PROVO, UTAH — Spending Christmas morning with missionaries worldwide who were celebrating the holiday apart from family and friends, an empathetic Elder D. Todd Christofferson related his own experience.
“I arrived in my mission in Argentina 10 days before Christmas,” recalled the member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “I had been used to snow and cold for Christmas in the United States. I found in South America that you can actually celebrate Christmas in the heat of summer, and with fireworks.”
The latter-day Apostle then shared other Christmas-related reflections — of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s late December birth, of pioneer-era experiences and of the birth and Atonement of the Savior Jesus Christ — as he and Sister Kathy Christofferson spoke to 1,223 missionaries in a Dec. 25 devotional at the Provo Missionary Training Center.
The event was also broadcast via satellite to the other MTCs throughout the world.
A member of the Church’s Missionary Executive Council, Elder Christofferson underscored the mutual moment as Christ’s representatives at a special time.
“What greater privilege could we have than to find ourselves on Christmas in the service of the Savior whose birth we are celebrating,” he said. “There won’t be many Christmases when you are entitled to carry His name on your dress or shirt or jacket as His emissary, His ambassador. You are the companions of the Apostles in this work, and what an honor it is to be serving together at Christmas.”
Acknowledging Joseph Smith’s Dec. 23 birthday close to the date commemorating Christ’s birth, Elder Christofferson mentioned he and his wife being with President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, earlier this fall at the Prophet Joseph’s birthplace in Sharon, Vermont.
Both births came in circumstances of poverty, with little notice by the world. And Joseph’s calling and life became intertwined with the Savior.
“For this, the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times, Joseph Smith became the revelator of Jesus Christ in His true identity as the very Son of God, and Joseph’s testimony is binding on all who hear it,” Elder Christofferson said. “The Savior has never had a stronger witness, a greater defender or a truer friend than the Prophet Joseph Smith.
“And so, I say it is most appropriate that Joseph Smith’s birthday comes so close to Christmas. The Prophet Joseph’s sacrifices in the service of Christ are a worthy example for us to follow in our lives and in our missionary service.”
Elder Christofferson imparted several vignettes of Christmases during pioneer times in Utah.
Wrote Elizabeth Huffaker of Christmas 1847, the first year in the Salt Lake valley:
“We all worked as usual. The men gathered sagebrush, and some plowed; for though it had snowed, the ground was still soft, and the plows were used nearly the entire day. [Christmas was on a Saturday, but] we celebrated the day on the Sabbath. . . . We sang praises to God, we all joined in the evening prayer, and the speaking that day has always been remembered. There were words of thanksgiving and cheer. Not a despairing word was uttered. The people were hopeful and buoyant because of their faith in the great work they were undertaking. After the meeting there was handshaking all around. Some wept with joy. The children played in the enclosure, and around a sagebrush fire at night. We gathered and sang, ‘ Come, Come Ye Saints.’ We had boiled rabbit and a little bread for our dinner. Many who were there for that first Christmas in the Valley later remarked that in the sense of perfect peace and good will, they never had a happier Christmas in all their lives.”
Mary Jane Tanner added of the same year: “We had no floor but the ground, but we were thankful for a roof. My father laid the floor on Christmas day, and my mother called it a merry Christmas. It was indeed a time of rejoicing; we had been so long without a home and suffered so much living in a wagon during the cold weather.”
Wilford Woodruff described his Christmas in 1877 in St. George, Utah: “You ask what I was doing on Christmas. I spent the whole day at the temple in St. George. Forty women were sewing carpets, and all the men were at work. Josiah Hardy worked at the buzz saw until 9 o’clock at night to get through. We laid carpets, put curtains on the partitions, and covered the altars, preparing the temple for its dedication.”
A boy named James Nielsen in Sanpete, Utah, offered the undated following: “There were three big boys on the farm: Jim, Tom, and Wayne. I used to sleep with them in the loft over the house. We spent one Christmas Eve at their house, and we all hung up our stockings. The stockings were all full [of candy] the next morning. The boys gave me some of their candy, and it tasted like their feet smelled, but I ate it anyway.”
And Hannah Daphne Dalton recalled this as a child in Parowan, Utah, in 1862: “All of us children hung up our stockings Christmas eve. We jumped up early in the morning to see what Santa had brought, but there was not a thing in them. Mother wept bitterly. She went to her box and got a little apple and cut it into little tiny pieces, and that was our Christmas. But I have never forgotten how I loved her dear hands as she was cutting that apple.”
Elder Christofferson likened the pioneer times — with scarce food, few possessions and constant labor in order to survive — as conditions in which the Savior grew up.
After showing “The Christ Child” video, he offered concluding thoughts, his testimony and an apostle’s blessing.
“We know enough to understand that the real celebration at Christmas is not only the birth of the Son of God, but what would come at the end of His mortal life,” Elder Christofferson said.
“Christmas has little meaning without Easter. It is Christ’s Atonement that gives meaning to our existence. Without that, all mortal life would be destined for death, darkness, and despair. But with the Atonement of Jesus Christ, our destiny is incomparable happiness, eternal progress, and unending joy with those we love.”
The convincing evidence that the Atonement of Jesus Christ is real is the Resurrection, with the fact that Jesus rose from the dead being proof that He indeed is the divine Son of God and that His power to redeem is unlimited, Elder Christofferson said.
With His resurrection, there can be no question that He has given us the gift of immortality and, conditioned on repentance, the gift of eternal life, he added.
“I testify to you with all the power of my soul that Jesus Christ lives today. He is the resurrected Redeemer. You are His servants. I wish you a joyful Christmas today and invoke His blessing upon you: the blessing of joy in His work, the blessing of His protection and guidance, and the blessing of answers to your prayers.”
Sister Christofferson preceded her husband, first showing an old family video of two grandsons — then ages 4 and 2 — reciting by memory much of Luke 2. She referred frequently to the New Testament account of Christ’s birth in her message as well as the Book of Mormon account of what was transpiring in the Americas at the same time.
She spoke about Mary likely feeling the Savior’s birth as being “untimely” because of her late pregnancy and the travel to Bethlehem, the masses there resulting from the taxation decree and the crowded accommodations that forced her to deliver in a stable area.
Conversely, the Savior’s arrival was very “timely” in the Book of Mormon account, she added, since the believers and faithful were to be put to death unless the prophesized signs of Christ’s birth were to come to pass.
And Sister Christofferson likened the shepherds of Bethlehem to modern-day missionaries, since the shepherds “made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child” (Luke 2:17).
“They were the first ones who bore the message and testimony of the Savior,” she said. “They were the first missionaries, and that relates to you.”