The Missionary Christmas

12.26.08 | | 12 comments
Millennial Star

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I recently prepared a Christmas package for my missionary son and hit upon the idea of searching past Ensign magazines for missionary Christmas stories to add to the package. I’m not sure if these stories are typical of other missionary Christmas stories, but I can say that the stories I found included two broad themes: stories of missionaries caroling (or giving other musical performances) and stories of missionaries overcoming loneliness. [I do believe there are other themes in these stories, I just didn't come across them in my very limited search.]In the latter theme, I found a very fine first-person account by George Durant entitled I Found the Heart of Christmas about what has to be one of the most difficult missionary Christmases anyone has experienced. That story is  worth your time.

I also included in the package to my son one of the oldest examples of this genre, a story by Nephi Anderson entitled The Lewellen Family’s Christmas Present, published in the Millennial Star, a predecessor of the Liahona, on December 14, 1905.

As a sort of Christmas greeting, I thought I would present it here. Its somewhat typical of Anderson’s stories–it might be described as didactic because Anderson can’t resist explaining gospel principles in the story. But it also echoes this same theme of overcoming loneliness. Also notable in the story is the significantly different missionary practices of a century ago, including less emphasis on companions staying together, missionaries working alone, and missionaries visiting friends and families during their missions.

Don’t expect too much of the story. It is a century old, and isn’t in the same league as the masters of that time, let alone those of our time. But it has a kind of pleasant, sweet tone that, I think, makes it worth reading at least once. [I look forward to comments on this story, or on the missionary story genre.]

THE LEWELLEN FAMILY’S CHRISTMAS PRESENT.

BY ELDER NEPHI ANDERSON
(from the Millennial Star, 14 December 1905)

ELDER MARTIN was lost. Much as he disliked acknowledging the fact even to himself, the truth was plainly evident. He had lost his way in the black fog, which rested as a pall over the city.

He had started out from his lodgings that afternoon to buy in for his Christmas dinner the next day, His companion had gone to visit some relatives in London, having received an invitation to spend a few days of the Christmas holidays with them. He did not like to leave Elder Martin alone, but the latter urged him to go, and so he was now alone–a stranger in a strange land that Christmas Eve.

Although the mills had closed down for the holidays, it seemed that the smoke from the forest of chimneys still hung over the city, as if loath to leave. The short winter afternoon soon turned to evening. The gas lamps were lit, and down the main streets the electric lights gleamed and sputtered.

Elder Martin had taken his time about making his purchases, and when he at length left the business section of the city to go back to his lodgings, he found that he was considerably out of his usual course. He walked about for some time trying to get his bearings, but the twists and turns of the streets seemed to twist and turn him until he was bewildered more than ever, For a time he took it good naturedly, realizing that even if he was lost, there was no harm in it. He rather enjoyed the sensation, as he wandered about from one street to another of the big, busy city–and then, the walk kept the sense of lonesomeness, which weighed heavily on him from becoming too acute.

Feeling tired, he asked a policeman to direct him to the street where his lodgings were. He followed as best he could the directions of “the first turn to the right and the second to the left, and then keep straight ahead,” but after fully an hour’s walk, to his astonishment and vexation, he came back again to the point from which he had started.

But the young “Mormon” missionary was not to be beaten at such trifles. He started again, and got well out into the residential parts of the city. The smoke seemed to be mixed with a damp fog, and the darkness became intense. Traffic was stilled, and few people moved about. He asked for directions a number of times, but the persons he met did not know his street. The police seemed to have vanished with the daylight, as none were to be seen. Elder Martin stood at a street corner, speculating what direction be ought to take or what he ought to try next.

Then he walked slowly down a narrow street. He would have to knock at some door and make enquiries, but Elder Martin was yet timid, as be had been in England only three months, and he was not naturally a self-confident man.

From a house nearby came the sound of singing. Elder Martin stopped and listened, as the song was familiar to him. Girls’ voices were singing Luther’s Cradle Hymn:

“Away in a manger, no crib for His bed.
The little Lord Jesus lay down His wee head;
The stars in the heavens looked down where He lay;
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.
Asleep, asleep, asleep, the Savior in a stall,
Asleep, asleep, the Lord of all.”

