmas became about the birth of the savior for me. My feelings about Christmas begin with family traditions and the wonderful music. After Thanksgiving, my mom would break out Johnny Mathis’s Merry Christmas album and put it on the old record player. She’d put it on repeat and let it play. The music would only break when we decided to turn the record over and listen to the other side or to clean the dust off the needle on the record player. As a kid, there was nothing like hearing Johnny Mathis sing O Holy Night, Silent Night, and the First Noel. I still love it.
As I got a little older, my mom would make cookies and we’d do secret Santa deliveries to neighbors and friends. Sometimes, we’d do a little caroling of our own. And It was always fun figuring out Christmas gifts for my brothers and parents. My parents would give us kids a little money to buy everyone gifts. It was really fun trying to find the gifts that my brothers and parents would like the most. These activities made me think about others and made me feel Christmas-y.
But every Christmas Eve, before any presents were exchanged and before Santa made any visit, my dad would read from Luke 2. The story of Jesus’s birth is now so familiar – In those days, Caesar Augustus decreed that all the world should be taxed; Joseph went with his espoused wife Mary, who was great with child, to Bethlehem to be taxed; while in Bethlehem, Mary brought forth her firstborn son and laid him in a manger; he was the Savior of the world and at his birth the angel announced to the shepherds in their fields – fear not, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
It is the greatest story ever told. Christ was born to bring salvation to all mankind. The Christmas story now has a profound impact on me because I have a testimony of Christ’s redeeming power. How wonderful it is that we get to celebrate it during this Christmas season.
[Bishopric announces closing hymn and prayer]
I love this! I wish I could have gone to tour program!
For me it’s the Christmas tree at night, the house dark, with the lights on the tree radiating through the house. I am uncomfortable with most the rest of Christmas. For me, gifts feel like a chore and obligation. Travel, decorations, holiday gatherings, can feel like too much, and overwhelming. But singing carols, recounting the Christmas story, and most of all, seeing the lights on the Christmas tree, brings the Spirit to my heart
It was smart of you to avoiding asking permission the second year. When we are asked to do boilerplate events or programs, we are always free to decline to be involved, not matter what the expected requirements of your calling are. “If the Lord wants a boilerplate program, then please find someone else who is comfortable with that format.” Say no and mean no.
So good! And I especially love the part where you didn’t ask permission the second time and just did the program you felt inspired to do.
Yes, yes, yes to providing people an opportunity to be vulnerable and share a part of themselves. Isn’t that the whole point of meeting as a congregation? If I wanted to hear regurgitated conference talks, I know where to find the original talks. This program sounds wonderful – In the Bleak Midwinter is one of my favorite songs. I love the effort made to include diverse types of people. It demonstrates that there is a place for everyone at church.
I also love that you asked people to send you what they were planning to talk about so you could pair it with a Christmas song. Really thoughtful and helps people zone out less than just hearing the same 15 verses we usually hear in ward Christmas programs. Bravo!
Thanks! I wanted to walk the line between having structure and achieving a personal tone. I got a little pushback from people who prefer to ad lib their speaking engagements, but I explained it was important we stick to the time limits and that we have a nice program flow. In the end, everyone wrote up their pieces and did a great job.
This was beautiful! I got chills reading about everyone’s experiences with Christmas and how it became personal to them. Each personal experience was paired with the perfect song to go with it. We need less rote, boilerplate programs, and more of people’s real experiences, especially at the holidays. Thank you for sharing this with us and reminding us of that.
Thank you all! When I did things my way the second year, I still had to keep the bishopric informed. I told them what I was going to be doing but didn’t phrase it as a permission request. They were copied on the program doc and knew what was coming, and they didn’t push back or overrule me. A year plus into the calling, I had more confidence in my ideas and authority, and they had more confidence in my judgment.
That said, the calling was still a nightmare. The bishopric micromanaged everything, refused to respond to my requests, didn’t tell me when they were going to call music people (who I supposedly had stewardship over) and wouldn’t call the people whose names I submitted. It was a thousand tiny indignities, and when I finally lost it on the first counsellor over a relatively minor overstep on his part, he was completely shocked. I ultimately asked to be released because they wouldn’t give me the support I needed. From what I’ve heard from others, that’s not an uncommon experience for this calling.