[Editor's note: On May 17, 2012, Dianne updated and revised this original post]:
I have always been a sponge for a sweet, sappy, touching Christmas story. Whether they are true or fiction, I love Christmas stories, books, and movies. Often they seem a bit far-fetched, but I still revel in them and the spirit of Christmas that they convey. Snuggling on the couch or in my bed to read and share is among my favorite traditions I take pleasure in during the Christmas season. We have enjoyed Christmas miracles in the past and along our journey. Another Christmas miracle at least three years in the making has come to pass this year.
The Christmas of 2008 found our family depleted of all financial resources. My husband had been without a job in his chosen field in which he holds a Masters Degree, for nearly two years. Together we worked five different jobs and could barely pay our house payment. Carrying our own health insurance premiums and just keeping current on our utilities had eaten our savings. Our food storage had sustained us with the help from my in laws’ garden and many neighbors, friends, and brother, who, just as the freezer was empty would miraculously bring a box or several coolers full of meat that they couldn’t use and wondered if we could. One time, it was a loaf of white bread (a huge treat for the kids who were tired of whole wheat) and two cans of tuna fish. Countless times, we found in the mailbox, taped to the door, under the front mat and tied to the doorknob envelopes of money.
Sometimes notes were attached of encouragement, but always anonymous. One time it was a twenty-dollar bill with a note written in a shaky hand (obviously from one of our very elderly friends). Another time it was a back-to-school kit with gift cards from a sister’s family that lived far away, or a check from a sister that said, “I love you”. At first our hearts were filled with pride, not wanting to accept the loving offerings, or believing that they were needed, but our hearts were softened, humbled, and filled with hope. There were so many gifts left that we gave up trying to figure out who our secret friends were and simply offered prayers of gratitude.
On Christmas Eve we returned home from my family's Ranch and having been with my extended family, we were filled with the spirit of the Savior after acting out the nativity and singing around the piano, concluding with family prayer. My heart was filled with love and tenderness. We had been able to buy a present for each child with the Christmas dollars from my in laws. To our amazement, on the front porch we found three large garbage bags (obviously from three different secret Santas). We felt the love of those around us even though we had no idea who had left the gifts. We felt the hand of the Lord in our lives as others blessed us.
Thankfully, six months later, my husband was once again employed in his field of expertise, making a steady income. Money was and has continued to be tight as we raise our six children and try to pay off accumulated debt and rebuild our savings. As a family we decided that more than anything we wanted to save our money and visit Nauvoo. We started a Nauvoo fund in a large pickle jar. We taped it shut to prevent the temptation to dip into it. Each time the kids received Christmas or birthday dollars, they went into the Nauvoo jar. Grandparents and great grandparents made donations occasionally. The children were amazed at how long it took to accumulate. After a year we had saved about $150. We knew we needed a lot more to be able to visit Nauvoo. As a family we talked about our anticipation and excitement. We predicted when we would have enough money to go on our dream trip. We dropped our change in and added a few bills slowly but steadily.
In the spring of 2009, a close friend, father of six was killed instantly in a car accident. Three of the children attended our local elementary school with our children. Their youngest and one of our daughters were best friends and initially brought our families together. As an outreach of love and support the teachers and children of the school did a penny drive to collect as much pocket change to help the family. Our little children asked if they could take our jar of change, our Nauvoo jar and donate it to help our friends. Everyone instantly agreed. Our mite was nothing compared to the desperate need of this family who we love. We started over to collect pennies and change in our pickle jar for our Nauvoo trip.
The Christmas season of 2010 was approaching quickly. Our Nauvoo jar had continued to fill, but we still had a long way to go before reaching our goal. As I went to church the first week of December, I heard a devastating story of our home teacher’s daughter. She was a young mother of three small children. She was battling cancer for the third time. The doctors had very little hope for her recovery and her response to further treatment. I was told that this sweet mother was very weak, but her desire was to take her children and husband to Disneyland.
