Thoughts on Missionary Rituals

Part One:
On Sunday, our MTC Branch President will ask the departing district to stand. He will say something like, “These missionaries will be leaving tomorrow. We want to thank them for their service in our branch and we certainly wish them well on our missions.”

I always tear up when we say goodbye to a set of missionaries. It feels almost archetypal, from my Mormon framework. Because of the ways I imagine the pre-existence, I can picture groups of spirits standing to acknowledge that they will be leaving for their mortal assignments in the morning, and that they’re ready (or think they are!) for whatever challenges those assignments will entail

They are such good kids, these missionaries—so pure and so full of hope and good will. I love them. Some have done very well with their French; others are still struggling. And just wait until they hear how it’s really spoken!

They have no idea how difficult and how precious the next twenty-two months will be for them.

Part two:
My daughter’s missionary just returned. It surprised me how young he looked in his jeans and regular shirt, because we met him on his mission, when he was always wearing a white shirt etc. The Sunday of his homecoming, he looked like a missionary again. But there was a slight difference: He was wearing a red tie.

Does that mean anything to anyone? Apparently, in some missions, a red tie is a code. It means you’ve kissed a girl since your return from your mission. (My daughter bought him the tie. Where is that instruction written in “For the Strength of Youth”?) Actually, it was all very sweet and innocent.

There are other missionary rituals I’ve heard about: burning a tie after six months; burning a suit after a year. What do you burn after two years? What do you find you yearn for many years after your return?

I have a 30-year-old Guatemalan huipil hanging on a bedroom wall. It looks like quite an antique with all its rust stains. I love it. I love the memories it brings to me. That whole room is transported from Guatemala, as it were. I wish there were tortilla-scented candles, and I would spend hours just breathing in the smells.

A friend of mind used to save the blankets her children were first wrapped in after their births so she could smell the scent of their new bodies. I don’t know how long that scent would last, but the thought of it, the thought of that sublime and perfect innocence, the newness of the arrival (and departure) is something to contemplate.

In my life, I burned one marriage and sold the first wedding dress I wore for fifty dollars. (I rented my second wedding dress.) I repented of many things, and metaphorically burned my bad decisions. And yet even those days of drifting and doubting, making hard choices and doing stupid things, come back to me as sweet path markers. “Two roads diverged…and I, I took the one less traveled by…”

I love the many beginnings I’ve had. And even the departures have left treasures.


  1. At the end of two years I gave away all my missionary clothes. I went home wearing all the missionary clothes I had left. I was very gratified to find out that my clothes eventually served another mission, ten years later.

    I never burned any of my clothes, though I did save a brand new pair of socks and a set of garments to open at the one year mark.

  2. Margaret, no burning, but please forgive a tribute to an amazing missionary. (“They are such good kids, these missionaries.”)

    I served briefly with a native Japanese missionary – 26 years old and always (I mean always) smiling. He was the 14th or 16th generation (I forget) oldest son of the local Buddhist priestly line – his father’s only son – the only heir to a long heritage. When he joined the Church, his father ceremonially acknowledged his dishonorable death, he was expelled from school and fired from his job, and he had to reconstruct an entirely new life from scratch. He worked and saved for years in order to pay for his own mission, then lived on 2/3 of the minimum recommended cost.

    I heard someone ask him, given what had happened to him, how he could be so happy all of the time. His response: “I have found the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How could I not be happy?”

    My mission ended in October, so I gave him my winter coat and boots (he had no boots of his own on the island of Hokkaido) a couple of months before I left. I found out a few days before I left that he had given the coat and boots to an investigator who “needed them more”. That was over 20 years ago, but I will never forget him – never.

  3. Our ritual was to burn the tie at 6 months, a shirt at 12, pants at 18, and a full suit at the two year mark. (Or your last day on the mission, whichever came first) I burned my tie, and then regretted wasting the money ever since. I thought it was kinda stupid, and I loved being a missionary, so it made even less sense to burn an indentifiable part of who I was.

