Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas I Remember Best

Today after dinner, as the family was all sitting around chatting and generally enjoying a healthy dose of yuletide good humour, Mom got everyone's attention and asked who wanted to share the story of the Christmas we remembered most. I was a bit drowsy and had laid down on the floor. I always love a good story, especially when it deals with Christmas, so I closed my eyes and listened.

I wasn't disappointed as several people shared stories. There was my 8 year old niece Josie who talked about getting a typewriter for Christmas last year. There was Grandma's experience of trying to stay awake to see Santa Claus, sure that she would because the Christmas tree was in her room that year, only to fall asleep and miss seeing him. There was my brother-in-law's dad talking about living with his wife and kids in Argentina and spending Christmas on an Argentine beach. There was Uncle Mark sharing a story of Christmas on his mission. They were wonderful stories and I just sat back and enjoyed them. Mom asked me if I wanted to share a story, but I wasn't coming up with anything on the spot so I declined and the conversation went on. Eventually the dinner party broke up, the evening wore on, and what with one thing and another it has been another lovely Christmas day. 

As I've gone to bed now, Mom's question is been playing in my mind: What is the Christmas that I remember most? As I've been thinking about it, several memorable Christmases have stuck out. 

There was Christmas my third grade year when the family spent the night Christmas Eve at Grandma and Grandpa Anderson's house. I shared a bed with my sister Maurianne, and I kept waking her up to ask her to go see what time it was. I bet she was super annoyed, but she was a good sport. When it finally was time to wake up we went upstairs, and there waiting for me was the BB gun I'd been asking and pining for for months. I ran to the gun, picked it up and starting marching around the room with it on my shoulder like I was the night watch. To this day I'm not sure I've ever been as excited about a Christmas present as I was that year.

There was the Christmas when I was 17 and the whole family was together for Christmas for the first time in years. My brother David and I stayed up late Christmas Eve night playing a computer game until he was called away by his wife to perform his Clausian duties. After everyone had settled down and gone to bed,  I remember laying on the couch in the basement, seeing Mom going around checking to make sure everyone was in bed and reveling in the fact that all of her children and grandchildren were under one roof for Christmas. 

These memories and others are wonderful. but the one Christmas that stands out most to me and is my most memorable is probably Christmas 2006. I was on my mission in Guayaquil, Ecuador, I'd been out nearly a year and a half and I was loving it. I loved the food, the oppressive heat and humidity, I loved the people, I loved the culture and I loved Spanish. I loved everything about Ecuador. Unfortunately the same couldn't be said for my companion. Elder Williams was from Montana, and he'd only been in the country a couple of months. As Christmas was approaching, he was getting more and more homesick, which homesickness only made him more and more bitter towards everything. Towards the food, the heat and humidity, the language, and especially the people. We were in a pretty rough sector, and everywhere we went, rather than seeing and hearing traditional signs of the Christmases that we're used to in the United States, we saw a very, very different culture. For example, instead of Christmas carols being played, we heard big, brassy salsa music like this:

and this:

everywhere we went. I was pretty well acculturated at this point, but as I heard him almost nightly bemoan the fact that Ecuadorians didn't know how to celebrate Christmas, I couldn't help but buy into his attitude a little bit. I loved where I was and what I was doing, but he was right, it didn't feel like Christmas. We didn't let that stop us from working hard and doing all we could to share the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but as Christmas got closer we were both a little disappointed.

Here's where I need to tell you about a family of new converts in the ward. Their name was Valenzuela, and this is them:

As you can see in the picture, they were very short, just like everyone else in that country, their sons Giuseppe and Cachito were wild and crazy (Cachito had actually peed on my previous companion at one point), and they were happy. They had experienced some incredible struggles and horrific trials (another story for another time), but those struggles had led them to the Church of Jesus Christ. Their faith in Christ and in His Atonement continues to be an example to me to this day. They were incredibly poor, living in a shack that was at most 30 square feet and that was accessed by going up a wooden staircase so steep and exposed that you felt like you were climbing a ladder to a tree house, but they were more content with their lives than most people I've ever known. I don't think there could ever a person meet them that didn't fall in love with them immediately.

