Irene W. Smoot was the oldest member of the Spring Valley Ward. That was a fact. Everyone knew it. She lived in the same window-filled house on Spring Valley hill that her husband, Earnest Smoot, God rest his weary soul, had built with his own hands fifty years before. She always arrived at church exactly fifteen minutes early and sat in the pew that may as well have had her name carved on it, the third row from the front on the east side.
It was also a fact that Irene W. Smoot always headed the planning of the Ward Christmas Party. The Bishop never assigned her; it was a role she took on herself. She would just show up at the planning meetings with assignments for food, decorations, program, and clean-up already in hand. No one who had actually been assigned to plan the party really wanted to do it, so Irene’s plans were always unanimously accepted. After a couple years, the role of Christmas Party Planner was officially, and unofficially, hers. And though, over the years, some well-meaning people had attempted to offer suggestions, they quickly learned that Irene W. Smoot takes suggestions from no one.
Irene had always felt that Christmas itself was hers. It had always been her favorite holiday. Her house on the hill glowed brighter with blinking strings of colored lights than any other house in Spring Valley during the month of December. Her ten-foot tall Christmas tree, looming in her front window, put every other Christmas tree to shame. And her collection of Santa Clauses—from ceramic statues with rosy cheeks to a life-size replica made from wire and garland—had no equal.
So beloved was Christmas to Irene, that she took special pleasure in planning the Ward Christmas Party. Each year the party was a roaring success, so much that the ward members, who scarcely changed from year to year in the little town of Spring Valley, had come to look forward to the Christmas Party more than any other ward event. Irene always thought of everything, and pulled everyone in to help, so that everyone felt that they had had a hand in the final product: serving platters overloaded with red and green frosted sugar cookies, decadent fudge, and sweet breads dripping with glaze and streusel; tables draped with snow-white linens and set with the ward members’ best china and silver, decorated with a wintery centerpiece of glittering pinecones, sprigs of holly, ruby-red poinsettias, or a whirling village scene inside a snow globe; and a delicious meal of comfort foods like steaming chicken dumpling soup, honey-glazed ham, creamy mashed potatoes, buttery rolls, and lots of apple cider.
But the highlight of the party was always the dazzling Christmas tree in the corner draped in velvet ribbon and set with all of Irene’s most beloved, antique ornaments. Next to it was a cushioned red and gold velvet chair where, at the end of the night, Santa would rest while the children of the ward clambered for a chance to sit on his lap and tell him what they wanted for Christmas.
No one could quite remember a Christmas without Irene’s party.
This year, just a month before Christmas, the long-time Bishop of the Spring Valley Ward was released and, in his place, a newer, much younger bishop was called. Joshua Tiddell was his name, and he was a newcomer to Spring Valley, a relatively unheard-of phenomenon. He was a hard-working young man with a quick smile, a wife, and three small children, and everyone liked him. Although they were somewhat surprised when he was called as Bishop, everyone raised their hands in support of his call and grinned at each other that he would do a good job.
One night not long after his call, Bishop Tiddell approached the brilliantly-lit house of Irene W. Smoot and knocked on her door, the glowing Santa Claus face in the front window making him feel curiously as if he was being watched.
“Why good evening, Bishop,” Irene greeted him pleasantly when she answered the door. “Come in, come in, it’s freezing out there. I just so happen to have a fresh batch of cider on the stove. Let me get you some.”
“Oh, thank you, Sister Smoot, but I can’t stay long…”
“Nonsense,” she insisted, her small hazel eyes snapping, and the bishop made no further protests. He stepped inside the house, which smelled strongly of pine and cinnamon, and wandered into the sitting room as Irene disappeared into the kitchen for the cider. Everything was so ordered and spotless, even the pillows on the couch, that the bishop hesitated to sit down, fearing that his trousers may have hairs on them from the family dog.
Irene appeared in the doorway with two mugs of cider. “Sit down,” she said in a tone that more commanded than suggested, and Bishop Tiddell obediently sank down onto the couch as she pressed a warm mug of cider into his hands.
She sat across from him in an oversized recliner with a plush footstool that she did not use. Setting her mug, untouched, on the end table, she asked bluntly, “What brings you over, Bishop? You’re not going to give me a new calling, are you? Ward Librarian is quite enough for me.”