Elder Martin listened until the close of the song, then knocked on the door, which was presently opened by a pleasant-faced woman of over middle age. He stepped into the open doorway, by force of tracting habit.

“Pardon my disturbing you,” he said; “but I, being somewhat a stranger in the city, have lost my way, and am trying to find someone that is able to help me to find it again.”

The woman stood looking at the young man for a moment without replying. Then she said, “Come in–sit down,” and handed him a chair. At a glance he took in the room and its occupants. The mother, evidently, was the central figure, and around her was her family of five children, ranging from a little girl to one who had attained to the years of womanhood. They were all very attentive to what the young man and the mother were saying, having turned from the piano, where they, no doubt, had been singing.

“I live at No. 14 Lethom Road” said the Elder. “Am I anywhere near it.”

“You are at least two miles from Lethom Road,” replied the mother, “as it is on the other side of the city.”

“Well, I am indeed lost,” he exclaimed.

“You may be a long way from home, sir, but, I hope, not lost. My boy will show you a tram that will take you home.”

“I thank you very much,” and Elder Martin arose to go.

“Pardon me,” said the woman, “but if you are not in a great hurry, I should like to ask you a few questions.”

The young man sat down. He was pleased enough to stay, and as his business was to talk to all who would listen to him, he never let an opportunity go by when he could get a hearing. Again, this house into which he had so strangely come seemed to him so cozy and home-like that he felt drawn to it. But what could be wanted of him? He was certainly a total stranger to them all.

“You are a preacher, aren’t you–a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus?”

“Yes; I am a missionary,” answered the astonished Elder.

“And you have come with good news for us–tidings of great joy–I know it, for you see, the Lord has shown it to me.”

The woman’s face beamed with a fervent joy, while the others looked strangely at her.

“You will think this is strange,” she said, and she drew a chair up to the table and sat down; “but let me explain it to you. My name is Annie Lewellen, and these are my children. Their father died ten years ago, and we have all struggled along together until now. It has been hard, and now the mills are only running half time–but, pardon me, that isn’t what I want to tell you about. For years I have been dissatisfied with what goes by the name of religion in this country. I have found no satisfaction in any of it. I have gone to churches and chapels. I have heard learned divines and fervid revivalists, but nowhere have I found that which satisfies me. They all seem so far from that which I read of in the Bible!”

The girls took seats around the table and listened to the mother as keenly as did the visitor.

“My husband,” she continued, “was not what the ministers call a religious man. He very seldom went to church, because he said he could not believe much that was preached; but he was a good man, was my husband, no matter what all the preachers in Christendom said to the contrary. Never a hard word, never a visit to the dram shop, always kind to me and the children… But there, I’m rambling again. I have also given up going to church, but I don’t feel at all right. I fear that we shall all grow up heathens. The truth must be somewhere, and we–I say we because my daughters have been with me–we have pleaded with the Lord that He would show us the right. About six weeks ago I dreamed of a young man coming in at the door just as you came in this evening. I thought he had a Christmas box under his arm, but on the box was written in plain letters ‘Gospel.’ He put the box on the table, opened it, and gave each of us a present. Maud”–turning to the oldest daughter–”did I not tel1 you of my dream at the time?”

“Yes, mamma.”

“Well, this gentleman is the one I saw in my dream. I knew him the moment he entered the door.”

Elder Martin moved his chair up to the table. Then from the inside pocket of his coat he took his Bible and placed it on the table. He thought not of the immediate errand that had brought him there. He forgot his loneliness. As he looked into the beaming eyes about him, his soul went out to the hearts yearning for consolation and hungering for the bread of life. And then a power came over him, a power that drove away fear or hesitancy, that made him master of the situation. They all watched him intently.

“This is Christmas Eve,” said he, “and I will give to you all the most beautiful Christmas present you have ever received… I am a missionary, an Elder in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and my name is Martin. I have come from my home six thousand miles away to tell you of the restoration to the earth of the same Gospel that was preached by Christ and His disciples anciently–the Gospel that has power to bless and to save not only in the world to come, but to bring peace and joy into the life we are now living.”

