My brother, sister, and I grew up in the rural town of Blackfoot, Idaho. My family didn’t have a lot of money, but that didn’t stop us from being excited about Christmas. We would wake up early in the morning, sneak into my mom and dad’s room, and ask them if we could get up. They’d say with tired voices, “No. It’s only three o’clock in the morning. Go back to bed.”
So we’d climb back into our beds and wait and wait and think, “Boy, it’s got to be later now.” Then we’d get up again and ask my parents, “Mom, Dad, can we get up now?”
They’d say, “No, it’s only 10 minutes after 3:00. Go back to bed.” It seemed like so long before we’d finally get up to celebrate Christmas.
In those early years, we began to understand the importance of the Savior by celebrating Christmas. By developing a relationship with Him, we were able to make good choices and receive many wonderful gifts in our lives.
True friendship has been one of those gifts. I had several good friends while growing up. The gospel bound us together, and special leaders helped us choose the right. We had a wonderful Sunday School teacher named Eva Manwaring who knew how to handle a group of ruffian boys. I don’t think there were too many sisters who would have put up with us, but she did. Her husband took care of us in Scouts, helping us get our Eagle ranks. I am grateful for good friends and leaders who helped me make good choices, especially the choice to serve a mission.
When I first arrived in Brazil as a missionary, I immediately loved the beautiful, green country and the open, loving, humble people.
The work was often difficult. Representatives of another church would tell the youth to throw rocks at us. We were put in jail. It was hard for people to join the Church, because their neighbors would ostracize them. That was in the late 1950s when the Church didn’t have even one stake in Brazil.
Now there are almost 200 stakes. It has been a spiritual blessing to see the miraculous growth of the Church in Brazil as I’ve returned with my family as a mission president and member of an Area Presidency.
After my first mission was over, I sailed for home on a boat. I stood on the deck and cried as I saw Brazil disappear over the horizon. I’m always excited to return, but it hasn’t gotten easier to say good-bye.
When I got back from my mission, I met a beautiful lady named Sandra Joelene Lyon at stake conference. We both attended Idaho State University in Pocatello but lived in Blackfoot. The best part about commuting was that Sandra and I carpooled in the same group. I could tell she was one of God’s precious daughters, and I knew she was the right one for me to marry. One day I sat next to her in the car and said, “You know, you really ought to write your missionary a ‘Dear John’ letter because you know you’re going to marry me anyway.” It wasn’t quite that simple, but after a couple of years we were married.
We got engaged in December, which makes Christmas especially meaningful. Being married for eternity is the greatest gift we could have given each other. My wife is a wonderful blessing as she provides gifts of love to me, our children, their spouses, and our grandchildren. Her love does much to keep our family united.
After a few years of marriage, Sandra and I had our third child, a little boy named Stephen who was born just three days before Christmas. When he was born, he could not inflate his lungs. He had a valiant little spirit about him. He fought for life, but the doctors said it wasn’t likely he would live. Our bishop invited the ward to join their prayers with ours for our son.
The greatest gift that special Christmas Eve was being able to give him a blessing. After the blessing, I felt prompted to go to Sandra’s hospital room and tell her Stephen was going to be just fine and that she shouldn’t worry. On Christmas morning, the doctors told us Stephen was going to be OK. They had no idea what had happened. It was a miracle. I’m so grateful for the power of the priesthood. We consider Stephen’s survival to be one of our family’s greatest Christmas gifts.
The great gift we receive at Christmas is a remembrance of the Savior’s birth. He is our gift from the Father. Living close to the Savior while growing up helps us to make good decisions. You don’t want to disappoint Him. Forming a testimony while you are young will help you to always appreciate His miraculous sacrifice.
It’s critical to live close to the Savior and know that He is always there and that He always loves you. Following His example and His teachings brings wonderful feelings at Christmas and marvelous blessings in eternity. I testify that the Savior lives. Merry Christmas, beloved brothers and sisters.