He took a sip of his cider, fearing to dismay her if he didn’t, and felt the hot liquid scald his tongue. Swallowing quickly, he replied, “No, no. Actually, I’ve come to talk about the Ward Christmas party.”
Irene raised her pencil-drawn eyebrows. “Bishop Drew never talked to me about the party. He trusted my plans and showed up to carve the ham.”
“I know, I know,” Bishop Tiddell replied, nodding so emphatically he almost spilled his cider. “I trust your plans, Sister Smoot. You do throw a lovely party. My family was there last year. The kids talked about Santa all week long.”
Irene nodded shortly, settling back into her chair. “You see? I know all about Christmas, Bishop. Fourteen boxes of ornaments I have. Five boxes of tinsel. Twenty-five boxes of lights. Two boxes of Christmas dishes. Eight reindeer, six wreaths, and so many Santa Clauses I can’t count them all.”
Bishop Tiddell didn’t know what to say, so he took another swig of cider. It burned all the way down his throat.
“My husband and I cut our own Christmas trees until the day he died, rest his soul. Now my trees are artificial. But I have one for the living room, one for the dining room, one for the upstairs loft, and one for the playroom for when my grandchildren come to visit.”
“They’re lovely trees,” Bishop Tiddell agreed.
“The month of December, I spend so much time baking in my kitchen I might as well set up a cot and sleep there. All of my neighbors get fresh-baked Christmas cookies…”
“That’s wonderful,” the bishop interrupted when she paused to take a breath. “You are quite the expert on Christmas and I would never dream of taking the responsibility of planning our ward party away from you. I have just one request, though.”
“What’s that?” Irene asked, steepling her long, bony fingers.
“I’d like to be in charge of Santa Claus.”
Irene blinked. “In what way, exactly? Brother Ruppert always plays the role. I just make sure to remind him to trim his beard a little and to give his shoes a good shine, and he puts on the costume.”
“I hear he’s not very thrilled with playing the part.”
Irene shrugged. “I manage to talk him into it every year, give him a good guilt trip about the children looking forward to it. He would never say no to me.”
Bishop Tiddell swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing beneath the skin of his throat. “Well, I’d like to take over that part, if it’s all right with you.”
“What do you plan on doing? Playing Santa Claus yourself?” She laughed shrilly. “You don’t have enough meat on your bones.”
“I have some ideas,” the bishop said quietly. “Nothing final yet. I just wanted to, um, get your blessing.”
Irene just stared at him. No one took over part of her party without her instructing them to do so. She felt inclined to tell him no right there. But he was the bishop, chosen of the Lord. Was telling him no even an option? She pursed her lips, choked down her protests, and muttered, “All right, Bishop. But if no one likes your ideas, I take over again next year, you hear?”
“Fair enough.” Bishop Tiddell set down his mug, slapped his hands against his thighs, and rose to his feet. “It’s been lovely talking with you, Sister….”
“Where do you think you’re going?” she clucked at him. “You haven’t finished your cider yet.”
The weeks flew by in a blur of preparation, and soon enough the day of the party arrived. Sister Smoot and her band of helpers labored at the church building all day, and when the ward members started arriving at seven o’clock sharp, they were not disappointed.
The cultural hall was hung with green garland and sprigs of holly, each snow-white table decorated with a vase of glittering pinecones tied with a red ribbon. And the food—the smells alone were divine. The adults hurriedly grabbed their plates and got in line while the kids dashed around, oohing and ahhing over all the decorations but very careful—from previous experience with Sister Smoot’s scoldings—not to touch anything.
The party was going wonderfully. Sister Smoot wandered about, mingling with the ward members, noting how full the cultural hall was, listening to the praises of the decorations and the exclamations over the food. She smiled to herself as the Ward Organist sat down at the piano and started playing some Christmas music, right on schedule.
She looked around for Bishop and spotted him at one of the tables, eating with his family. He looked very ordinary and un-Santa Claus-ish; she supposed he planned on changing after dinner. She hoped so. His part of the program was coming up soon. As if he felt her eyes on him, he glanced up in her direction and smiled. She smiled back, tightly, and went to find the Primary children who had been hand-picked to perform a musical number.
