Latter-day Saint Voices: A Season of Celebration

By Julio Cesar Sonoda

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    Christmas, President Gordon B. Hinckley reminds us, “began with the singing of angels at Bethlehem.” We sometimes forget, however, that the life we celebrate at Christmas “ended on Golgotha’s cruel cross.” President Hinckley observes that “there would be no Christmas if there had not been Easter. The babe Jesus of Bethlehem would be but another baby without the redeeming Christ of Gethsemane and Calvary, and the triumphant fact of the Resurrection” (“The Wondrous and True Story of Christmas,” Liahona, December 2000, 4, 6). • This season of celebration reminds us that, because of the Savior, love is ultimately more powerful than hate, life’s joys transcend its pain and sorrow, and simple acts of kindness and compassion can change hearts. In the following pages, we glimpse in the lives of Latter-day Saints the power for good “the wondrous and true story of Christmas” can have for each of us—if we but let it.

    My Last Christmas in the Mission

    It was my last Christmas in the Brazil Rio de Janeiro North Mission. I would soon be returning to my home elsewhere in Brazil, and I was happy about the Christmas season. My companion, Elder Barney, was an American who had been in Brazil for only a short time. He was fighting homesickness.

    We had been working hard, but we still weren’t sure how to celebrate Christmas. We hoped a family would invite us to spend Christmas with them, and eventually one family did. However, I wondered about some of the other missionaries in our area. On our next trip to Vitória, my companion and I learned that Elder Jones and Elder Junot didn’t have any Christmas plans. I thought within myself, These elders are my family while I’m on my mission. We can’t leave them alone on Christmas. The four of us decided we would spend Christmas together in Vitória.

    We made plans for a special dinner on Christmas Eve. Although we didn’t have much money, we knew the Lord would bless us.

    On Christmas Eve I recorded my feelings in my journal: “Today is 24 December. It has rained a lot, and I see that my companion is sadder. He says he misses the symbols of Christmas he is used to seeing in his country—snow, music, trees, and decorations. I can imagine how hard his Christmas will be since he is so far away from his family, his people, and his customs. The rain continues to fall, but it is lighter now.”

    I looked at my companion and sensed his homesickness. I wanted him to be happy.

    On the bus trip to Vitória, we could see people hurrying to make their Christmas purchases. We went by a house illuminated with colored lights. Children played in the gardens. Tears filled my eyes, and I could not speak to my companion because I knew I would cry. He seemed to be crying silently. For Elder Junot, Elder Jones, and me, this Christmas was our last on the mission. But it was Elder Barney’s first, and I didn’t know how to console him. During the trip, I cried several times but concealed it. And my companion concealed his tears from me.

    We got off the bus and went to the other missionaries’ apartment. We put our money together, and Elder Junot and Elder Jones went out to make the purchases. After they returned with the food, we set the table with a white tablecloth and napkins and placed Christmas cards on it for decoration. But even this didn’t seem to lift our spirits.

    Seeing this, Elder Jones suggested we get out our hymnbooks and sing hymns to the Lord. We sang one, then one more, and then another. And we sang louder each time. I wanted the neighborhood to hear our singing and know that we were worshiping the Lord. We started to feel the Spirit of the Lord.

    After the singing, Elder Jones shared a scripture about the birth of Christ. Then everyone read from the scriptures. We bore our testimonies about our Redeemer.

    When Elder Barney shared his testimony, he explained, “I was missing the things that are familiar to me—the snow, the Christmas tree, the turkey, the Christmas music of my country. I forgot to be concerned about the Son of God born in a manger.” We had tears in our eyes, for the Spirit testified in our hearts that we had worshiped the Creator of the day. We thanked the Lord for all He had given us.

    It was my last Christmas in the mission, but it was the first true Christmas I ever spent.

    “For Thy Good”

    I was reared in the Philippines by strict but loving grandparents. My grandfather’s favorite phrase was, “It’s for your own good.” He used it whenever I acted stubborn or failed to finish a chore. He always said that the things he asked of me would help me become better prepared when I grew up. Although I didn’t fully comprehend his words, young as I was, I obeyed—if for no other reason than to avoid further sermons.

    My grandparents were religious people. By the time I was five, I knew there was a loving God who blessed us as we obeyed His commandments. Going to church on Sundays was a must, and singing hymns, reading Bible stories, and praying were part of our daily routine. I felt temporally and spiritually blessed. We were happy and content.

    Then events came into my life that shattered my peace like the sudden blow of unpredicted bad weather. My grandparents died unexpectedly one Christmas season when I was a teenager. The sorrow I felt seemed to ruin forever the joys and anticipation of Christmas. A couple of months later, my parents’ home burned down. A year later, my mother was in a car accident that left her an invalid. Then my father lost his job.

    Tribulations beset me like a storm. With little money, I lost hope of earning a college degree. The demands of household chores drained me of energy.

