If on one particular day many years ago you had asked me, George what kind of Christmas are you going to have?” I don’t think I could have answered without breaking into tears.
You see, that was the first time in my life that I had been away from home at Christmastime. And when you are your mother’s youngest child like I was, being away from her and your family for the first time at Christmas is hard to endure.
In mid-November of that year, I had left the New York harbor aboard the great ship Mauritania, bound for a two-year mission in the British Isles. After a seasick week I arrived in Southampton, England. I spent a few busy and eventful days in London, and then received my specific assignment. Now, as Christmas approached, I was in a city called Kingston upon Hull. The excitement of travel had worn off and had gradually and completely been replaced by discouragement. I’d been in Hull, as it was called, just one month and I had been homesick since I’d arrived. As day by day and hour by hour Christmas came closer, I began to feel more and more sorry for myself.
To add to my sorrows, the cold damp foggy air filled my lungs as, with my companion, I pedaled my bicycle for miles to call upon those who would listen to messages of the restored gospel. Under such conditions I started to get a runny nose by December the twenty-second. I began to cough on the twenty-third, and on Christmas Eve I had a terrible cold.
As soon as I had arrived in Hull, I had written home:
My address is Elder George Durrant, 4 The Paddock, Anlaby Park, Hull, England. Please let all the family and all of my friends know that if they and you desire to send me Christmas cards and gifts they can send them to that address. Please call as many people and advise them of this as quickly as you can.
I hopefully supposed that this letter would get home in time for the returning mails to bring me some Christmas cards and gifts from family and friends.
Each day I’d wait almost breathlessly for the mailman. He’d be laden with interesting looking packages and envelopes, and I’d throw open the front door wide and reach out and grab the entire pile. Surely at least one-half of these would be mine. With trembling hand I’d pull one from the pile and read. The first one was addressed, “Elder Tagg.” The next one, “Elder Tagg.” The Third, “Elder Tagg.” One after another the same name appeared. I was soon willing to settle for just one. But there wasn’t one. In all, during the week before Christmas my missionary companion Elder Tagg received thirty cards and several gifts. As he’d open each card, I’d have to look away.
Finally, it was the last mail delivery day before Christmas. I had prayed fervently that I’d receive some Christmas greeting from home. The mailman came to the house. He reached out and so did I. To my joy there were seven Christmas cards and a small brown package. One by one I read the addresses and handed the first, the second, and finally all of the cards to Elder Tagg and then I gave him the package. I could tell that he was deeply sorry and I knew that if he could have he would have given me any one or even all of the cards and the gift.
I turned away and ran up the stairs to our bedroom. I felt that I needed time to think. As I sat there on the side of my bed, I placed my bowed head in my hands. I wanted desperately to somehow turn the clock and the calendar ahead and just skip Christmas. I knew I could survive the other 729 days of my mission in England but I didn’t feel that I had the power to get through this first Christmas away from home.
As I sat in deep silence, the landlady, Nellie Deyes, and Elder Tagg came to the open door. She said, “Elder Durrant, I’ve come to say goodbye for a few days.”
I looked up and she was looking away from me and I could sense that her heart was also heavy. “What do you mean, good-bye?” I asked in surprise.
Without answering she turned and was gone. Elder Tagg spoke softly, “The doctors fear that she has cancer. She wanted to wait until after Christmas to go for surgery but she just learned this afternoon that a bed has been made available for her at the hospital and so she must go now.”
I was shocked. She reminded me so much of my mother and I’d grown to love her in the month we’d lived in her home.
I went downstairs to where she and her loving husband were just ready to leave for the hospital. I’ll forever remember the look in her eyes as she said, “Elder Durrant, I love you. Now you be sure and have a good and happy Christmas.” Then she asked if Elder Tagg and I would give her a blessing. Elder Tagg anointed her head with oil. As we both laid our hands upon her head, I poured my heart out to the Lord in prayer that she would soon be well. Later that night she went into surgery. Christmas Eve she died.
When I learned the news, I wanted to pray but I could not. I had had so much love, so much hope, so much faith—and yet she had died. I wondered about many things that foggy Christmas Eve.
Sister Guest, the Relief Society president, had two weeks earlier invited all four of us who served as missionaries in Hull to come at noon on Christmas day for a goose dinner. On Christmas morning at about 11:00 the two other elders came from their home some four miles away to the place where my companion and I lived. The plan was that Elder Tagg and I would go on with them to the dinner. We were all greatly saddened by the passing of Sister Deyes but we knew that she would want us to go.
My cold had indeed worsened and the two elders who hadn’t seen me for a few days commented on my apparent ill health. After discussing the matter with Elder Tagg we decided that I shouldn’t go out into the damp air. Brother Deyes was at home and I said I’d stay with him. The others agreed and soon the three of them were gone.
A grieving Brother Deyes wished to be allowed to remain in solitude, so I was left to myself. It was Christmas day and I was more alone than I’d ever been and more alone than I thought anyone else had ever been.
There were no gifts. There were no cards. There was no Christmas tree. There were no carols. There was nothing. The silence of the room was broken only by the mechanical working of the clock. It was now just past eleven o’clock in the morning of the saddest day of my life and it was Christmas.
I moved closer to the fireplace, which was the only source of heat. The glowing embers seemed to be trying to act as my private Christmas lights. Resenting their attempt to brighten my soul, I picked up the nearby metal poker and prodded at each burning piece of coal to crush out its glow.
I lowered my head and cradled it in my left hand. I sat that way until a clock striking the hour brought me back from where I had been. It was noon.
