It was December 1999. I have to chuckle when I hear the “party like it’s 1999” song now. The world was wondering if every computer would blow up when Y2K came, and I wasn’t within a gazillion miles of a single computer should some instantaneous combustion occur.
See, I was living in Khovd, Mongolia — a place I very affectionately call "The Farthest Place on Earth." Khovd is about 1,500 kilometers west of the capital city of Ulaanbaatar and had never had two missionaries live there through the winter. Elder Swanson and I were the first to do so.
It was cold, challenging and depressing. It was also amazing, enlightening and life-changing. I didn’t see that at the time. I was focused on the here-and-now. What a blessing it was for me to be assigned with Elder Swanson. He was one of the most positive guys I have ever met. He was like Buddy the Elf in real life. For him, something good would come from every situation. The most amazing part is that he was absolutely genuine about it. It was his very nature to think that way.
Christmas was not particularly a big deal in Mongolia. Swanson and I had shown our Mongolian friends an insight into how we celebrate Christmas, but the fact remained; Christmas had come, and we had no gifts for each other. Elder Swanson had a small package from his grandma. We got a box from our mission president. I had no packages from my family. This would clearly be the smallest Christmas either of us had ever experienced. I am a bit ashamed of myself as I look back now. For I didn’t see what Swanson knew all along.
I was awakened early Christmas morning with Swanson ranting about how exciting it was that Christmas had come. We opened our single box to find two cans of root beer, a tie for each of us, and a Thomas S. Monson talk titled, “Christmas Gifts, Christmas Blessings.” Christmas morning was over.
As I sat on the couch, Swanson scuffled over to the Charlie Brown tree from my sister that we had set up. As he approached the tree, he mumbled something like, “What is this?” From behind the tree, he pulled a shoebox. It was addressed: "To Elder Roberds, From Santa."
My thoughts began to spin. How was this possible? Missionaries go everywhere together. He had never been out of my sight. Swanson was professional! He had worked like elves work, through the night. He had gotten up in the middle of the night, prepared my Christmas gift, put it in a shoebox and wrapped it in newspaper.
“What in the world could be in this box?” I thought to myself.
Swanson joined me at the couch, handed me the box and sat down right next to me with the biggest, goofiest smile on his face.
“Open it! I want to see what’s inside!” he said with a bit of mischief.
I tore off the paper and proceeded to inspect the contents. It went something like this:
I pull out my gloves. Yes, MY gloves.
Swanson: “Woah, sweet gloves! Those will be so warm!”
I pull out a remote to the tiny TV we used to show church videos. The same remote we had used 50 times.
Swanson: “Yes! Now we don’t have to get up to push “Start” on the VCR!”
I pull out my scriptures.
Swanson: “You can study way more with those!”
I pull out a picture of my girlfriend that had sat on our bookshelf the night before.
Swanson: “How did Santa get a picture of Breinne! He knows more about you than you think!”
I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to laugh at this crazy kid and tell him that he had lost his mind being out in Khovd. I didn’t know what to do. He looked directly at me and said, “Merry Christmas, Elder. I wanted you to open a gift on Christmas morning. I thought it would help you out.”
Elder Swanson had filled a shoebox with my own items and wrapped it so I had something to open Christmas morning. He wanted me to have a gift for Christmas. He gave me everything he had so I could have, too.
I broke into tears. He followed suit. In receiving my own items, I realized just how much I truly had. His Christmas gift was not the one from his grandma. It was his giving heart.
I owe Elder Swanson so much for giving me such a seemingly silly gift. It became one of my greatest Christmases, and I had received my own stuff. May you too enjoy just such a gift.
Editor's note: For more than 100 years, the Deseret News has published original Christmas stories, eventually starting what is known as its annual "Christmas I Remember Best" writing contest. This is one of seven stories to be highlighted this holiday season.