    Ray – I almost cried at that story. That’s wonderful.

    a random John – I didn’t give away any of my clothes to fellow missionaries, but I did give my companions some of my MoTab CDs. We had a little Sony Discman that we attached two tiny speakers to every morning to listen to some music.

  4. i’m waiting for primary program practice to be over and now have tearstained cheeks. thank you for sharing that story, ray.

  5. My nephew who just came home from a mission tells that when he got a new mission president, all the burning unceremoniously ceased. I don’t remember an rituals from my mission, really; but I have always been fascinated by the burning of garments.

  6. Eric Russell says:

    My mission was as Jacob M states. I think I burned a tie; never actually burned my shirt. But it’s been like seven years now, so I probably should.

  7. I think that as the church changes and becomes more international, some rituals from the past will disappear. When my daughter went on her mission 5 years ago, all the Utah relatives were so excited. They asked if we were bringing her out to the MTC, etc.

    In fact, she was going to one of the missions which never sets foot at the Provo MTC, but rather flies directly to the country of assignment and goes to an MTC there.

    The Utah relatives just couldn’t seem to wrap their brains around that concept. To them, you go on a mission, you go to Provo.

    We finally ended up flying her out to Utah so that she could say goodbye to them all, but they kept asking if she’d been set apart yet….

  8. anothernonymous says:

    I’m probably the only one reading this blog who burnt their mission clothes with rocket fuel. True story.

  9. I’ve never until now heard of burning stuff. I served my mission >25 years ago. Any idea when and where that might have started?

    The only similar tradition I knew of was traveling memorabilia that was supposed to be passed on to your last companion. I seem to remember being told of a large inflatable hot dog that got passed around the NYC mission, with each new custodian affixing his signature before handing it over and heading home. I got a bedspread under similar circumstances which I left with my last companion. The bedspread had Snoopy or somesuch character, but no signatures.

    I can relate to people not being able to comprehend a missionary not going to the MTC. I was called several months after they started sending English-speaking missionaries to the Provo MTC. However, the SL Missionary Home didn’t close until the week after I left. Although most were being sent to the MTC, my call was to go to the Missionary Home for five days before continuing on to my mission. I had a letter from Spencer W. Kimball telling me to go to Salt Lake, but nobody would believe it. Surely, they said, I must be mistaken–the Missionary Home is closed, and all missionaries are going to Provo now. I heard it over and over. It got so frustrating that I finally just quit telling people I was going to the Missionary Home.

  10. No burning that I was aware of. However, my mission featured a ‘pagan’ club where one joined by eating 50 chocolate-covered oatmeal cookies and drinking 1 liter of room-temperature French ultra-high temperature pasteurized milk. Keeping it down for one hour was the final requirement. This was called “Molaring off”, after a certain Elder Molar.

  11. We had the suit burning ritual, a few Elders did it. We had so many poor missionaries on my mission, I thought it was selfish to burn a suit, no matter how worn out it was, when there was always someone that could use it.

    The only ritual I can remember was Tim-Tam slams (drinking hot chocolate through a chocolate cookie straw) and drinking as much milk in 3 minutes as you possibly could (another ritual I thought was stupid enough to skip).

    And I know most missionaries saved red ties or bought red ties before they went home because we weren’t allowed to wear ties with bright colors. It was a way to rebel after two years.

  12. cj douglass says:

    When I retruened from my mission, I took my whole CD collection a sold it at the local record and tape exchange. Stupid, stupid, stupid……..

  13. I also have never heard the red tie thing. I don’t remember that any tie colors were prohibited in my mission.

    I guess variation on the milk thing have been around for awhile. My companion once took a wager from some other elders that he could drink a gallon of milk and keep it down for an hour. He couldn’t. It seemed to me more like hazing than a tradition.

    I agree with jjohnsen. By instruction, I only brought two suits with me, and I expected them to last my whole mission. (They did, albeit patched and threadbare.) Burning a suit at the end of my mission might have been ok. But I can’t see destroying an expensive suit after a year, and leaving me with just one to wear for the rest of my mission. Do missionaries bring more suits these days? Or do they just have lots of extra money to spend replacing ones they burn?