The room was growing colder now. I arose and poured some coal onto the few embers that remained. Now the fire gave off no heat because the new coals had covered the hot ones. I pulled my chair closer to the fireplace. Almost accidentally I looked on the mantel and there I saw my Bible. I stood and reached out and grasped it and sat back down. I really didn’t want to read. I was far too sad to read. Yet at the same time, as a new missionary, I needed to know so much. The others knew so much and I seemed to know so little.
It wouldn’t hurt to read a little—just a page or two. I opened the book beyond the middle and found my eyes focused on the words. “The gospel according to St. Matthew.”
I didn’t want to read I wanted to be home. With clenched fist I hit the open book and then shook my head almost as if I were saying “no” to every painful feeling that filled my sorrowed soul.
Because the pages were right in the line of my sight, I found myself staring at all the words at once. Without a conscious effort I focused on the first verse. I read, “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”
Like obedient servants my eyes continued reading the genealogy of Jesus, but my mind was not willing to let the words become thoughts. A few seconds later it was almost as if the words on the page forced my eyes and my mind to concentrate. Completely captive I read, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.”
Placing the fingers of my left hand at the bottom of this sacred verse I looked up at the mantel above the fireplace but I really wasn’t looking at all. I wondered, What does this mean? How did it say it? I looked back at the page and read again, “She was found with child of the Holy Ghost.”
I felt an incredible sense of wonder. Somehow, through a process beyond my intellect, I sensed that what I had just read was among the most important truths ever known. My eyes lifted slightly and I read the entire verse again, this time in an audible whisper, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph …” I paused and wondered, What does espoused mean? I read on,” … before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.”
I knew I had heard all this before. But somehow I’d never really heard it with my heart.
To my mind my heart whispered, “So Mary is his mother, but Joseph isn’t his father.”
I noticed a small reference letter “I” near the words “of the Holy Ghost.” I looked at the appropriate footnote and read “Luke 1:35.” I rapidly turned the pages ahead and eagerly read, “And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”
Letting the book rest in my lap, I stared at the coals in the fireplace, which were just now beginning to turn from black to orange. Gently I whispered, “The Son of God.” A surge of energy went up and down my spine as I felt my soul fill with light. In a louder voice and with pure knowledge I softly said, “Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” That thought caused me to sit more erect.
With half a smile, I turned back the pages to Matthew.
I read on until I came to the words, “… the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream.” I wondered, Are there really angels? And within my soul I heard the glorious message, “Yes, there are angels.”
A few seconds later I was in the midst of my own Christmas pageant. “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
“Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.”
Again I let the book rest in my lap as my mind flooded with memories. I remembered when I had proudly taken the part of a wise man in the Christmas pageant. Because of that memory and the feelings of my heart, my face was now fully covered by a broad smile.
I read on, “… the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
“When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.”
As I pictured in my mind that holy star, I could see my mother and father in the doorway looking at the newly decorated Christmas tree in our front room. I could hear my father reminding me, “George, don’t forget the star for the top of the tree.” That thought caused me to sit and just stare at the glowing embers. Oh, how I loved my father and mother, and for a few minutes I was at home with them.
I continued to read, “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.”
The fire was now giving off a great warmth but it seemed that the greater fire burned within me. For, in my soul I knew that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, that he had been born in Bethlehem, that a star had shone over where he lay. As I continued to read, I knew that he was baptized in the waters of the Jordan, I knew that he was tempted of the devil but that he overcame all temptation. I knew that he was speaking and challenging me when he said, “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.” (Matt. 5:8.) Oh, how I longed to be pure in heart! Of all the goals of life, I could think of none that would be so desirable as to be pure in heart.
As I read every page, paragraph, line, and word of the book of Matthew, I could see and I could feel. As I read of his crucifixion, I remembered the words of the song, “Were you there when they crucified our Lord?” And I was, for as I read I was there and in my heart I trembled. As I read of his resurrection, I rejoiced. My soul was filled with hope as I finally read the last two verses of Matthew. I could almost hear his voice as he spoke directly to me:
“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:
“Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”
Slowly I closed the book and with both hands I held it close to me. To myself I said, “Jesus Christ is the Son of God. There are angels. He did live and teach and love and perform miracles and was cruelly crucified and then he rose again. He is my Savior and this is his Church. I’m one of those he has sent forth. He is with me forever.”
As I sat there holding my Bible, it was late on Christmas afternoon. Never had I been so happy in such an inward way. On that glorious day I had found the one who is the heart of Christmas.
I had found him when I felt forgotten by my family and friends. I had found him when I felt the pain of being away from home. I had found him when the death of someone I loved had torn at my heart. I had found him when I felt hopeless. I had found him because in a sense I’d followed the star of Bethlehem. I had learned what so many have learned, that following the star, and never forgetting, is not always easy. Sometimes the nearer the star takes us to the stable and the garden and the cross, the more difficult the journey becomes.
That Christmas in England I learned that Christmas can be Christmas without a multitude of things. Colorful decorations, green-boughed trees, greeting cards, gifts, and Santa Claus each have their own special way of gladdening our senses and delighting our hearts. But Christmas cannot be Christmas without Christ. On that holy day uncontrollable circumstances had pushed all else aside and left me free to follow the star. On that day I learned that Christ does not just fit into Christmas. He is not just part of Christmas. Jesus Christ is Christmas. In the years since, I’ve learned that the pressures and selfish desires of life can push themselves between me and him. If I want to “not forget” the star, I must take the time to be alone with him. I must read of him, think of him, and pray to be near him. Then in the east I see the star. I follow it. I find him and when I do I feel free—free to let my soul soar into the realms of the sacred and indescribable joy that I found first in England many Christmases ago.