Cover image: Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami.

Christmas day of 2004 is etched in my memory. I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news of the most devastating natural disaster in recorded history. December 26, 2004 (Christmas day in North America), brought unimaginable destruction when a powerful earthquake caused a series of tsunami waves to rip across 14 different nations in Asia-Pacific.

Jakarta, Indonesia, one of the hardest places hit, was of particular interest to me. To my knowledge, my nephew was there. I quickly called my sister, who eventually heard from him. He and his girlfriend were safe in Thailand. They had decided to explore the temples in the mountains of Phuket instead of the beach.

“Things are in complete chaos here,” they reported. They hoped to give blood and help in any way possible. Their emotions were high and need to help dashed, when officials told them to just go home. More than 220,000 people lost their lives that day, over 170,000 in Indonesia alone.

Yet, death did not take its toll on the Indonesian island of Simeulue. As soon as the Nais people felt the earth tremble and realized the ocean was being pulled from shore, the cries rang out: “Smong! Smong!”  Even the little children of the Nais knew to run to the hills when they heard the cry of “Smong;” for they had learned the stories, sang the songs, and practiced it in play.  The Nais handed down the knowledge of “Smong!” from generation to generation, instilling it in their culture.  “Smong!” – the Nais word for tidal wave – saved their lives.

For many, this was not the case. No sirens sounded a warning; no national broadcasts or communication raised a voice of danger; no high-tech warning system sounded an alarm.  In fact, instead of fleeing toward the hills when the ocean’s tide receded and emptied the shoreline, some excitedly went to gather the uncovered shells. Sadly, many had never learned the signs of Smong. 

“Simeulue had preserved an unusually strong sense of local learning, rooted in stories, song, and play. The 1907 and 2004 tsunamis have both become part of that tradition, researchers Alfi Rahman, Aiko Sakurai, and Khairul Munadi wrote in 2017.

“Localized knowledge like this can save lives. Researchers concluded that the system had worked when ‘even a high-tech warning system with a 15-minute response time would have been of no help.’” [1]

Knowledge is power. Latter-Day Saints have great knowledge that could save all people. We know who we are, where we came from, what we need to do while we are here on earth, and where we will go when our mortal journey becomes a memory. We have been warned and forewarned of the signs of our times. Like the Nais people, we hand it down from generation to generation. It is rooted in our cultural through scriptures, talks, songs, art, movies, and plays.

Wonderful family traditions and stories surround us during this time of year.  The aroma of holiday favorites kindle memories. The stories from two millennia ago are celebrated, and anticipated traditions warm our souls. These traditions and stories contain more than we may know; they are powerful practices that instill the Spirit in our hearts and inspire us to seek the need of others. To embrace Christmas, with all that it means, can save us.

“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. . . Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:10-11, 14)

Just as traditions saved the lives of the Nais when the tidal wave came, so the traditions you form right now may save your children’s lives and teach them where salvation lies in a dangerous and confused world.

[1] Stanley Widianto (2018), Indonesia’s Indigenous Languages Hold the Secrets of Surviving Disaster,, 15 October 2018;