As a young missionary, I spent three Christmases in Tonga. Christmas there is during the hottest, most humid season of the year. But the Christmas spirit felt just the same as it did in my homeland, where Christmas is a winter holiday.
People thought more about others and less about themselves. There was lots of music and singing, and the feeling of peace and good cheer seemed to permeate everything.
There was not a lot of material gift giving, since there weren’t a lot of things to give. But people gave marvelous gifts of love, service, and kindness.
A few days before Christmas, a nine-year-old child who had come to spend the holiday with her grandparents developed a high fever. Her grandparents spent all their time caring for her, but the fever seemed to get worse. They called for the missionaries to give her a blessing. We did, and felt prompted to tell her everything would be all right. Then we went on about our other activities.
The day before Christmas, I was visiting various families with a teacher from the local Church school. As we concluded our visits, I asked him where else we should go that Christmas Eve. He said, “I’ve heard ‘Ofa’s granddaughter is still quite ill, and the grandfather is out of town. I’m sure ‘Ofa is very tired. Why don’t we volunteer to care for her granddaughter tonight and let ‘Ofa get some rest?”
I thought, What a great idea! Why don’t I think of things like that?
It was early evening when we arrived at ‘Ofa’s house. As we explained what we wanted to do, I saw gratitude in her eyes. ‘Ofa looked at us a long time and then said, “She is very ill. I have been taking care of her day and night the last three days. I’m not sure I can stay awake another night. Thank you. Thank you!”
She then explained she’d been using a cloth dipped in water and a woven fan to cool her granddaughter and give her some air. All the girl had done for the last two days was moan.
“I’m not sure if she will get well or not,” ‘Ofa said. “Maybe I should try to stay up with you and help.”
My companion said, “No, you go on and rest. We’ll fan her and cool her forehead, and she’ll be all right. You go get some sleep.” ‘Ofa finally left. I imagine she was asleep the second she got to her room.
We immediately started waving the fan and cooling the girl’s forehead. She seemed in a bad way. Her breathing was strange, her fever high, her eyes closed, and her moans pathetic.
We devised a system where one of us would hold the wet cloth and the other fan the air through it to get some moist air moving around her mouth and head. It doesn’t sound like much work, but the anxiety of the situation, the sweltering evening, and the effort to get water, rinse the cloth, and constantly wave the fan, caused us both to soon tire. I appreciated what ‘Ofa had been through the last few days.
There was an old wind-up clock where we were. Around 11:00 P.M. we realized we were going to have to do something different to make it through the night. My companion again came up with an idea.
“Why don’t we take turns?” he said. “You sleep for an hour. Then I’ll wake you, and you care for her for an hour while I sleep. Then you wake me, and so on. We’ll get through the night that way.”
“Fine,” I said. “Who should start?”
“I’ll start,” he replied. “You rest first.” At midnight he woke me, and I fanned with one hand and sponged her forehead with the other until 1:00 A.M. Then I woke him. He did likewise and woke me at 2:00 A.M. I again woke him at 3:00 A.M. I knew I would be awakened for my next turn at 4:00 A.M. I was very tired but felt we would make it through the night all right.
The next thing I remember is sunlight streaming into my eyes. I suddenly awakened, jumped up, and said, “My goodness! What time is it?”
“It’s six o’clock.”
“Six o’clock! Why didn’t you wake me at four o’clock?” I asked.
He smiled broadly, a smile that came from deep within and seemed to encompass his whole being as he said, “Oh, you looked so tired. I decided to let you sleep. That’s my present to you. Merry Christmas!”
I couldn’t say anything. Again I thought, Why don’t I think of things like that? My companion stayed up for me! I thought of the Savior coming to his sleeping disciples and asking, “Could ye not watch with me one hour?” (Matt. 26:40). The Savior stayed up nearly all night performing one of the greatest works this world will ever know, while those close to him slept.
I felt a little ashamed, yet I also felt happy, as I could see the joy in my companion’s face. He hadn’t been able to give me anything else for Christmas. There was, literally, nothing material for him to give. But what he could give he had given freely, just by letting me sleep.
I wonder how many of us, in our Christmas giving and our giving all year long, think of not just exchanging material possessions, but of giving of ourselves, fully and freely. True giving comes from the heart, not the wallet.
Sometime during those early morning hours, the girl’s semi-delirious moaning ceased, her fever broke, and we could tell the crisis was over. She stirred and opened her eyes.
We waited until midmorning and then knocked on the door to wake up ‘Ofa. She responded quickly, possibly expecting the worst. As she came out on the porch, her granddaughter was there, sitting with us. We were all smiles as we said in unison, “Merry Christmas!”