Missionaries, like the wisemen of old, travel afar bearing gifts. And they find that when they’re miles away from friends and family at Christmas, they grow closer to Heavenly Father and catch a glimpse of their celestial home.
“Missionary Christmas.” Those two words bring curiosity and perhaps a little fear to those who have never experienced them. To those who have served in the mission field, the words bring warm floods of spiritual memories and love.
We asked New Era readers to share with us their own experiences with Christmas in the mission field, and responses came in from all over the world. Christmas traditions, situations, and climates were different, but the overwhelming spirit of the Savior’s love was the same.
Take a holiday journey with us now, across the globe, to share the unique feelings these elders and sisters experienced at Christmas. Feel their joy as they learn of the mission of Christ, of his birth, and what he means in their lives.
by Elder Greg Nelson
Russia St. Petersburg Mission
It was Christmas Eve around the world, but just another frosty December night in St. Petersburg, Russia. This country celebrated no such holiday.
Our zone had just presented a Christmas program in the huge Kazanski Cathedral, where we sang Christmas songs and read from the book of Luke. It seemed as if our words and notes drifted up to the lofty ceiling and were swallowed by the darkness. But the sparse audience, mostly members and investigators, had partaken of the Spirit.
Our missionary work hadn’t been going well. People didn’t want to listen to two humble young men give them a message of redeeming love. Perhaps because of my discouragement, the Christmas celebration planned for later that evening didn’t hold much appeal for me.
My boots kicked up some new fallen snow and I shoved my bare hands deeper into my pockets. My gloves had been misplaced at a hotel a few days earlier. In this country, you don’t just walk into a store and buy gloves. You need to search.
Suddenly, Elder Redd sat down on a bench in the small park in front of the cathedral. I thought, Oh, now what? I just want to go home where it’s warmer.
Home was not the right thing to think about. It brought a flood of memories I really didn’t want to ponder right then. This was my first Christmas away, and I was feeling down. Where were all the decorations and the hustle and bustle of the holiday season? What about stockings, Christmas trees, and nativity scenes?
We hadn’t been able to get through to the international operator, so it looked as if I couldn’t make my phone call home either.
Tears welled in my eyes. I turned around so my back was to the wind. As I faced the cathedral, everything began to grow quiet. I looked at the majestic structure in front of me, bathed in pale, green light. The stars above were pin dots on a black shade, radiating calmness and peace.
“Silent night, holy night; all is calm, all is bright. …” The phrases softly entered my mind and drifted in whispers from my lips. “Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.” Elder Redd heard me and joined in a little bit louder. There was a feeling of reverence.
As we sang the second and third verses, a warm realization came to me. The joy, happiness, and peace at Christmas come from within. The material things and outward symbols of celebration bring sweet feelings, but only for a short moment.
Instantly, the thought of sharing Christmas with the other elders became appealing. It would be a gathering of friendship and love. We missionaries all needed to strengthen each other.
Christmas is what you make of it. It doesn’t matter if you’re with family and friends or halfway around the world. The real gifts at Christmastime are the fruits of the Spirit. Paul said, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith” (Gal. 5:22). Could one ask for anything more during the celebration of Christ’s birth?
by Elder Lito B. Legaspi
Philippines Tacloban Mission
“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas,” sang Elder Roberts as we decorated the mini-Christmas tree his family in Utah had sent.
A white Christmas is only a dream here in the Philippines. There is no winter. December in this country is bright and sunny. You can see white beaches but not white icy lakes. Coconut trees line up like electrical posts, but there are no pine trees masked by snow. Perspiration rolls down your chin and makes you want to take off your shirt and tie and dive into the sea. (But it’s against mission rules, so you just suffer in silence.)
On the morning of December 25th, the missionaries in our zone were not busy tracting or eating with members; they were cleaning the baptismal font. There was no water in the chapel because of the typhoon that hit Ormoc City and other areas of Leyte. Most of the reservoirs and dams had been destroyed, so we were fetching water from the well. We were hot but happy to be preparing for our baptismal service.
The world was more beautiful and meaningful that day. Families were dressed in white, ready to enter into the waters of baptism. The prelude music added to the spirit, and the sister missionaries sang a beautiful hymn.
After the baptism and confirmation, the newly baptized members had the chance to share their feelings. Their testimonies were sweet, simple, and sincere. One father almost cried when he expressed his gratitude about the baptism of his daughter.
I have learned that a white Christmas can be experienced in many ways. It can be experienced in any place, in any season, and in a more spiritual way. A family dressed in white is one of the greatest gifts. While it can’t be found and wrapped in any store, it is a gift to the Savior worth more than gold or myrrh.
Elder Brad H. Page
Here in Puerto Rico this year everyone was cleaning up after a storm. My companion and I were shoveling mud and pushing water out of people’s homes. I guess I will remember this Christmas on account of the opportunity we had to serve others.
Elder Neal Moore
We enjoyed a Christmas party at the mission home. My thoughts returned to home as we sang carols, and I remembered the past year I was able to spend with friends and parents. I was pleased to be able to feel a similar love for the family of missionaries. I am grateful to be able to look at this life with an eternal perspective and begin to understand the love that our Heavenly Father has for us all by sending his beloved son, Jesus Christ, to fulfill the plan of salvation.
