In another time and in another place far, far away from here, my father, Norman Nielson, was a very young man spending his second of four years fighting in the Pacific theater of World War II. Pictured here in front of his tent, he was an anti-aircraft specialist living in the jungles of Papua New Guinea. On Christmas Day 1943, he wrote this letter home to his widowed mother: “As you will notice by the date, today is Christmas. I got up at 7:00 a.m., had breakfast, and then worked until 3:00 p.m. when I went down to the creek to wash my clothes and take a bath. At dinner tonight we had a very small portion of turkey, some sweet potatoes, corn, dressing, and raisin pie. I would’ve liked so very much to have been home with you and the family putting my feet under the table and eating again all the things we used to have when we were together a few years ago. We are disappointed that our Christmas packages did not arrive before Christmas. 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.”
This past year my wife, Marcia, and my sister, Susan, wrote the history of my father’s four years of service during World War II. They compiled all the letters that he wrote home to his mother. I have to say that when I read this bleak Christmas letter, I was a bit incredulous. Although this may seem trivial to you, because this was my dad, whom I love, I 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?” 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? As I pondered his situation, I felt the Spirit speaking to me: “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 I read further in my father’s history, I came to one of his last letters home to his mother in February of 1945. During his four years under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur, he had fought from Darwin, Australia, to Papua New Guinea, to Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, and ultimately to Manila, where he ended his military service and returned home. Most of the time he spent serving during the war there were no meetings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but once he arrived in the Philippines, toward the end of his service, he was able to find a meeting of the Church. After attending that meeting, he wrote this interesting letter home to his mother: “I went to Church yesterday, but 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. 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.”
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. He learned that he had a loving Heavenly Father who understood him and was watching over him. The most important lifetime lesson that he learned was this: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”1 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.
I am not sure I could have survived the difficulties that faced my father during those three Christmases away from home, but I do know that the lesson he learned and that I learned is that the true gift at Christmas, given by our Father in Heaven, is the Savior Jesus Christ. This Christmas, because of world conditions, some of us find ourselves in situations far away from family or isolated from them even if they live nearby. 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 chapter 4 of the New Testament, the Savior’s disciples had a frightening experience. They were on a ship with the Savior on the Sea of Galilee when a huge storm arose. The disciples were frightened, and the Savior spoke to them, saying, “Why are ye so fearful? Where is your faith?”2 With a voice command, the Savior caused the winds and the waves to be still. The disciples then asked this poignant question that I ask you to ponder this Christmas: “What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”3 I will attempt to answer this question. Jesus Christ is the “[Wonderful Counsellor], the mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”4 “By him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created.”5 He is our Savior and our Redeemer; He is the Firstborn of the Father.
Isaiah describes the Savior this way: “Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? . . . They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”6
It is with this backdrop that the Savior invites all of us at this Christmas season and always, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. . . . For I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”7 His invitation to us is “to come.”
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. The Savior said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”8 As we trust Him, we will find peace and happiness, no matter our current circumstances.
I wish you all a merry Christmas and pray that this year, as the weary world rejoices, you will receive and acknowledge the gift that a loving Father gave to us as He allowed the sacrifice of His Only Begotten Son. I bear my personal witness of this loving Heavenly Father and His perfect Son, the Prince of Peace. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.