My companion and I visited the Valenzuelas often, both because they cooked lunch for us on Saturdays and because they shared the gospel with great fervor and were always bringing friends over to listen to us. They loved the missionaries and told us often how grateful they were for the work we were doing because their lives had been saved by the Gospel. (Again, theirs is a great story. You should ask me about it sometime.) 

Anyway, about a week before Christmas, the Valenzuelas invited us to come over to their house for dinner on Christmas Eve. We readily accepted their invitation, but that didn't really change my companion's homesickness or animosity towards Ecuadorian Christmas.

Christmas Eve came, and things were going terribly. We tried our best to work hard all day, but no one really wanted to listen; they just wanted to get the party started. As with any Ecuadorian holiday, the preferred form of celebration seemed to be getting blackout drunk and raising hell in the streets. As the day wore on, it seemed less and less like Christmas, and both my companion's attitude and my attitude got worse and worse. I remember thinking that if I heard El Negrito de la Salsa one more time I might hit something. Around 2 pm my companion stopped talking altogether. Things were not merry and bright.

Finally, several hours later when we decided we weren't going to get anything done, we headed over to the Valenzuela's for dinner. We climbed the stairs and knocked on the door, and when Hermana Alexandra opened the door, the smile on her face changed our moods immediately. She invited us in, had us sit down, and with a wink told us that dinner would be ready soon. Hermano Valenzuela came out from behind the sheet that separated the bedroom from the living room, sat down with us, and with the biggest smile I'd ever seen said he had a story to tell.

He said that he and his wife had been really worried about this meal. They had been praying that they might be able to somehow get enough money to buy a turkey, so that they could cook for us a good Christmas dinner like we would have had at home. The money never came, and so they had resigned to preparing the standard chicken and rice. Then, just the day before Christmas Eve, he said that he had been given an unexpected bonus at work, and that the bonus was the exact price of a turkey at the mercado. He didn't try to hide the excitement in his voice as he told us that he knew that the bonus had come from God and that he didn't have to think twice about spending it all on a turkey for the "hermanitos." Hermana Alexandra looked over at us from the stove with tears in her eyes and told us again how much they loved us and were grateful that we were serving the Lord and sharing the gospel with people like her family.

I looked over at my companion and saw in his face the kind of gratitude and love that I was feeling. Neither of us really knew what to say. Luckily we were saved from having to say anything as dinner was on. 

We had dinner - turkey with rice and an onion/tomato/lime juice salad - while dodging toys as Giuseppe and Cachito took turns hurling their new Christmas presents at one another across the table. After dinner, Elder Williams and I shared a short Christmas message and we sang a couple of Christmas songs with the family. I felt the (Holy) Christmas Spirit so strong that evening that I never wanted to leave. 

Unfortunately the time came and reluctantly we stood up and said we had to get home. Hermana Alexandra jumped to her feet and said we had to open our presents before we left. She pulled a couple of newspaper-wrapped packages from off of the fridge and handed them to us with a smile. We told her that they didn't need to get us presents, but they just smiled and told us to open them. We tore open the packages and each found a long-sleeve, white t-shirt. Mine read in green lettering on the front "A Team Much Stronger Than Yours" and Elder Williams' read "Bad Boy." We laughed good-naturedly and we put them on over our shirts and ties to model them. They just laughed. 

As we left, we thanked the Valenzuelas over and over again and told them how much we appreciated everything they had done for us. Hermano Valenzuela cut off our thank yous, got a serious look on his face and said, "It'll never be enough." We nodded and said goodnight.

As we got to the bottom of the stairs, Elder Williams looked at me grinning broadly and said that he loved Ecuador and that he loved spending Christmas with these people. I agreed. As we walked home, Elder Williams abandoned all pretense and starting shouting "Merry Christmas" (yes, in English) to everyone along the way. We got a lot of laughs as everyone thought the giant gringo walking down the street yelling "Merry Christmas" was hilarious. I couldn't help but laugh myself. I was happy. And the prospect of talking to my family the next day just made me happier. 

To this day whenever I hear big, brassy salsa music I think of Christmas 2006, and I think of the wonderful familia Valenzuela. That's the Christmas I remember best.


  1. That is an awesome story. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I love that story! It is wonderful how the Lord blesses those that truly love Him.

  3. Thank you, Sam. That puts it all into the proper perspective. Would that we could always remember and have the attitude that family has.