Branch by Branch I’ll never forget one Christmas in Texas. After decorating our tree, I told our twin daughters to sit underneath it, and I would bring them some hot chocolate. When I returned from the kitchen, I found them struggling to obey my instructions. They were doubled over, nearly buried under the tree’s lowest branches. Alas! At age 3 they took our words literally; at 21, they take them with a grain of salt. There’s something about this time of year that makes President Bush and me marvel at how our daughters have grown. Perhaps it’s because we remember them as children, when they delighted in hanging their own handmade ornaments—then needed us to lift them so they could place their treasures on the topmost branches. As is always the case, the older Jenna and Barbara have become, the less they’ve needed our help in reaching new heights. Year by year, branch by branch, the ornaments have found their own ways to the top of the tree as our children have grown into fine young women. Today their nimble hands can reach the upper limbs as easily as ours do. The real joy of the season is found not only in memories of the past, but in the happy present, celebrating with our family. These are the times that make us truly grateful, when we put all else aside to remember how lucky we are to be together again. —Former First Lady Laura Bush
Kitchen Duty Twenty-five years ago, I was among 16 artists and scholars from around the world invited to study at Lake Como, in Italy. Our stay coincided with Thanksgiving, and, although only a few of us were Americans, our host decided a traditional turkey feast was in order. There was one complication: The chef had never prepared a Thanksgiving dinner. When the host asked if any of us knew how to make turkey with corn bread stuffing, I said I had learned at the knees of my grandmother. The butler escorted me to meet the chef, a tall, nice-looking man when he wasn’t scowling, which he was then. Clearly, he did not approve of a woman in his kitchen. He had 12 assistants—all male. Unwilling to speak to me, he had one of his sous-chefs act as intermediary. I made the stuffing out of polenta, the Italian cornmeal. It came out beautifully—albeit quite orange. I said to the chef, “This cornmeal is the bread of my people.” He asked, “Who are your people?” I told him I am African American. He asked, “Why do you call yourself African American? Most Americans come from somewhere else.” An interesting way of looking at things. I browned onions and celery, and then after a few minutes watching, the chef asked me to step outside and have a smoke. I viewed the invitation as a sign that he was accepting me as an equal. I wasn’t much of a smoker, but I stood at the back door and held a cigarette as a prop. When the turkey was presented to the guests, the chef asked me to stand, and he bowed. The chef learned more than how to cook a turkey that day. And I learned, too, about the ways we free ourselves of prejudice. —Poet Maya Angelou
Tour of Duty In 1967, Bob Hope invited me to join him on the USO tour of Vietnam at Christmastime. For ten days, we hopped from base to base by helicopter. The men—they were so young, still with peach fuzz—cheered so loudly that we couldn’t even hear the band. I felt like a Beatle. Bob said, “Just keep singing!” They waved signs that read “Raquel Welch for President.” I should have been cheering for them. During one stop, we went to a hospital. Bob said, “You are here to entertain—not show your emotions.” I was always getting choked up; I’d disappear to the ladies room and pull myself together. Bob asked us to get telephone numbers for family members of the patients we met, then call after we were back home. I felt so inadequate but became better at it with each conversation. They would be incredulous when I identified myself. I’d say, “I saw Jack in the hospital, and he was doing okay.” Recently, I attended a White House reception where I met Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of our troops in Afghanistan. I was surprised when he told me, “When you were in Vietnam, you came by my hospital bed and signed a photo of yourself for me. I’ve always appreciated that.” —Actress Raquel Welch
The Dreidel Song When I married, my husband and I decided we would celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas in our home. I am Jewish, he is Catholic, and both holidays were important to us. But by the time our first child, Sarah, was two, Christmas had taken over. One December when Sarah was five, she decided she would build a gingerbread house all by herself. I watched as my husband guided her. In the end, it turned out to be a big mess, but Sarah proudly held up her creation and asked to put it under the Christmas tree. Then she tugged at my blouse. I looked down half-expecting her to ask when she could eat the house. Instead, she asked, “Can we light the candles now? And the song too—the dreidel song. I like that song!” I explained that Hanukkah was still a few days away and that we would light the candles then. She took the menorah off the side table and placed it in the middle of the dining room table. “Well, I’ll wait, and when it’s time, we’ll do both!” she exclaimed. My husband and I couldn’t stop smiling. We’ll always remember that holiday when Sarah reminded us of the wonderful meaning of celebrating two religions and two holidays. —Actress Marlee Matlin
A Gift of Time I grew up with my mom and dad—just the three of us—on the east side of Detroit. My father earned $65 a week at the steel mill, and my mother cleaned houses. I don’t think I ever believed in Santa Claus. My parents couldn’t afford to buy Christmas presents. We never had a tree; I never even had a stocking. But my mother would make popcorn balls dyed red and green, and colored paper chains she hung around the living room. Our church put up a Christmas tree, and neighbors in our apartment building had trees—so I participated in plenty of tree lightings. I never felt deprived. Then, when I was 12, I woke to find a wristwatch and blouse beside my bed. Those were my very first Christmas presents. I don’t know if my parents had a little extra money that year, nor do I recall if I ever again received presents from them. The first time was what made the impression. I’m 71 and still remember each detail. My blouse was pink. My watch had a black band. I even slept with that watch. Our frugal Christmases gave me a Christmas complex. When I was raising my daughter, I always bought the biggest tree I could find. I’d start Christmas in October—buying too many gifts, wrapping all those packages, decorating every corner of the house. My daughter was my heart. But you know what? I think my childhood Christmases were better than hers. Because from the beginning I learned that Christmas is about people, not things. —Actress Della Reese
Neighborhood Relief It was the mid-1930s; we were in the teeth of the Great Depression. My family lived in the Houston Heights, a neighborhood that might be called “transitional” today but in that more direct time was simply poor. Those who had work—and not many did—tended to be laborers. I cannot recall any local man who did not have calluses on his hands. My father did have a job. One day I overheard him and my uncle talking about a family in the neighborhood who had no income—and no money. They also had no “relief,” which was the word in those days for welfare. What they did have was a house full of kids where the rent was always past due. My father and Uncle John talked, and then set off in opposite directions. Each went to see people in the neighborhood whom they thought might be able to contribute something to help this family. It was Christmas Eve. And before the day was out, they had gathered some toys and a little money, mostly in silver and copper, to help bring some kind of holiday to a family that had so little. I think you can guess what I learned that day, as I saw people who themselves did not have much find something to give to those who had even less. —Dan Rather, CBS News anchor
What is your most unforgettable holiday memory? Tell us in the comments below.