Elder Stout and I decided to have a prayer before going out again that Christmas Eve. We had arrived home from our last appointment, and I wasn’t exactly eager to step into the freezing-cold Italian air again. But my companion thought we still had time for the Christmas project we had been planning.
“Please guide us to those with no special place to go,” we asked. “Please help us to cheer those who are experiencing sadness and loneliness during the holiday.”
I grudgingly rebuttoned the buttons I had so fervently unbuttoned minutes before as Elder Stout gathered up the Christmas gifts left over from what we had given our investigators—five Christmas candles decorated with construction-paper holly and aluminum-foil bases. We had made them ourselves during the weeks before while practicing Venite Fedeli, “O Come All Ye Faithful,” to sing to those we found wandering around with no place to go on Christmas Eve.
We walked into the cold, deserted streets of Bolzano, and I apprehensively looked for someone to cheer up. I had only been in Italy for twenty days or so and, although enthusiastic about missionary work, still found it hard to approach strangers and talk to them in a barely learned language about things they didn’t seem interested in.
A man started walking in our direction, avoiding our eyes. At least we weren’t trying to stop him in the midst of a blizzard—the Dolomite Mountains protected the city and its Italian- and German-speaking inhabitants from the snow of the Alps. We managed to stop and talk with him, lit and gave him one of our decorated candles, and sang.
As we sang, the faraway look in his eyes faded away. Not only a smile, but genuine warmth came to his face. I felt good. The man walked away with new vitality, and my attitude about our plans for the evening changed. It wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
Then, walking toward the center of the city, we met a gray-haired old man. He was wearing a thick jacket and hobbling over the Druso Bridge with the help of a crutch under his left arm. Elder Stout recognized him as someone he had talked to before my arrival in Italy. We presented him a candle and sang our carol.
He was thrilled. “Won’t you come with me?” he asked in Italian marked by a strong German accent. “I’m on my way to church.” We agreed and proceeded into town slowly so as not to rush his broken pace. As we walked, Elder Stout and he continued talking. My tongue still hobbled as much as our new friend when it came to speaking Italian.
As they conversed, I studied our friend and realized that, not withstanding the incredibly low temperature, the hand supporting his body on the crutch was gloveless. “Please take this glove for your left hand,” I somehow forced out.
“No, no,” he replied. “Many years ago I spent the winter in Russia as a soldier with less than what I’m wearing now. This is nothing compared to then.”
We neared the church and noticed a large group of people waiting outside. Our friend yelled out, “Hey, these Americans want to sing for you and give you a present!” This wasn’t exactly what we had planned to do, but we sang anyway and gave out one of the three remaining candles. Our friend stood off to the side and smiled.
The night was getting colder and colder, so when we finished, Elder Stout and I asked him to take a glove from one of us to protect his bare hand. Once again he explained that he had undergone winter in Russia many years ago and had suffered much worse.
Then a car stopped near the church, and a well-dressed woman and her young son stepped out. The boy was yelling, upset at the necessity of going to church on the night before his favorite day of the year. While the mother attempted to calm him down, our friend motioned us to them. As we followed his labored steps, he called out, “Hey, these American boys want to sing for you and give you a present!”
We knelt down eye-to-eye with the boy and made our presentation. As the boy, wide-eyed and silent, listened intently to our well-rehearsed carol, I could see our friend smiling and enjoying every minute. When we stood up to wish the mother a merry Christmas, we saw that she had been crying as we sang. She smiled at us, and, before we could say anything, our friend wished them a merry Christmas in a way that only Santa Claus could rival.
We echoed his wishes and turned back to tell our friend that we still had one more candle and planned to continue on until we found someone to give it to.
He looked at the ground and then turned back to us: “Well, it’s too crowded here, anyway. Maybe I’ll go on with you to a smaller church.”
Happy to hear that we would still enjoy his company, we left to find another church. Our limping friend guided us through the quiet streets only to find the other chapel closed. As it got colder and colder, I kept remembering the hand of our friend, trying to sense what it would be like for my bare hand to remain frozen in one position, holding on to a crutch. We both offered our gloves, and again he refused.
As we walked away from the church, we saw two teenage girls walking dejectedly down the street. Within seconds, our friend was yelling, “Hey, these American boys want to sing for you and give you a present!” Remembering that we only had one candle left, not two for both, I became uneasy. But we lit the candle and gave it to one of them.
“What about the other girl?” our friend asked. After Elder Stout explained that we had just given away the last candle, our friend cried, “Wait!” and started fumbling through his pockets. He finally found the candle we had given him and handed it to the other girl. Elder Stout and I sang our carol while our friend stood by smiling. The girls began smiling, too.
When they walked away, Elder Stout said, “Well, that’s the last of our candles. I guess it’s time to go home.” Our friend replied that he would accompany us as far as the other church. When we arrived, we wished one another a merry Christmas and went our separate ways.
Back in our apartment, Elder Stout and I knelt in prayer. We thanked the Lord for making it possible to touch a few hearts and shine a little light on saddened countenances. We also thanked him for the lesson that angels don’t always wear white flowing robes but come in all different sizes, colors, and nationalities. Some walk with crutches.