Christmas had lost most of its novelty by the time I was 21. Every year we had the same family parties, sang the same carols, told the same stories, took plates of homemade candy to our neighbors and bought presents for our family and friends. I still loved Christmas and all that it celebrated, but it had lost the wonder and excitement that I experienced as a child–Christmases with Santa sneaking in magically in the night, wondering sleeplessly what would be under the tree in the morning. The Christmas that I spent in Ulan Ude, Russia was the Christmas that helped me rediscover the magic of Christmas.
We had an appointment to meet with the Kolmakovs for a family night the Monday before Christmas. The Kolmakovs were a remarkable family–Tatiana, the mother, was baptized with her daughter Anya only three weeks earlier. The other children, Galya and Kolya, were baptized a month previous to them. My companion and I arrived to a busy, warm and full home. Their one-room apartment had seemed primitive and impossibly small to me the first time I had visited them but now it felt full of love and cooperation. Tatiana was preparing family night refreshments, Anya was setting up a poster on the wardrobe for a game to be played later that night, Galya and Kolya were helping us get inside and settled and helping with everything else. The fire was lit in their little stove/oven/fireplace and the spirit of family love and cooperation was thick. This spirit in their tiny home was one of the first and most remarkable changes that we noticed after their conversion. It felt like home at their house–my home, my companion’s home; anyone who has lived in a home with the spirit finds its presence familiar and immediately welcoming.
After catching up on their week’s activities and progress in the Book of Mormon, we settled down around their single couch. A hymn and a prayer intensified the loving feeling of the spirit and we turned our attention to Tatiana for the spiritual thought. She began by apologizing for the simpleness of the lesson.
“I am sorry, because I know that you have heard this story so many times before, but we have never heard it. When I grew up, we were taught not to believe in God and the story of Jesus Christ was told to us like a fairy tale. So we decided to learn about when Christ was born.
“It says in the Bible that His mother was visited by an angel who told her that she was going to have a baby and the baby was going to be the Son of God! Then they went to Bethlehem to pay some taxes and she was going to have the baby at that time–”
At this point, Kolya broke in with great excitement–
“And there were shepherds out near the city and a whole bunch of angels appeared to them and told them that the Christ was born in Bethlehem! So they went to see him!! Even they knew that He was the Son of God.”
The story continued with the same tone of amazement at the literal miracle of the birth of the Savior. Their eyes were bright and wide with excitement about this new story–this miracle of all miracles. I had never seen Christmas for the first time before–never had such a sense of excitement at Christ’s miraculous birth. I watched them tell us the story–finally understanding what it meant to have a Savior. This was something that I could only learn from them. Not only did their Savior live a miraculous life, He entered the world with angels at His side.
I had not even realized how much other stuff I allowed into my Christmas because I thought that I needed to intensify the Spirit of Christmas. Christmas does not need extra stories, symbols or songs for us to feel awed and amazed at what we are celebrating. The story of Christ’s birth can fill us with wonder each time that we hear it. It is the greatest miracle that has ever happened in the history of the world– His birth, life, death and resurrection communicate the most powerful love and mercy that exists in the universe.
And I will always love them for teaching me that.