Half an hour later, as the applause died down after the last musical number, Irene glanced around the room again for Bishop Tiddell. She found him sitting where she had last seen him and looking unchanged—no white beard, no red and white hat. Clenching her teeth in annoyance, she gestured to him. “You’re up, Bishop.”
He scraped his chair away from the table and stood up, tossing his napkin next to his plate. The ward members watched as he approached the front of the cultural hall, sensing the tension in the air and wondering when Brother Ruppert was going to loll through the side doors, rubbing his belly and hollering, “ho, ho, ho!”
Bishop Tiddell took the microphone from Irene and cleared his throat. “Good evening, brothers and sisters. What a beautiful evening it’s been. How about a round of applause for all of Sister Smoot’s hard work?”
Applause scattered through the room. Glances were thrown toward the side doors.
“Christmas certainly is a festive time of year. With the lights and the trees and the gifts, not to mention the delicious food, there is so much to enjoy. And also, so much to get caught up in. So much, that we forget what Christmas is really about.” He cleared his throat again, nervously. “The lights and trees and gifts are nice, and certainly enjoyable. Santa Claus is a wonderful symbol of selflessness and giving. But even he is not what Christmas is all about. It’s not about the lights or gifts or any of those things. It’s about our Savior, Jesus Christ, who condescended to come to earth as a tiny, humble baby, in order to save us all.”
Irene was staring at him so intently she could have burned holes into his skin. He glanced at her, briefly, and cleared his throat a third time. “Like Santa Claus, the Savior gives us gifts. Everyday He blesses us with His grace, His love, His tender mercies. And He gave us the greatest gift of all, eternal life. ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’
“We will not be having a Santa Claus this year,” he announced, speaking so fast it took the ward members a second to realize what he had said. He continued without pausing for breath, as if afraid to give Irene a chance to interject. “I thought, this year, instead of asking Santa Claus to give us gifts, we could make Christmas more meaningful by contemplating the gifts we would like to give the Savior. How will we show our gratitude to Him? I’ve put a box under the Christmas tree, along with some pens and slips of paper. I would like each of you, as you feel inspired, to write on those slips of paper what you would like to give Jesus for Christmas this year. And I would urge you to think on that gift, not just during this Christmas season, but all year long, and see how it changes your life.”
He handed the microphone back to Irene, who was fairly rigid with disbelief and anger. No Santa Claus! Had he procrastinated too long and just threw something together at the last minute? She gaped at the bishop as he turned and walked away from her. This was the highlight and joy of her entire Christmas party. And he had snatched it away and replaced it with…a box?
She stared at the ward members sitting around their tables and they stared back. Nobody moved. A child whimpered, “But I wanted to see Santa!” Irene clutched the microphone until her knuckles turned white, refusing to participate in the bishop’s shoddy handiwork.
The minutes ticked by with agonizing slowness. Someone coughed. Forks scraped against china plates as the remnants of dinner were finished. Bishop Tiddell wrote down his gift and put it in the gold-wrapped box under the tree, then returned to his seat. No one else stood. Irene W. Smoot contemplated what exactly she would say to Bishop after the party, the words she would use to shame him for ruining everything.
Finally, to break the silence, the Ward Organist began playing more Christmas music. The strains of “O Holy Night” eased the tension in the room. Abruptly, someone stood up, an older man who lived alone on the outskirts of the ward. As he reached the tree and scribbled on his slip of paper, other ward members started to get up and make their way to the Christmas tree. Soon there was a line, slowly growing in length. And yet the cultural hall stayed near-silent, filled with something much deeper and more meaningful than the jolly laughter of Saint Nick. As Irene watched, children excitedly stuffed their gifts into the box, adults wrote slowly and contemplatively, and some ward members turned from writing down their gift with gleaming, tear-filled eyes.
One sister came up and squeezed her hand, the one that didn’t have a death-grip on the microphone. “Beautiful, Sister Smoot. Just beautiful. I didn’t think you could ever top last year, but you certainly did.”
“I…” Irene tried to tell her that it had been the bishop’s idea, not hers, but the woman was gone before she could. And before she knew it, other people were coming up and telling her the same thing, so fervently and gratefully that her grip on the microphone loosened and, as the line to the Christmas tree dwindled, she made her way toward it, grabbed a pen, and, swallowing deeply, wrote down her own gift to Jesus.