  14. One missionary was at our house at his one-year date. He stuck it on the end of a stick and lit it. We were so busy taking photos that we didn’t notice that it had gotten a little out of control and set our back porch on fire. Fortunately not much damage. Somehow the word got out and there was a ban soon implemented.

  15. I knelt and kisse the carpet upon coming out of the plane at the Miami airport.

    I also counted down the last 140 days of my mission using the Doctrine and Covenants (one section a day, in reverse, in addition to regular scripture study). Another missionary in my group was doing the same, so when we’d see each other at zone conferences or mission conferences, we’d approach each other and one would ask, “Elder, what did you read today?” The other would respond from an insight from that day’s section (and not always in a serious tone). On one such visit, the mission president walked by, put an arm around us and exclaimed how we were a model of how to work until the last day of our mission!

    (Of course, I did work up until the last day of my mission, goofy scriptural countdown notwithstanding.)

  16. Huh. I wore red ties all the time on the mission. Maybe people were making all kind of assumptions about me.

    Has anybody heard of “doing the waller”? I know at least one Japanese mission has this tradition. When a missionary has been out for one year, at the district meeting that week the other elders cover an entire chalkboard with chalk and then pick up the honoree, hold him backwards to the chalkboard, and erase it with the seat of his pants. I didn’t dare ask what they did fir the sisters.

  17. There was a story that you should get a stamp in you passport every six-month marker. France and Germany were for six-month and year (I was in Netherlands/Belgium), but for eighteen you had to go further afield and really flaunt the travel rules. I didn’t know anyone who did it and suspect it was a legend. There were also wide-eyed fears of the MP checking passports.

    After my mission, I refused to wear a white shirt or tie, let alone a suit, to church. It was about five years before I wore a tie, and the first time I wore a suit to church was when called to the bishopric two years ago — fifteen years later.

  18. I’ve never heard of the “waller” though various contests involving milk-chugging were certainly a staple of zone sleepovers (South Carolina, 2003-5). Although, after an apartment manager complained to the MP, gallon challenges became strictly verboten.

    Red ties were ok in my mission, but pink ones were not. My MP also preferred that elders wear Tommy Hilfiger ties but never went so far as it make it a mission policy. (Though he did ban fat polyester ’70s ties and ones with square ends).

    The biggest tradition was the D&C countdown that queuno describes.

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    I’ve never heard of the burning or red tie rituals. Red ties were fine on my mission. We were actually required to purchase and read Dress for Success. It was like scripture.

    I wonder what people at home thought when I first came back to the family ward wearing a scarlet tie? Maybe that was why the bishop looked so nervous…

  20. walkinginthewoods says:

    I have been reading and enjoying here for a week or more . . .
    a perennial doubter/born again Mormon “type”

    I like gentle *regular* Christians and do handle them better than people in my own church (sighing over my failure to relate)

    I have to add that there were a lot of traditions/rituals in my mission over 30 years ago; my husband’s mission was less ritualistic, but his was in the states, and he was an older convert-
    Looking back I wonder what we were “about” *out there*–
    The phenomenon I am noting as I get older is that missionaries take on a unique mission culture wherever they go. I receive e-mail forwards from a number of missionary mothers, and I find some of the things that are talked about in those e-mails troubling–
    I had dreamed my only son would serve a mission, and he didn’t (long, sad story),
    and now the ritual with which I struggle most is the monthly parent reports on missionaries; it is hard to endure now that I am on the other end–

    all these things give us experience

    I hope someday to be part of it again, beyond feeding the missionaries, which I do regularly. They can count on gourmet meals from this crazy sister, but then I “look” very normal, too, I suppose; nobody knows that I am struggling over where best Christ is “witnessed of”, by full-time missionaries or by people meeting themselves and finding their need for God wherever they are?

    I think the pressure on them to testify must be intense; I know that it was for me.