Elder King and Elder Duckworth
The people in Jamaica know the true meaning of Christmas. It’s not so much giving and receiving presents, but attending their churches to have worship services and remembering the birth of Christ.
by Sister Julia Sadleir
Georgia Atlanta Mission
When I was on my mission several years ago, my companion and I rented a studio apartment from Mrs. Hill, an older widow with a strict contract on what she expected while we were living there. It seemed the minute we walked in the house, she would call us to complain. We would always be nice and try harder to please her, but she would constantly find fault.
One incident stands out. We were told not to touch any cats that wandered onto her property. One day we came home and found a cat by our porch. Being an animal lover, my natural instinct took over and I picked the cat up and petted it. Within seconds the phone rang. It was Mrs. Hill, who said, “I saw that! I told you never to touch any cats on my property! I hate cats! I do not want to see this happen again.” I apologized.
Come December it was time to get into the Christmas spirit, so my companion and I made holiday-shaped sugar cookies and decorated them with colored frosting and sprinkles. We made a list of people we planned to give them to, and I said, “Why don’t we include Mrs. Hill? Who knows how she’ll react, but after all, it’s Christmas.”
We put some cookies on a plate and knocked on Mrs. Hill’s back door. When she answered, we said, “Merry Christmas!”
She was touched and also impressed that we had made them ourselves. “I never saw such beautiful cookies,” she said. “They look too pretty to eat. I will have one and save the rest for my grandchildren who are coming to visit today.” She thanked us and wished us a merry Christmas too.
We walked away and couldn’t believe that was the same Mrs. Hill. Even weeks later, she would thank us and inform us she’d told all her friends and family about the beautiful cookies.
Soon she started asking questions about our work. We invited her to take the discussions so she could learn for herself what we share with others. She gladly accepted, so we made an appointment and began teaching Mrs. Hill the gospel. Her countenance changed and she became the nicest person. She loved the Book of Mormon. When she finished it, she shared its truths with others.
It all started with a small plate of cookies. “Out of small things proceedeth that which is great” (D&C 64:33).
Sister Kristie Wilson
I am one of eight sisters working as a welfare missionary in a Vietnamese refugee camp. Since most of the people in camp have never heard of Jesus Christ or Heavenly Father and to help them better appreciate the Savior’s birth, we held a special activity just before Christmas. The Primary children reenacted the manger scene and story as told in Luke. They were as delighted to do it as we were to watch.
Christmas Eve we went caroling through the camp. It was a neat experience to roam through the billets and share the news of the Savior’s birth through song. The Spirit overcame language barriers, and we were avle to celebrate the Savior’s birth with one heart and mind. I have never been so exhausted. I have never been so at peace.
Elder and Sister Gillins
We volunteered to help with the children’s party and make cookies for the adult party. The full-time elders helped with the party. We invited three families to our house for family home evening. And we prepared lunch for all the missionaries in Ibadan. The spirit of love and fellowship and the love of Jesus Christ was very strong during our Christmas as missionaries.
Elder James B. Kunzler
I must say it was really nice not to worry about all that holiday rush everyone else worried about. Spending all our time during the season teaching of the Savior’s life and plan for all his children here on this earth sure put things into perspective. It is a blessing to spend time in the mission field during Christmas even though you are away from home.
Members were a great source of strength to me during the holiday season. They all tried to do what they could to make the time away from home easy on us as missionaries.
I think the highlight of our missionwide conference was when all the missionaries received letters from home. Sister Anderson, the mission president’s wife, had them sent months in advance to read before the closing testimony meeting. The whole building was filled with tear-streaked faces, and I must admit I shed a few myself.
Elder Roy L. Owens
I’m from a family of ten children, and when Christmas comes, things start to get pretty exciting around my house. I was starting to think about home quite a lot, and it was really hurting me to know that I was going to be away from my family. I got on my knees several times and asked for comfort and to ask that my family would be comforted too.
Christmas Day came around, and I can honestly say it was one of the best Christmases I’ve ever had. I’ve never been so close to my Savior, Jesus Christ, during the holidays until this Christmas.
Elder Chris Cole, Elder Aaron Romrell, Elder Lyle Roberts
We didn’t have a Christmas tree, but we did have a tree stand, a string of lights, and a few ornaments. So we took a broom and turned it upside down to make branches for the ornaments. Creating our “tree” built unity in our companionship. Plus is was a lot of fun.
Elder Ian J. Olson
My family sent a package for both my companion and me with 11 gifts as an Advent calendar. With each gift there was a scripture to read, and then we had to guess what the gift could be.
Elder Brian Carroll and Elder Westley Burrell
On Christmas Eve we joined the rest of our zone and went to a local convalescent hospital. We read the Christmas story from the Bible and sang carols to the beautiful people there. We ended our night by telling each other of our love for the Savior. We arose the next morning and sang some Spanish Christmas songs and read the Bible together. This Christmas meant so much to me because I had all my thoughts upon the Savior, Jesus Christ. That is the way it should be as a missionary.