I went home and told my family the story. We talked about what we could do to help them. The father of this young mother was the first home teacher we ever had that came regularly. At the time of my husband’s unemployment, he and his saintly wife served our family selflessly, brought us hope, love and kindness in their quiet, humble way. It was suggested by our 14 year-old daughter that we give them our Nauvoo jar. All but one of our children thought that was the perfect idea. I knew we all had to agree if we were to give our precious Nauvoo fund. I prayed in my heart that I would know what to say to my reluctant child. I promised our children that if we did this with pure hearts and the desire to bless this family that we didn’t really know, that it would multiply and come back to us in ways that we couldn’t comprehend at that moment. Tears were shed, hearts were softened and it was agreed that we would give our jar to our home teacher and his wife for their daughter.
We invited them to dinner that night. Following dinner, unprompted, our five-year old daughter went to the cupboard, retrieved the jar and gave it to our home teacher. They were overcome with emotion and tears as we gave them our offering. They didn’t know what it was, other than a jar of change. At first they didn’t want to accept it. As each of our children, one by one, told them to take it to their daughter, they were gracious and grateful. In the scheme of overwhelming medical bills and a terminal disease, our little jar of change wasn’t significant in financial support or solution but we hoped they would feel our love, support and more importantly that Heavenly Father was aware of them. We were grateful for the opportunity to share what little we could to lighten their burden.
Just after that, my oldest nephew received his mission call. He is a young man who had overcome great difficulty and challenge in his life. His parents have as well and were in the middle of the greatest financial crisis of their lives. We decided we would contribute $100 of our fund to his mission. There was not even a question in any of our minds if that was what we wanted to do.
Weeks after that, around Thanksgiving, we realized another family member was in need. They had generously helped us when we needed it during our unemployment and we wanted to help them. We sent them our last $100 from our Nauvoo jar. It wasn’t much, not near enough to really help them, but we wanted them to know how much we loved them and they lived so far away that we couldn’t even visit them, hug them, play, or lift their spirits.
It was now two weeks before Christmas of 2011. I had done most of the shopping and purchased “knock offs” at a much lower price of the items on my children’s wish lists. I still had the Nauvoo trip in mind for a gift for Christmas. I stayed strictly within my budget and spent the least amount that I ever had. I started my research and realized even with the frugal gifts I had purchased, we wouldn’t be able to make up the funds from the emptied jars. We’d just have to wait. I had forgotten about the promise I had made my children that if we gave what we could with pure hearts that it would be multiplied and come back to us. That remembrance came as my three oldest children bounded in the door from mutual with a green gift bag that had been left on the front porch. The rest of the family had been home all evening, and even answered the door several times to receive popcorn and homemade treats from the neighbors with no notice of the green bag.
We opened the green bag and found inside a jar filled with silver coins and the book Christmas Jars, by Jason Wright. I was overcome with emotion; my family is used to that. As we read the book out loud, I realized that the promise that I had made to my children was beginning to come to fruition. As we read the book together my heart was touched as each of our children made connections of our experiences of giving, spreading the light of the Savior with good deeds, secret acts, and sharing our jar in different ways.
The night after we finished reading the book, I found a black garbage bag as from Santa himself, in our garage filled with the gifts that my children had asked Santa. It had been left inside the side door. No note or explanation, simply there filling Christmas wishes. Each gift was exactly what children were wishing for. Santa was the only person who knew, they had not told anyone else their wishes. If I took back the gifts that I had purchased and received the money back and added the Christmas dollars from Grammy and Grandad, it would bring our Nauvoo jar more than double of what we had given away from our collection of coins. The promise that I made to our children of receiving back what we had given had indeed multiplied in miraculous ways through others. Our dream of visiting Nauvoo is a reality.