  21. In our mission (italy) we did a Ringo toss the dayt before transfers. These were half chocolate/half vanilla cookies that we would throw in a bowl of milk. The elder with the most Vanilla tosses was the presumed transferee. If we were the one going, we drank the milk and ate the cookies.

  22. On my mission there was a saying: “You’re not really a cebu missionary until you’ve pooped your pants at least once.”

    I’m a cebu missionary….

    For less gross things, we ate incubated duck fetuses as sort of a ritual for greenies, and all the elders got taylor made pants. It was the thing to do in my mission. Some Elder’s got new pants every week, it seemed.

    There were other little things, like sleeping in the chapel and watching movies all night on christmas eve, or having sleepovers the nights before zone meetings.

    These were the little things, but they were a lot of fun.

  23. Thanks for this Margaret! It is so fun to read about your time at the MTC right now. My brother will be one of those departing Elders this Sunday, leaving for Costa Rica Monday morning.
    We are always beginning and departing, as each day we are leaving something behind and moving toward the future.

  24. I burned the tie at 6 months, don’t think I did anything after that. The joke in my mission (London) was that at 2 years you were supposed to burn a flat :) Thankfully that never happened, but the brother of one comp of mine who was serving over in Ireland did actually burn down a flat last day. Accident, apparently he left the chip fryer on when they went that last day.

  25. This won’t be interesting to anyone but me but the last day of the mission stories reminded me of one of the last nights of my mission. I was on a small tropical island far South of Okinawa called Ishigaki and burnt some ties and shirts on a very pretty deserted beach. Then I left the island the next morning on a 24hr ferry ride back to mainland Okinawa. The members came to see me off and shot streamers and I cried as the boat pulled away.

    I think I’d like to die in a similar way–just cast off and drift away from the people you love and head out into the open ocean.

    Anyway, I went back to that island a year or two ago and they’ve built a club med resort on that same beach. But some of the same people are still attending the small island branch as when I was a missionary and they made me speak in Sacrament Meeting.

  26. Peter LLC says:

    But I can’t see destroying an expensive suit… Do missionaries bring more suits these days? Or do they just have lots of extra money to spend replacing ones they burn?

    Clearly you have never engaged in the storied missionary tradition of purchasing and then wearing a two-pant suit from Mr. Mac. If you had, you would know that burning those “suits” is the most sensible thing to be done with those overpriced and ill-fitting rags. After repenting for my one Mr. Mac suit, I bought all the rest of my suits in-country from fleamarkets and secondhand stores. I was particularly fond of wearing a single-breasted Don Johnson model in linen that cost $5, until it was destroyed in a bike wreck.

  27. JA Benson says:

    Thanks Margaret,

    You broke my heart all over again. My eldest child went on his mission this summer. We did not realize how hard it would be to say goodbye to him for two whole years.

    PS If he burns either of those expensive Jos. A. Banks suits; I’ll wear his butt out. It would be ok if he gave them away.

  28. I burned a tie at 6 months and a shirt at 12. In my mission (Mexico), the ties and shirts were in such bad shape at that point (lots of hard hand-washing each P-day), that burning them was just as appropriate as wearing them. I can’t remember really well, but I think I burned a pair of pants at 18 months. At two years, our mission president cut off the bottom half of our tie. I had already given away all of my “bad” ties at that point, so I wanted to keep the ones I still had. So the MP lent me one of his old ties and cut it off. Looking back through my souvenirs, I really wish I had just let him cut one of my ties. It would have been much more meaningful.

  29. JA Benson–aren’t you lucky to have a child on a mission!

    Like Walkinginthewoods, I have a son who is not going to serve a mission. But I’m no gourmet cook, so I do admire anyone who can make fancy meals.

    I’m writing this on the day our district left. They left for various destinations this morning at 4:30 a.m. My husband embraced each; I gave them a handshake.

    My youngest son said to us yesterday, “I’m going to go on a mission because I know you two (meaning Bruce and me) are so disappointed that [my brother] didn’t go.” I told him that I hoped by the time he’s of age, we have very little to do with his decision.