One of the girls placed some coals in the grate, and then came back to the table. Another turned up the gas. Elder Martin opened the Bible and began to teach them “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” Faith, repentance, baptism, the Holy Ghost–its office and operations–were explained and proved from the Scriptures. They all drank in his words eagerly. Even the smallest girl drew her chair up, and, resting her arms on the table, looked steadfastly into the face of the teacher–a face that glowed with the inspiration of the Spirit, for never before had the young Elder had such freedom in explaining the Gospel.

There was the most perfect quietness. No questions were asked; no objections were raised. Elder Martin touched lightly upon the apostasy, and then explained the need of a restoration. He described the Church of Christ with apostles and prophets, enjoying the gifts and blessings as the natural outgrowth of the Spirit of God operating within it… “But I fear I am tiring you,” he at last suggested.

“You are not, Elder Martin, go on. See how interested we all are. Are you tired, girls?”

There was a chorus of “No’s.”

Elder Martin looked at his watch. It was only eight o’clock. No one was waiting for him at his lodgings–besides, he was not lost now. Outside, the fog and the smoke might be ever so black, inside there was light, and peace, and love, and he felt contented and happy.

“My husband believed all that you have just told us,” said the mother. “He used to talk to me about these principle, and he often wondered why the churches of today did not teach them.”

“Well he might,” was the reply, “but, you see, the falling away from the faith explains that. The world has been without the Gospel in its purity and power for hundreds of years, and it is the beautiful story of its restoration that I have been sent to tell.”

“Tell us about it.”

Then the simple yet sublime story of Joseph Smith’s first vision was recited. He told them of the angels’ visits, of the opening heavens, of the Hill Cumorah and its sacred contents, of the organization of the Church, and briefly, of its trials and persecutions.

“We are known to the world at large by the name of ‘Mormons’” he said, as a concluding sentence, “but our true name is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

The Elder noted carefully what effect this announcement would have on his listeners, for he had learned through experience what power a name has on the prejudices of men and women; but he noted with pleasure that they were not shocked by the announcement.

“I care not for the name,” said the mother, “or what people say; what you have been telling us appeals to me as the truth–and the truth is what I want, no matter by what name it is called.”

Elder Martin again suggested going, but they would not listen to it until he had had supper with them. “Our fare is very simple,” was explained, “but you are welcome, very welcome, if you will stay.”

Elder Martin thanked them. One of the girls took his coat, and he seated himself on the sofa out of the way of those who became busy with table and dishes. He coaxed the little girl to come and sit on his knee, and she soon became friendly with him. He told her of his own little girl at home across the sea, and they speculated what she might be doing that same Christmas Eve. Then the table was ready and they all surrounded it again.

“I have not introduced you to my family yet,” said the mother. “This is Maud, the oldest.” Elder Martin shook hands with her, and then also with Isabella, and Susan, and Willie–little Martha he knew already.

Tea was served to all, but the young man asked if he might have a cup of warm water instead. He flavored it with milk and sweetened it with sugar as the others did.

“Is this the family?” enquired the young man.

“Yes,” replied the mother, “We are all here. So far, we have been able to keep together, thank the Lord–and, more than that, all my girls are good girls.”

“Well, mother!” remonstrated Maud.

“Make no protest,” said he. “Your mother knows, and it does not harm you to hear her say so. When I see the sin and degradation in this big city, I think you ought to be very grateful indeed that you have been protected from it.”

In their talk around the table he learned that the three oldest girls were workers in one of the mills. The mother was housekeeper, and Martha and Willie went to school.

“I am a ‘twister,’” explained one of the girls, “and I have to stand on one leg all day.”

Elder Martin was nonplused at the remark, and the girl explained further that the nature of her work in the mill brought into play the lifted knee, first one and then the other as she went back and forth tying the broken threads. He was very much interested in her explanation, as also of those of the other girls who gave an account of their daily occupation in the mill.

Elder Martin’s mission was to follow in the example of the great Master who went about doing good, and with the truth that he had and the priesthood that he bore, to bring the blessings of the Gospel to as many as would receive them. He was eager to give, but, strange as it may seem, the great difficulty was to find those who would accept. The more lives his life could touch, and by that touch impart to them some happiness, the fuller, the richer, the happier his own life became. That, no doubt, was the reason why he felt so very happy that Christmas Eve.

