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Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua / joergens.mi, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Did You Witness the First Christmas?

When we feel the “spirit” or “magic” of Christmas, what are we really feeling?

“The most wonderful time of the year,” produces wonder, joy, love, excitement, and altruism—feelings we often label as the “spirit” or “magic” of Christmas. But what is really going on? Why do we feel these things, even often those of us whose faith in God is weak, wavering, or wanting? 

Is it the tinsel and trees? The gifts and the giving? Family and festive fun? Or is it Santa Claus or perhaps carols like Silent Night? Or reading The Night before Christmas or that “there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed”? Or is it all of it? What is really happening when we feel “good tidings of great joy”?

I am convinced we are feeling much more than we think and that it revolves around two words and two Biblical verses—transcendence, condescension, and Luke 2:13-14.

To explain, let’s explore an experience Henry B. Eyring shared regarding his first experience in the Salt Lake Temple

I looked up at a high white ceiling that made the room so light it seemed almost as if it were open to the sky. And in that moment, the thought came into my mind in these clear words: ‘I have been in this lighted place before.’ But then immediately there came into my mind, not in my own voice, these words: ‘No, you have never been here before. You are remembering a moment before you were born. You were in a sacred place like this.’

I experienced the strongest sense of being in a large, familial congregation like this before, but on the Christmas Eve.

President Eyring experienced a pre-mortal memory entering his present mortality. His memory transcended or “moved beyond the limits” of the veil of forgetfulness—a literal revelation (a word meaning “to part the veil”). It is no wonder he continued, “The temple is a holy place where revelation comes to us easily if our hearts are open to it and we are worthy of it.”

I have experienced two of these transcendent moments where past or present Heaven unexpectedly bursts into my earthly present. They are so real that, for me, they are undeniable. One, like President Eyring’s, occurred in the temple. The other, however, was in a Catholic Basilica on Christmas Eve 1992 in Padova, Italy where I was serving a mission. There were ten missionaries assigned there and together we went to the public square in front of the world-famous Sant’ Antonio di Padova Basilica, a pilgrimage site for Catholics. Thousands were mingling in the crisp evening air, waiting for the building’s massive doors to open for midnight mass. 

We began singing Christmas hymns in Italian. A few people stopped to listen, but with each hymn more gathered. Some tried to give us money, thinking we were street performers! However, on that beautiful night, singers and listeners received so much more than money could ever buy. There, in front of the basilica beautifully bathed in light, the “spirit” of Christmas happened.

The Lord explains that when the Spirit of Truth communicates among people, they “understand one another, and [all] are edified and rejoice together.” That was the “spirit” we felt that night singing and listening to the hymns of Christ’s birth. It was so tangible. We all could feel it and see it in each other’s eyes, Latter-day Saints and Catholics alike. For a moment, the Spirit of Truth parted the veil, and we remembered the love and peace we must have all felt in Heaven looking down on the first Christmas. Little did I know that the veil was about to burst.

When the doors of the basilica opened, thousands filed into one of the largest churches in the world. Annually five million people, mostly Catholic pilgrims from around the world, enter the football-field long chapel with its hundred-foot, vaulted ceilings. We stood three-quarters of the way back from the altar, just ten young American Latter-day Saints in a sea of Catholics packed to the gills inside that massive and magnificent monument to Christ. It was my first time at a mass, and I was confused but intrigued by the beautiful pageantry. Viewing the thousands of faces around us, my initial thoughts were sad. “Just ten of us,” I immaturely judged, “have a knowledge of the truth.” Yet, as the ceremony continued, I found myself responding out loud with everyone to the archbishop’s cues for prayers. A priest then arose and read from Isaiah, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” 

At that moment, all those precious feelings from our previous singing came flooding back. I heard no words, but my heart filled with an immense love for every person standing with me in the basilica and I knew, really knew, that they were my literal brothers and sisters. In addition, I felt their love for God and His Christ and experienced, in part, the Father and the Son’s abiding love for each of them. As I marveled, I was so filled with love that I thought my chest would explode. And then I felt “it.” Again, no words, yet I experienced the strongest sense of being in a large, familial congregation like this before, but on the Christmas Eve. As the congregation sang an unfamiliar hymn, I hummed along embraced by a holy memory so strong I wanted to erupt in praise. 

I became aware that the archbishop was now reading from Luke 2. In my mind’s eye, the story played out with familiarity, but not a mortal one. The story arrived at the angel announcing to the shepherds the birth of Christ and then “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.’” 

The strongest wave of this memory washed over me and “suddenly” I understood Christmas. The hosts of Heaven had appeared “suddenly,” their joy and praise bursting the veil that could no longer hold them. I then understood why Christmas always felt and feels so different. I understood what really happened on that first Christmas Eve in Bethlehem two millennia earlier.

Amongst all the holiday cheer, we sense deep and powerful memories of when we witnessed our Savior’s transcendent condescension to save us all.

Whether in that heavenly host or another, I had watched with jubilant anticipation the birth of Christ together with you and countless of our brothers and sisters. Our “good tidings of great joy” pierced the veil with praise for our selfless Sibling condescending from the Great I AM to a helpless child. An infant who could not think, speak, or even control His arms or legs—a child “born to die” for us. The scriptures teach that in heaven we “sang together, and … shouted for joy” amidst “heavenly applause,” when Jehovah offered Himself as our Savior. How can we describe the joy, excitement, gratitude, and hope we felt witnessing Him in Mary’s arms beginning His earthly mission? We may not be able to describe it even today, but we surely can continue to feel the power of that memorable night, as the Spirit “brings all thing[s] to [our] remembrance.”

That is why I believe Christmas feels so different, and is powerfully transcendent. Amongst all the holiday cheer, we sense deep and powerful memories of when we witnessed our Savior’s transcendent condescension to save us all. And Latter-day Saints are not alone. Everyone you see, speak to, or interact with this December was shoulder to shoulder with us that night celebrating with veil-piercing, sacred joy, just as I and my fellow missionaries were that holy night in Italy years ago. I walked out of that beautiful basilica with a greater love for God, for His precious Son, and for every child of God—siblings in the holy and joyful chorus of that first Christmas night.

Let us choose to ponder more intently about the birth and mission of Jesus Christ this time of year and those ancient memories of joy, peace, hope, and love will bubble up inside us, just below the surface. As we feel them, perhaps we can slow down, and like the Christ child’s mother “ponder them in [our] hearts.” Then, like the shepherds who suddenly saw, heard, and felt our joyful praises, we can find ways to personally praise God and to light the fires of memory in our brothers and sisters, as we make “known abroad” the love and hope of Christ in word, song, and in going “about doing good.” Then, and only then, will our original praises of “peace on earth and goodwill toward men” be felt and remembered, not by a few shepherds, but throughout our families, communities, and the weary world as a whole.

About the author

Derek Sainsbury

Derek R. Sainsbury (Ph.D. in American History) teaches Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University. He is the author of the groundbreaking book Storming the Nation. He is married to Meredith Pettit, and they have three sons.
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