    Confused and battered emotionally and spiritually, I began to doubt God’s existence. I began to ask why He had allowed such adversity to come into my life when I had always tried to obey Him. The whys continued to bother me, and with no answers, I slowly drifted away from the church I was attending at the time. For years I searched other religions for answers and relief, but nothing satisfied me.

    One bright summer afternoon, a close friend invited me to meet the Latter-day Saint missionaries. They impressed me with their polite greeting and neat appearance, and I was curious about their name tags, which bore the name of Jesus Christ. Somewhere inside my soul, a soft but clear voice seemed to whisper, Hear their message; it’s for your own good. The familiar phrase echoed in my mind.

    As I listened to the discussions, my faith in God’s existence was gradually restored, and I accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ. Following my baptism, I found that my lifelong questions had answers. I read in Doctrine and Covenants 122:5–7 [D&C 122:5–7] the Lord’s words to the Prophet Joseph Smith: “If thou art called to pass through tribulation … all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.” I have come to realize that great blessings did come from my trials, for they led me to the true fold of God.

    Looking back on my experiences, I realize they truly were for my good—just as Grandfather had said.

    From Lonely to Joyful

    As Christmas approached one year, I was physically and mentally exhausted. My marriage had ended the summer before, and my three children and I had recently moved to a new location to attend a university, where I was studying for a teaching degree. I had no money, and my two boys, ages 16 and 12, and my kindergarten-age daughter needed warm clothing for the cold winter weather.

    While I studied for finals, thoughts about my situation kept interrupting me. My cupboards were bare, I had very little money, and I was tired of trying to be both father and mother to my children. I’d had a temple marriage, had been active in the Church all my life, and had just wanted to stay home and raise my children. Life seemed so unfair.

    My first exam was at 7:30 A.M. I left our apartment hoping my boys would remember to get their little sister off to school on time. The air was cold and the sky very dark. I took a shortcut through the cemetery, feeling I was on my way to failure. I had spent half the night studying and trying to remember what I had studied. I felt too old to compete with the young minds of other students.

    As I tramped through the snow, I thought about my parents, who were coming to pick us up and take us to spend Christmas at my sister’s home, a home where there would be a large tree and a mountain of gifts. And here I was unable to buy shoes for my own children. My feelings of resentment continued to build. By the time I reached the building for my final exams, I was in a terrible mood. I tried to concentrate but felt I did poorly on my exams. All I wanted was to go home, go to bed, and stay there for two weeks!

    I began to trudge home through the snow once again. I stopped at my daughter’s school to pick her up, but her teacher said she had gone home. That did it! I had asked her to wait for me, and now I was mad at her for not waiting. Entering the cemetery I spotted her bright blue parka poking out from behind a tombstone. She was hiding from me, waiting for me to pass so she could jump out and scare me, but I was in no mood for games. I walked on, pretending not to see her. Then I heard her shout, “Mama, Mama, wait for me!”

    I turned on her, ready to chastise her for not waiting. But before I could say anything she shoved an envelope in my hands. “Mama,” she said, “look what I made you today. You can open it. It’s for Christmas. I made it just for you!”

    I opened the envelope, and inside was a handmade Christmas card with “Merry Christmas” printed in a child’s scrawl. She had drawn Santa flying through the air and little houses beneath him. She had drawn in the corner of the card another scene—a picture of a baby. But this was no ordinary baby. With yellow crayon she had drawn lines all around Him, signifying radiant beams shining from heaven above. There was a halo above His head, and with the brightest red crayon she could find she had drawn a great big smile on His face. No, this wasn’t just any baby. This was baby Jesus, the baby who would grow up to become the Savior of the world.

    I looked at baby Jesus. I had been baptized in His name; I belonged to His Church, which had been restored upon the earth; it was in His name that I prayed for strength, guidance, and direction. He had always been there for me. I love baby Jesus, I said to myself.

    As I acknowledged my love for Him, something wonderful happened to me. Even though I had been freezing before, a great warmth swept over me. I felt His love envelop me. He loved me; He really did.

    I began to count my blessings, including my children. The night before, my 12-year-old son had given me one dollar that he had earned baby-sitting so I could buy bread and milk. And my young daughter who stood before me—I had waited seven years hoping for this child. What a blessing she had been in my life.

    Now she looked up at me, her brown eyes sparkling with the excitement of Christmas. Her naturally curly hair poked out from the hood of her parka; her little nose was red from cold. “Mama, don’t you like my picture?” she asked.

    “Oh, I love your picture,” I told her. “It’s beautiful!”

    “Then why are you crying?” she asked me.

    “I’m crying because I love you and your brothers very much. I’m happy we are a family and can be together this Christmas. That’s the most important thing in the world right now. We are going to have a wonderful Christmas.”

    I took hold of my daughter’s hand, and we began to sing Christmas carols as we skipped down the snowy path.

    It has been more than 30 years since that special Christmas. I passed my exams and went on to become a schoolteacher. But the lesson of that one Christmas has warmed me many times since as I recall the gift of love that touched my heart that day.

    [illustration] Detail from Christ in Gethsemane, by Harry Anderson

    [illustrations] Illustrated by Brian Call