It was ten o’clock before he finally arose to go. Willie got his cap to go with him and show him the right car to take.

“When shall we see you again?” asked Mrs. Lewellen.

“I shall be pleased to call at any time,” replied the Elder.

“Come and eat Christmas dinner with us tomorrow.”

Elder Martin hesitated. Had he not in his capacious overcoat pockets the purchases for his own Christmas dinner!

“You say you are alone, so come and eat with us. It will be simple fare, but you will be welcome; and I have many questions to ask you.”

“I will come if you will take the place of my house-keeper to-morrow. See, I have already made my purchases, and I don’t want to be disappointed in my rice pudding. Are you going to have rice pudding tomorrow?”

“Well, we were not, but–”

“That was to be the chief course in my dinner,” he said, as he placed some packages on the table. “If you will make me a big rice pudding, and put in plenty of raisins, I will promise to come. Is it a bargain?”

As none of the older girls answered immediately, little Martha spoke up: “I can make a pudding.”

“Good,” said he, and he lifted her on to a chair by the table, “Here, examine these and see if they will do.”

He made a hole in the side of a bag, and out fell some raisins.

“Taste them,” he admonished, “as he filled her hands. “I am a poor judge, but you, as an experienced cook, will be able to tell.”

Martha tasted, and said they were good, and would do.

“But there isn’t enough now. Willie here will go with me and we’ll buy some more.”

“No,” spoke up the mother, “there will be plenty.”

“It’s a bargain then?”

“I suppose so,” she said with a smile.

“All right; but before I go, sing again Luther’s Cradle Hymn.”

They gathered around the piano. Martha looked at Elder Martin with a peculiar expression on her face. He saw it and asked, “What is it, Martha?”

“I can’t understand how you are a preacher.”

“Why, how is that?”

“Well, you can’t be a preacher–you are so different–an’ besides, your collar doesn’t button at the back.”

Martha had not intended to be funny, and she could not understand why they all laughed at her.

“But if you are not a preacher, what shall I call you?” she continued.

“Call him Santa Claus,” suggested Willie, who had also had a handful of raisins.
Then they all sang,

“Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay.
Close by me for ever, and love me, I pray–”

Outside, the fog and smoke still filled the air. The top of each street lamp looked like a luminous cloud with a bright center; but its light did not penetrate far into the darkness. By the aid of the little boy Elder Martin soon found his way to the car that took him homeward. Although alone, he was no longer lonesome, for had he not the companionship of pleasant thoughts, and an assurance that he had brought the one great Christmas present to a home where it would be prized as the pearl of great price!

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12 comments: “The Missionary Christmas

  1. Th.

    .

    Anderson’s pendanticness works better in longer works, and this sweet vignette would be healthier at a shorter length. But. It was nice, wasn’t it?

    And the lonely-missionary-at-Christmastime functions differently when the missionary has children of his own, doesn’t it?

  2. Kent Larsen Post author

    Absolutely, especially when those children are still not adults. I imagine today’s senior missionaries experience a portion of this loneliness, but I’m not quite sure that its the same as what Elder Martin in this story must feel.

    On another subject, I think I should have made more in the post of the whole missionary caroling story thing. I could swear that half the stories I came across from the Church magazines involved missionaries caroling or performing at Christmas time.

    My son tells me that they had planned to use this as a tracting tactic in his missionary district (and I remember our zone made the local papers during my mission for caroling in the city center).

    I can see it as an effective missionary tool. But why so many stories about it?

  3. Bradly Baird

    It is funny because I cannot remember feeling lonely during Christmas time on my mission. I remember feeling great reassurances by the spirit that surpassed any feeling of loneliness; a sure knowledge that my time away was far more important than being at home. Was my experience unique? I would be curious to hear stories about what others did on their missions at Christmas.

  4. Kent Larsen Post author

    Bradly, I’m with you. I can’t remember feeling lonely at all. [As I stated above, however, I do remember the caroling thing].

    But, talking with my son on Christmas day, I think he does feel lonely (but probably wouldn’t admit it), despite a strong testimony and knowing that he is where he should be.

    I suspect that at least some of this is personality, not the missionary’s faithfulness or understanding of his role. [I'm NOT trying to suggest that this is what you were saying Bradly. But I think some people might read that into this discussion.]