I have been reminded again of Heavenly Father’s plan. He is in charge and oh so mindful of each of us. As we strive to bless and lift others, He never stops blessing each of us. We can never truly pay Him back for the most precious gift of His Son, His Plan; we will never be caught up or ahead of the blessings. My greatest desire is to serve Him and be His instrument in blessing His children. I have certainly been blessed by many of His. How grateful I am for the miracle of our jar, through the hands and hearts of many.
I wrote this story of our Christmas Jar the week before Christmas 2011. I shared it with my parents, my husband’s parents and my grandparents asking them not to share it with anyone else until after Christmas. My husband and I wrote a treasure hunt to give to our children on Christmas morning that ended with the filled jar and this story. Our oldest read the story to her siblings as we were overcome with the blessings that the Lord had given us and the amazing Christmas spirit and giving. They had not realized that the multiplicity that I promised had come to pass. By the time Christmas evening came, our jar had doubled twice more. I knew the reality of how much our trip would cost, we were still a long way off what it would really take to make the trek to Nauvoo, but we determined we would go for spring break.
January ended with a two-day stay in Primary Children's Hospital with our youngest with a random Staph infection in his toe. I paid cash for the ER and all the bills as they came, not something we generally have budgeted for. I was accepting every cleaning and sewing job that came my way and was stashing the extra dollars hoping to increase our chances of going to Nauvoo. We were getting closer all the time but still had a way to go.
My husband is really physically active and a triathlete. He had mentioned on occasion that his knee had been bothering him since Christmas. After an appointment with a doctor, it was determined that he needed surgery. Again, I paid cash as we went to the doctor and the hospital, thinking I was taking care of the bills the day of the treatment. While he was recovering (the two days I could get him to stay down) we really got serious about Nauvoo. He researched on the computer the different places to stay. We booked our rooms, made appointments to visit the Nauvoo temple, mapped out our route and planned our meals, etc. We were totally committed to the days we would stay in Nauvoo, as we had to pay 50% up front to stay at a pioneer cabin.
We enjoyed General Conference weekend as we prepared to leave the following Thursday for our trip. That week we received more donations from our parents and another anonymous gift that came in the form of a plastic Easter egg taped to the front door with a note and cash. In the mailbox on Wednesday, I received not such happy news in the form of medical bills from each hospital in the amount due of $500 each. Our insurance deductible had changed to $500 per person per year. It was a blow! We did not have $1000 to pay the bills. Immediately thoughts came that we should not go. How would we pay these bills? I decided that I would not think about it and I would deal with it when we got home.
Thursday night we were off on our adventure! This was the first trip we had ever taken our kids on and we were filled with gratitude for all that had led us to this point. As we offered a prayer of gratitude and asked for safety and peace to accompany us; we were all touched by the spirit of love and anticipation. We drove as far as my brother’s home in Green River, Wyoming, and stayed the night there.
Friday we drove to Mount Rushmore and drove as far as Sioux City, South Dakota. Saturday we got up early and stopped at the Winter Quarters temple, visitor center, and pioneer cemetery. It was a powerful experience as I realized that my 5th great-grandfather was born there, and lived. There are so many babies that died. The temple itself is magnificent. The stained glass windows are breath-taking. Onward on the journey as we made PP&J in the car, and only stopped for gas and potty breaks to arrive in Nauvoo, which we did at 5pm that night. We drove straight to the temple. What a feeling! We checked into our pioneer cabin (which was so fun in and of itself!) and got settled in for what was to be the most amazing experiences we have had to this point.
Easter Sunday we went to church and started visiting the sites of historic Nauvoo. Each place the missionaries shared the stories of the people who had lived, run businesses and built the temple and the city. A gospel principle was shared. We felt the spirit. Monday we continued to see historic Nauvoo, went on a wagon and carriage ride and absorbed the amazing pioneer spirit. We made some special connections with the couple missionaries. At each spot, the people we interacted with were divinely placed. Because we were there in the off-season, we had their full attention, private, intimate tours everywhere we went. It was everything we hoped it would be!