    Next week is Conference; the week following, I’ll be in Boston. The next Sunday I’ll be at the MTC will be the last Sunday for another district. This one includes the young man who chose to leave his band rather than tour, and sold his very expensive guitars to finance his mission.

  30. John Taber says:

    I served in Italy 1992-94 and while I heard about Ringo toss I never saw it.

    I could have done the D&C countdown but by the time I had 140 days left I wasn’t in a position to count days. That is, it was hard enough focusing on getting up and out each day that I couldn’t think about how many I had left. (And two months before I was to go home, that date was changed and so I would have had to read sixteen sections one night to catch up.)

    Someone serving from my home ward a few years later put an interesting twist on the countdown, that I might have considered doing: Every day that he read a section, his parents at home read the same section.

  31. #29:

    I’ll be in Boston. The next Sunday I’ll be at the MTC will be the last Sunday for another district. This one includes the young man who chose to leave his band rather than tour, and sold his very expensive guitars to finance his mission.

    Take that, Howard Hunter!

  32. Jason Work says:

    I remember doing the D&C “countdown” (Scotland ’95-’97.) It worked well because you got your travel plans a few months before the mission finished. I also remember being given a tie by the Elder who trained me when I first started. He had been given it by his trainer and they had both written their names on it. When I was called to train a new missionary I dutifully signed the tie and passed it on. I wonder how many “generations” that tie made it through.

  33. JA Benson says:

    Bless your heart #29 Margaret. Never say never. Your son could change in a heart beat. I’ve seen it a bunch of items. With a Mom like you I’d bet the farm on it. He could move to a stake like mine where the Stake President loves the wayward ones and send him on a great mission. We have seen this a few times since the raising the bar in our stake.
    We’ve got three boys and two girls; this I know; there are no guarantees either way.

  34. This isn’t as much about rituals but about the things that can mean so much to a returned missionary.

    My parents brought me back a gift after being close to where I served (So. America). I cried when I opened it….a handmade leather scripture cover for my quad, with pictures of Christ on front and back and my mission name on the spine, my own name recorded in full in the front. (Does this ring a bell for anyone?) I had purchased one for my Spanish triple but really wanted one for my English quad.

    I don’t remember mission rituals on the mission, but there are some things that bring a lot of nostalgia for the mission. The food is one of them. Someone in my ward is from my mission area and brought me over some homemade, authentic food. I found a restaurant that serves it here and it was like I had been beamed back. It’s a bit like Christmas joy to eat the real thing.

    One of my favorite memories related to the food in my mission is when I had the fortune of being sent there for a work project way back when. The first night in the hotel, I went to the restaurant to see if they had one of my favorite dishes. They didn’t. The disappointment must have been evident on my face (I think I was ready to go elsewhere) because the server told me to hold on, and went back to talk to the chef. The chef told me he could make what I wanted, a special just for me. He did and it was delicious.

    And I had to eat with about three people watching me because they loved the fact that I was loving each bite so much. Fun stuff….

  35. I dressed up like a hippie and burned a bra at my nine-month mark. I had a hard time explaining all of the cultural referents involved to my Italian companions–but she was game for anything entertaining. That was also the proverbial cockroach-infested apartment which every missionary encounters at some point or other, and she was the companion who informed me that it’s the senior companion’s job to kill the roaches. I must have missed that in the section on companion relationships in the Missionary Guide.

    Good times.

    m&m, isn’t it funny how authentic food can make you cry great tears of happiness? I came home from my mission the same day as my college roommate who had gone to Korea, and she was on one serious diehard kimchi quest, as I recall.

  36. #10: The Molaroff! Woohoo! I’d forgotten about that little mission rite of passage. I never did it, though I knew several missionaries who had. I served in Bordeaux from 94-96 and, in contrast to your experience, some guys in my mission did burn a tie at six months, a shirt at one year, trousers at 18 months and a suit at the end. I only had one companion who had done all four.

