While her parents and siblings lived in the bush of Malawi, this 21-year-old girl grew up alone with her uncle in the city. When she met the missionaries she spoke broken English and couldn’t attempt to read a full verse in the Book of Mormon.
She spent her days washing, cleaning, cooking, and going to market for her uncle. She joined the Church, still with little knowledge but a great desire to grow in truth.
Ever since her baptism she worked with the missionaries multiple times a week, improving her English but not helping her living conditions. On Christmas day we went to visit her in her concrete house that seemed to be sagging in the rain. As we handed her a small gift, she was overcome, holding in her hands the only present she had received for Christmas.
Tears filled my eyes, thinking of the package I had just opened that morning from my family, filled with such a generous offering.
What a heart-changing season Christmas time is. This is a season when hearts and hands are opened to one another in love. Something in the very air we breathe influences each of us to become a little more forgiving, a little more generous, and a little more compassionate to the needy.
Many families take the time to serve in their communities and some even donate money or goods to humanitarian efforts. As we bustle around town picking up last minute gifts and musing about how people will react to our best-laid plans, our hearts naturally feel a greater sense of gratitude for the blessings we’ve received and feel in greater debt to the Lord for all that He has given us. Both our literal and emotional houses are decorated with lovely things.
Amidst the quintessential joy of Christmas our hearts can also ache for those that will not experience such a privileged Christmas as we will. Tremendous pangs of guilt sweep over me at times, knowing so vividly how others are living while I am experiencing relative pomp and circumstance. At least, that was once my perspective. My Christmas last year in Africa changed my outlook.
I was 6 months into my full-time mission serving in Blantyre, Malawi during the holiday time. My first rainy season in Africa had begun and, along with my first Christmas away from home, I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that it would be nothing like a Christmas in Alpine, Utah with my family—no trees, no lights, no stockings, no snow, and absolutely nothing that looked remotely familiar to December 25th.
My heart was tempted to feel homesick but I made a decision that I would make it the best Christmas of my life. And it was.
Instead of decked out Christmas parties garnished with perfect details, we had a simple gathering as missionaries. And instead of playing music and comparing notes on wrapping paper, we prepared our hearts and had the most resplendent sacrament meeting any of us had ever experienced. What better way to celebrate Christ’s birth than to take emblems of him out of pure remembrance?
We all knelt where we were in the tiny chapel as the Elders blessed the sacrament. All of those faithful knees undoubtedly made it holy ground. As each set-apart servant partook of the bread and the water the light tangibly grew in the room. My mission president voiced what I had so distinctly felt—the Savior had been present.
Nothing would stop the Savior from being in the midst of cleansed, purified servants on His errand. Of all the places in the world, that is exactly where He would be found.
The residual feelings from that sacred hour continued with my companion and me as we set out to bring Christ to every person we could possibly find and teach. We battled the great downpours of rain, armed with candy and cake, as we made our way up and down the steep, muddy hills of Blantyre.
Trash flowed through the rivers of rainwater as we hiked from house to house bearing the message, “What is your gift to Christ this Christmas?” Even whilst sitting on floors in nearly barren houses, each person we taught so earnestly desired to give to the Christ child.
With absolutely nothing in the way of possessions they still felt they had something to give. And each was so grateful to receive plastic baggies of candy and cake. For most of them, this was the only gift they received. Though their physical lives were impoverished, their spirits were replete with the hope of the new born Babe in Bethlehem. No tinsels bedecked their beleaguered homes, but their souls were trimmed with gratitude and grace.
After visiting countless families and individuals, we helped cook a Christmas dinner to share with a family in our branch. We could barely hear each other over the patter of rain on the corrugated tin roof as we cooked over the mbaula (charcoal stove), but that didn’t stop them from singing and dancing as they worked.
With happy hearts and soggy dresses, we finally sat down with the family and feasted upon macaroni, mince meat, and coleslaw—a Christmas meal unlike any other in my life.
All things “Christmas” had been stripped away. Nothing I had learnt to signify this time of year was present. No evergreens embellished the cement houses. No strings of light created that warm, romantic glow. No stockings were hung. No delicately wrapped gifts could be found. No scent of baked goods lingered in the air. No caroling. No “White Christmas” or “It’s a Wonderful Life”. No nativity scenes or even acting out the nativity. No fancy meals or huge groups of extended family. Nothing. The day was cleared of all things familiar and only refilled with the utter epitome of the day—Jesus Christ.
What made it my most memorable Christmas of all was not how the physical surroundings were decorated but how my own heart was adorned with the Christmas Spirit—the most genuine celebration of Christmas I could have experienced.
The day was spent in unadulterated service and worship of Christ the Lord. It was as if time had turned back and we lived in an era where instead of commercialism at the head, it was adoration for Jesus of Nazareth. There could be no better way to celebrate someone’s life than to learn of their life and legacy and continue doing as they would do.
The most consecrated man I ever met on my mission was a branch president who understood what it meant to continue Christ’s legacy. During this particularly extreme rainy season, he was not deterred in fulfilling His duties and going the extra mile (literally) to serve the branch members. So many Sundays we would see him walking into the gate with his lunch box, prepared to eat a small meal after church services and then continue on through the hills of our area in the rain to visit members who were in need.
His anthem was, “Never miss an opportunity,” and that was how he lived his life. He never missed an opportunity to visit, love, serve, and lift, though his house was far from the meetinghouse and his family attended a different branch. The spirit with which he went about his service ignited a fire within the branch that influenced everyone to be more genuine in magnifying their callings and loving the Savior.
At our branch Christmas party we sat on the grass surrounding the tiny meetinghouse and ate rice and chicken with our hands. This branch president went around playing games with all ages—soccer with the men, red rover with the youth, and helped do dishes with the women.
The light in his face as he greeted each branch member made it evident that he was not doing all of these things for himself or his own glory, but out of sheer love for Him whom we were celebrating.
If I had sat down with the World for Christmas dinner and told her about this unadorned celebration of this often secularized holiday, she would have haughtily smirked and written it off as of absolutely no worth. Everything she would appreciate was absent.
But gloriously, instead of sitting down to eat with the World, I dined with the Savior that day, feasting upon his everlasting light and inviting all to dine with us at His bounteously spread table. “Yea, he saith: Come unto me and ye shall partake of the fruit of the tree of life; yea, ye shall eat and drink of the bread and the waters of life freely,” (Alma 5:34). “Behold, doth he cry unto any, saying: Depart from me? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; but he saith: Come unto me all ye ends of the earth, buy milk and honey, without money and without price,” (2 Nephi 26:25). His invitation to all is to experience such marvelous joy and genuine celebration.
He doesn’t need our well-planned parties or our hours of shopping, He needs our broken hearts and contrite spirits. He needs our offerings of love and selflessness to our neighbors, families, and friends. He needs our hands and our hearts and our eyes and our ears to act on His behalf.
Christmas in Africa was simple. But it changed my heart more than any other Christmas. It wasn’t the outward displays that indicated someone’s wealth but the untarnished, private acts of love for the Savior that made the season special. Though the décor and the secular traditions were absent, the spiritual houses of the Saints were prepared for Christ’s birth. “For where your treasure is there will your heart be also,” (3 Nephi 13:21).
Though they had nothing in the way of worldly possession, the way they celebrated Christmas made it evident that great mansions were prepared for them in heaven. “But blessed are the poor who are pure in heart, whose hearts are broken, and whose spirits are contrite, for they shall see the kingdom of God coming in power and great glory unto their deliverance; for the fatness of the earth shall be theirs,” (D&C 56:18).