From a Christmas long, long ago (but still in this galaxy):
The first thing different was the heat. I hadn’t even gotten off the plane yet, it was
the first week of December, and it had to be at least 85 degrees outside. In addition to my 100% wool suit, I was wearing a full-length winter coat that I’d had on since I left the MTC at 4 o’clock that morning. “How could anyone here even remember Christmas when it’s so hot?” I mumbled to myself. This mission thing was definitely going to take some getting used to.
I’d been called to serve in the Arizona Tempe Mission for The Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints. Both my mission president and his wife were the most loving, generous people I had ever met, and Sister George’s “celestial sauce” was, well, celestial!
But like most missionaries, I was half-excited and half-terrified to be on a mission, where everything and everyone seemed to be so new and so different. After we arrived at the mission home and had an orientation meeting and meal, we met individually with President George. It was then that I learned that my first area would be 100 miles to the south in Tucson, and that I would be serving with an elder that was one month from completing his mission. What had already seemed like the longest day of my life became two hours longer, as several very tired missionaries loaded our bright, shiny suitcases back into the mission van and headed south.
The next few weeks were a blur of tracting, teaching, and lots and lots of doors
shutting in our faces. My senior companion was a wonderful missionary with lots of
wisdom to share, and there seemed to be little if any time to even think about, let alone to feel any longing for home and family One of the families we were teaching seemed especially promising. The father had been disabled while serving in the military and was unable to provide for his wife, two young daughters, and a newborn baby girl. Although they faced the challenge everyday of finding the basics of life, they had a bright, hopeful outlook and humbly responded to the gospel message we shared. At the conclusion of our second discussion we invited them to be baptized, and both husband and wife answered affirmatively. It would be my first baptism!
With just a week to go until Christmas, I began to allow occasional thoughts of
home and family to intrude. The holidays just wouldn’t be the same, especially Christmas morning. That was always the big moment for our family. We’d usually wake up (if we’d slept at all!) at 4am and then watch in agony as the minutes passed by like hours. I couldn’t really even remember most of the gifts that I’d received over the years, but the magic of the moment was still as fresh and pungent as the Douglas fir tree we would decorate every year. I don’t remember if I’d even asked for anything (white shirts and cookies, maybe?) Mostly what I wanted was to just be with my family, to sit back and watch as my younger siblings delighted in what Santa had brought them.
One evening as we were talking about this special family we were teaching,
someone suggested it would be a great idea to do a “Secret Santa” for them, complete with presents, food, maybe even a fully decorated Christmas tree. Within a day or two, and with the help of many willing local Church members, we had gathered a wonderful variety of gifts, special treats and well as food essentials, and a decked-out Christmas tree (no doubt grown in Oregon!) to boot. The best part of all was a Santa Claus suit someone had donated. With the help of our most well-fed missionary and his companion, neither of whom had ever met the family, we loaded up several mission cars and drove over to their very humble home.
Not wanting to be seen, my companion and I stood on each side of the porch as
“Santa” knocked on the door. As the family welcomed him and his helper into their
home, all we could do was listen as Christmas happened inside. Standing there in the dark, listening to the squeals of delight from the little girls, I felt something I’d never before experienced. This was Christmas. The real Christmas. This was why I was here, why I had left home and family to serve people I’d never met in a place I’d never before been to. An intense sweetness washed away any lingering doubt or feelings of homesickness. We drove quietly back to our little missionary apartment, the silence around us filled not with darkness but with the light of giving and receiving.