    On a more serious note, Ray’s story reminded me of a companion I once had.

    In my mission it was common to do “blue splits” (or “greenie splits,” for you non-French mission alumni) where new missionaries would be assigned to a different companion in a different district for one week after they’d been in the field about one month. I think the idea was to let them know their trainer wasn’t the most abhorrent in the mission. =)

    Anyway, I had about a month to go and my ZL called me up and said he was having problems with a companionship in another city, and wanted to separate them for a few days by doing a blue split with my (month-old) companion. My comp wasn’t happy about it but I agreed.

    My new, temporary companion was a very young 19 from Kaysville, UT. He had, by his own admission, had a sheltered upbringing and told me of his culture shock at being in France, confiding “Elder, where I come from, the ‘bad people’ were the inactive people!”

    I was finishing my mission in the same city where I had begun. We had enjoyed great success with the local university students attending our weekly English classes, and the parents of one student, who was now in another city completing her education, had invited us to teach them a discussion and have dinner at their home, as they had not met me on my original tour through their city the year before. I told my new comp that he was in for the dinner of his life, and off we went.

    The discussion went well — they had actually read quite a bit in the Book of Mormon — and that was probably the last chance my new companion had to get a word in edgewise. Which made his closing prayer all the more remarkable.

    I’m an anglophone Canadian, but my mother had sent me to a French immersion elementary school; although when I arrived in France it had been 12 years since I’d spoken the language daily, the fact of having learned it beginning at age five soon bore its fruit. Within six months my French was among the best in the mission, and by the year mark I was getting asked what region of the country I was from. I had now been out nearly two years. Our hosts were retired French professors. Over dinner, we spoke freely and fluently about many things. Although we mostly kept to family and Church topics, my poor companion quickly lost the thread of the conversation and was never really able to pick it up again. French dinners last at least two hours; that’s a long time for an insecure young man to feel like the odd one out.

    But he did hear, at the very beginning, these two good people express concern for their outgoing, vivacious daughter who had so enjoyed her first two years in the local community college and now felt lost in a sea of strangers as she finished her last two years in a large university in the big city. She was homesick, and verging on depression, and it was so unlike her that her parents were unsure how to proceed.

    Two hours later, this superb young missionary gave the closing prayer, and though the rest of us had forgotten how our dinner-table conversation had started, my companion prayed, in his halting, broken MTC French, for their daughter. For her schoolwork. For her sense of self-worth. For her feelings of depression and homesickness. It was all he had been able to capture of our conversation, and all of a sudden the rest of us realized how profound it was that he would remember and pray for this.

    The whole time he prayed, the Spirit prodded me to remember all the advantages I’d had, serving a mission in France. I was 23 when I’d left, and was 25 when this happened; I had lived on my own for several years before serving a mission. I was a convert from Catholicism. I’d gone to a French immersion school. So I understood the local religion, the language, and how to survive on my own. And here was this young boy, without any of my advantages, doing the work anyway. At that moment it was overwhelming.

    When he finished, the rest of us were teary-eyed and I said: “If the gospel motivates this young man to come halfway around the world and pray for your daughter, it’s because it is true.” The father, wiping his eyes, said simply: “If we have learned anything about Mormons from your visits, it is that you are ‘une religion saine.'” Anyone familiar with French attitudes towards “les sectes” will understand how significant that statement was.

    I’ve never forgotten that visit, though I have forgotten the Elder’s name.

  37. Like others here we burned the tie at 6 months, the white shirt at 12, slacks at 18, and a full worn out suit on the 24 month click day. – Only two weeks into my service I witnessed a zone burning with about half of my zone (14 or so elders) burning something (mostly slacks) in a ritualistic way behind a stake center in Federal Way, WA. The flames were followed by foolish chanting and dancing in a circle. – Undoubtedly anyone who witnessed this, member, former missionary, or Gentile Joe, would have found this completely wacko behavior…So I’m glad that most missions now days publically speak of a “no burn” policy which may keep the Church from looking like crazies in the woods at night…

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