On Christmas Day 1943, Norman Nielson, father of Elder Brent H. Nielson, wrote a bleak letter home to his widowed mother. Living in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, he was in his second of four years fighting in the Pacific theater of World War II.
Norman described to his mother the events of the day and expressed his longing to be home and eat with family. Christmas packages had not yet arrived. “There are many of us who did not get anything for Christmas. I remember you telling me many times that you never miss the water until the well goes dry,” he wrote.
Quoting this letter during the First Presidency Christmas Devotional on Sunday, Dec. 6, Elder Nielson of the Presidency of the Seventy said when he first read his father’s words, he wanted to somehow change the events of that Christmas day.
“I cried out in my heart, ‘How much suffering can this young man from Idaho endure?’” Elder Nielson said. “He lost his father to a heart attack when my father was only 12 years old, he was raised by his mother, he was drafted into the military, and he was now living in the jungle in the middle of a terrible battle. Couldn’t he at least get a gift for Christmas?”
Elder Nielson said he felt the Spirit speak to him as he pondered his father’s situation. “Brent, you know how this story ends. Your dad ultimately received the most important gift and went on to live a faith-filled life with Christmas as his favorite time of the year.”
As Elder Nielson read more into his father’s history, he discovered one of his last letters home in February 1945. His father was finally able to attend a Church meeting in the Philippines and reported that he “didn’t care too much for the talk.”
“Mother, a lot of things seem very trivial to me now that once were so very important,” Norman Nielson wrote. “I don’t mean my belief in God, that is probably as strong as ever, but I look on God as a person who is loving and understanding rather than one [who] is always standing over you to punish you for every mistake you make.”
Elder Nielson said of this letter: “What the Spirit taught me is that through extremely trying times, having participated in a terrible war where many soldiers, nurses, sailors, airmen and innocent civilians on both sides lost their lives, my father found the gift — he found the true spirit of Christmas. …
“In his extremities when pushed as far as he could go personally, my father found a loving, kind Heavenly Father. What my father found brought peace and joy and happiness to him in a world full of confusion and pain and suffering. As he left the war behind, he brought the gift home with him.”
The true gift at Christmas, given by Heavenly Father, is the Savior Jesus Christ, Elder Nielson said.
Recognizing that many this Christmas are isolated or away from family due to the present world conditions, Elder Nielson said, “Some of us might feel this year like my dad did on Christmas Day of 1943.
“We might even wonder why we didn’t receive any gifts or visits. But if we look up and look to God and live, we will discover that Jesus Christ is the greatest gift. Opening that gift gives us the key to a wonderful, peaceful life.”
In Mark 4, the Savior’s disciples were on a ship with Him when a storm arose. In response to the disciples’ fear, the Savior calmed the winds and waves. The disciples then asked a question, which Elder Nielson invited his listeners to ponder this Christmas: “What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41)
“My hope during this Christmas season is that no matter our circumstances, no matter where we are, and no matter how we may be separated from family or friends, we will remember that He, the Savior Jesus Christ, is the gift; that as we come unto Him, He will make our burdens light; and that we might discover Him, as my father did in the middle of a terrible war,” Elder Nielson said.
“As we trust Him, we will find peace and happiness, no matter our current circumstances.”