    I too would love to hear more about missionary experiences at Christmas — and, for that matter, I’d love to hear from writers how their missionary experiences entered into their writing — surely someone has written about their missionary Christmas experiences.

    I know Christopher Bigelow tried to sell a fictionalized version of his missionary experiences, but I can’t remember what happened to them (nor whether he wrote about Christmas time in the mission). Perhaps Christopher could give us a shout about that.

    Many, many other pieces of LDS fiction have at least some missionary experiences in them. Christmas can’t be very unusual.

  5. William Morris

    Love this line: “I have heard learned divines and fervid revivalists, but nowhere have I found that which satisfies me.”

    It’s such the didactic set up and yet it also says something — this missionary is approachable in a way these other religious leaders aren’t. Neither learned or fervid so different from a preacher. There’s a whole area of narrative yet to be explored on how Mormon missionaries naivete attracts/repels, works for and against them (even though missionary fiction is a bit overrepresented in Mormon literary fiction [which only goes to show how small the output really is]).

    ———

    One of my fond memories of my mission to Romania is singing Christmas carols (esp. Romanian ones) in the subway stations during the holiday season.

  6. Kent Larsen Post author

    SEE!! What’s up with the caroling in high-traffic places? I mean I understand it as a missionary tool. But why are so many stories about that?

    I don’t have the sense that it was a particularly effective missionary tool!!

  7. Bradly Baird

    Kent: I absolutely agree that the issue centers on personality. The discussion reminded me of an individual for whom I had some stewardship while overseeing a zone. He had a testimony and knew that he was out doing the Lord’s work, yet he could never get past the attachment he had to his family. I think he called home about once a month, and perhaps more.

    You would think that a movie based on the missionary christmas experience would get made (unless one has of which I am unaware). Someone better get moving on a script . . .

  8. Chris Bigelow

    Yeah, I had an agent show around my Mormon missionary memoir proposal, for which I wrote several sample chapters, but we never could sell it. I know of several other good missionary memoirs floating around out there and am disappointed that no mainstream press has yet taken a chance on one; probably they would do it only if it were really sensationalistic and clearly positioned against the church. I would like to eventually go back and write my whole mission story and, if nothing else, publish it myself.

    I don’t remember making particular mention of missionary Christmas in my memoir. Christmas wasn’t as huge a deal in summertime Australia as in other places, and the only thing I really remember is the calls home and, one year, double-booking ourselves for Christmas dinner and making one family angry when we didn’t show up. I also remember living in one flat that became an illicit mission-wide headquarters for partying the whole week of Christmas, with missionaries traveling from all over to come watch videos and pig out at our place. We never did get back into a missionary mode until transfers cleaned up the mess a couple of months later.

  9. S.P. Bailey

    Christmas wasn’t a big part of my missionary memoir, All the Great Lights. (Shameless, I know.) I just didn’t have a Christmas story that did not hit all the same notes as my best homesickness material, a story involving Thanksgiving called The Sickness.

    Chris: you should do your mission memoir. And I remember you talking about a collection of mission memoir excerpts. Another cool idea, I think. Any chance of that happening?

  10. Th.

    .

    Curiously, my parents just gave to me my old letters-to-the-president that my mission president returned to me when I came home. I found one wherein I wrote about Christmas and the inexplicable oddity of it, but I too wasn’t lonely or homesick or anything. So add me to that column.

  11. FoxyJ

    I enjoyed the mission parts in On the Road to Heaven, but that is technically fiction and not non-fiction. I also really liked the book Angel of the Danube and really connected with it, having served a European mission myself. I think loneliness does have much to do with personality–I rarely felt homesick at any time on my mission, but as a sister I did also have three years’ experience living away from home before I left. We also did a fair amount of caroling as missionaries too, which is funny because in the country where I served carols are usually only sung by childrens’ choirs, plus we didn’t know any local hymns nor were they in the hymnbook. We also spent the weeks before Christmas giving out hundreds of free pictures of the nativity with our info on the back. The Christmas season was a big deal (from beginning of December through Epiphany on Jan 6th), so it was fun to be a missionary and spend lots of time getting special dinner appointments and treats.

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