It was just a few days before Christmas in Western Australia, and all the missionaries were excited about the scheduled mission Christmas party. But no one could have been as excited as I was. It had been two weeks since I had received any mail from home, so I was sure I would receive my Christmas package at the mission party.
In our mission, all mail went to the mission office and was forwarded from there. A short mail strike had just ended, so the office staff had decided to hold everyone’s mail and bring it to the party as early Christmas presents. Anyone who knows how much letters and packages mean to a missionary will appreciate the intent behind this plan.
There were 108 missionaries in our mission, but only 107 got mail that day. It was difficult watching everyone with their Christmas packages, cards, and letters, but I tried to appear as though I was having a good time. My parents had told me in an earlier letter that a package was on its way. So I kept telling myself that it must have been delayed by the mail strike.
The day after the party was the last mail delivery day before Christmas. Once again I was disappointed when no mail arrived from home. I began to focus on Christmas day and the dinner my companion and I had been invited to enjoy at the home of some Church members. I knew this family from my first area of service and always looked forward to the quality and quantity of the food they typically prepared for the missionaries.
On Christmas Eve, we received a call from the zone leaders, who informed us that the mission president had decided no one was to leave their area on Christmas Day. They instructed us to cancel all plans to do so.
I was devastated. It just did not seem fair that all of these things should make my Christmas so miserable. I kept thinking, Here I am dedicating my life to the work of the Lord and this is the “thanks” I get.
Since we had no telephone in our apartment, my companion and I had to impose on our landlady to phone our regrets to the family. Sensing our disappointment at having to cancel our plans, she invited us to join her for Christmas dinner. We gladly accepted the invitation.
Upon returning to our apartment, I lay staring at our borrowed 12-inch aluminum Christmas tree. It sure didn’t look like any of the trees we had back home. This isn’t what Christmas is all about, I kept thinking until I fell asleep.
I awoke Christmas morning to find a Christmas present under our little tree. It was addressed to me from my companion. Overwhelmed by shame, I pretended I didn’t see the gift. I suggested that we get dressed and go do some contacting at the city park. As we rode our bikes to the center of town, we did not see a single person. There were no children to race us on our bicycles and no cars to contend with at the intersections. The normally bustling park was completely deserted. With little reason to stay in town, we headed back to our apartment. Along the way, we stopped at the only shop open for business. My companion began visiting with the shopkeeper, so I tried to discreetly select a gift.
This was not easy since the store catered mainly to convenience shopping. I did manage to make my purchase, and we returned home.
I made up an excuse to keep my companion occupied while I placed the box of chocolate-covered hazelnuts under the tree. Unfortunately, he saw me and suggested that I open my gift from him.
I will never forget the embarrassment I felt as I unwrapped the present. Inside the homemade wrapping paper I found several little items, including a mechanical pencil and some erasers.
There was little monetary value to the gifts, but the value of the lesson I learned can hardly be measured. At that moment, I recognized that I had been right the previous evening. This isn’t what Christmas is all about. It’s not about packages, presents, and decorations. Christmas is about thinking of others and giving of oneself.
I had become so wrapped up in self-pity that I had completely forgotten the true meaning of this special day.
My companion, though, just as far away from home as I was, had remembered the purpose of Christmas. He went to the effort of buying, wrapping, and putting the gift under the tree without my even knowing. He quietly gave me the joy I seemed unable to find on my own. My sad attempt to make up for my thoughtlessness was just that, a sad attempt.
I have come to look upon that Christmas experience as one of my favorites. My missionary companion gave me one of the greatest gifts anyone could receive—an understanding of the true meaning of Christmas.
I still have the pencil given to me those many years ago. Each time I use it, I am reminded of the real gift he gave me that morning.