Tuesday was our temple day. What sacred experiences we had! I could have stayed in the temple for a week. The craftsmanship was unlike anything I’ve ever seen, the spirit undeniably special, the gratitude for the restoration of Priesthood keys on the earth was tangible. The spirit I felt and we felt as a family was building with each experience. How grateful we felt.
The air was chilly Wednesday morning as we checked out of our pioneer cabin, and prepared for our last day in Nauvoo. We got an early start as we went to the Nauvoo Grove. There are quotes on plaques from journals and testimonies of the Prophet Joseph that bathed us in the spirit of the faith and testimony of Jesus Christ that was written in the hearts of the early saints. Following the grove our next stop was the Joseph Smith sites that are owned by the Community of Christ. They own the original homestead of Joseph and Emma, the Nauvoo House, the Mansion House, and the Red Brick Store; they also have and visitor center/museum. We learned and saw much and were given a lot of information. There was a different feeling, a lack of burning spirit, than we had experienced in the other places in Nauvoo. My children noticed the difference and mentioned it throughout the tour. I was grateful that they could feel the lack of the spirit that they are used to feeling.
Following the Joseph Smith sites, we traveled to Carthage Jail about 23 miles from Nauvoo. As I made PP&J sandwiches, our daughter read to us an account of the 21 days leading up to the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum in Carthage Jail. It was literal accounts of the eye-witnesses and other members of the church. The spirit was present and reverent as we drove. It set a perfect stage for what we were about to experience.
As we opened the doors to the car in the parking lot at the visitor center in Carthage, the spirit washed over us. We began the walk to the visitor center reading the granite markers that detail the first vision and testimonies of the Prophet. I was overcome with the spirit.
We were able to have a private tour, just our family of the jail. How blessed we were to have time in the upper room to sit and feel the power of the spirit testify to each of us that what we thought we knew, we know we know. It was a sacred event for each of us. We had the opportunity to sit and ponder and share our testimonies with each other.
I have always had a testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith. I knew that he was the prophet of the restoration, that he saw Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ in the Sacred Grove, that he was taught by angels, that he translated the gold plates that is the Book of Mormon, that the heavens were opened to him to restore all things in Christ’s Church to the earth, and that he was martyred in this very jail of Carthage. I knew that before, but what an incredible thing to be able to see and partake of the spirit in such a way. I am so grateful for the experiences and the testimony that I am blessed with and was strengthened. I am equally grateful that my children were able to have faith building, testimony fortifying, love enduring experiences and feelings that will be burned in their hearts and mine forever.
Friday, we visited Far West, Adam-ondi-Ahman, Liberty Jail and as the crowning jewel of our trip we went through the Kansas City Temple open house. These sites are particularly reverent and sacred. We had felt the spirit along our journey, but what a tremendous way to end, especially for our little children who aren’t old enough to go into the Nauvoo temple, to walk from room to room in a holy house of the Lord. Each room was more exquisite, more beautiful, more full of light and symbol. It was the perfect way to end our journey, the reminders of covenants, eternity, sacrifice, love and all the other gifts we have and had been given.
As we returned to “real life”, the after-glow of our experiences has lingered. We have an increase of love and commitment to each other. The medical bills were still here and I really didn’t know how we would pay them. We had paid cash all along the way for gas, lodging, food, souvenirs and everything. I was sure we had spent what we had. A couple of days went by. My husband was going to go to Costco and wondered if I needed anything. I told him that I better check out our account and double-check what we had spent before he spent any money.
To my amazement, we had $1000 left. How could that be? We had accounted for every penny, and yet, we had just enough to cover the medical bills. The multiplicity and out pouring of blessings continue as our every need is met. Not just our temporal needs, but our spiritual needs. I am grateful for each mite, each sacrifice, each blessing, each miracle.
Others may say that it all came together as it should or by coincidence, but I choose to acknowledge His hand in it all. Every miracle, small or big, each act of secret service and all gifts is because of Him, the giver of all.