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
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
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.
A Stranger’s Gift
On christmas eve 1943, my father, mother and I struck out for Eureka in Northern California to spend Christmas with my paternal grandparents. It’s a long trip from Los Angeles, and in those days the roads weren’t good. We stopped along the way, and the next morning there was a heavy rain. As we drove along a corkscrew mountain road, the car hit a wet patch and slid into the guardrail. We found ourselves hanging over the mountainside, looking down on a river hundreds of feet below. At first, Dad and Mom were afraid to move a finger for fear the car would tumble. Dad finally got out to investigate, and saw that the car’s fender was tangled in the guardrail. Dad stood on the side of the road, but no one would stop. After half an hour, a pickup truck with a black family inside—a husband, wife and daughter—pulled over. They were all dressed up for Christmas morning. The man got out, looked at our car and, as miracles would have it, told my father he was a tinsmith and had tin cutters in his truck. My mom could hear the man’s wife yelling at him from the truck. “What are you doing? You’re going to get yourself hurt! They wouldn’t have stopped for us!” After all, he was putting himself in danger, standing in oncoming traffic. And, in fact, this was at a time when few white people would have gone to such lengths for a black person. But the man waved off her pleas and went to work cutting our fender from the guardrail. Dad said, “You’ve saved our lives. Please accept some money, or at least let us give your daughter one of the gifts we have in the car.” “No,” the man replied. “This was my gift to you.” And he drove away.
—Actor Beau Bridges
Homes for the Holidays
My mother’s dream was to buy a house for her six children. She never got there: When I was 18, Mom, a Baton Rouge police officer, was shot and killed working her second job as a security guard at a grocery store. Five years ago, I started Homes for the Holidays so Mom’s dream could live through other single mothers. During the holidays, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I make down payments on behalf of six to eight single moms to help them become homeowners. I’ll never forget the first house I presented, to a woman with a baby. She cried and squeezed me so tight I couldn’t breathe. For that one moment, I knew what Santa Claus feels like.
—Warrick Dunn, Atlanta Falcons running back
Howard and I had danced around the question of marriage for what seemed an eternity until he confessed what was troubling him: He had concerns about marrying an actress. Between the schedules, which could take me away for months at a time, and the on-camera love scenes, he just wasn’t sure. But at last we ran out of reasons to wait. We were in a café in Manhattan one afternoon before Christmas, when he put a small box on the table. “Honey,” he said, “I’m giving you this because I love you.” There was a ring inside: rose gold, with tiny diamonds. He took out a second box. It was a matching ring in white gold. “I’m giving you this because I love every minute with you.” Then he pulled out a third box, yellow gold this time. “And I’m giving you this because I want to marry you.” There, he had said it. I gazed at this beautiful man, this big-hearted soul with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life. I looked at him without saying a word for what Howard calls “the longest two minutes.” As he sweated buckshot, thinking I was trying to find a way to let him down easy, I brought a box from under the table. Inside was a watch. “Thank you,” he said, taken aback. “But we’re not exchanging presents.” “Turn it over,” I said softly. Engraved on the back was: “Yes. My love forever. Sela.” Howard was stunned. “How long have you been carrying this watch?” “I’ve had it on me 24 hours a day,” I said. And so we were engaged.
—Actress Sela Ward, author of Homesick: A Memoir
My dad completely embraced the rituals of the season. Year after year, we did everything the exact same way—down to putting the baby in the manger after midnight Mass. He was very sentimental, reminiscing about each Christmas ornament as he hung it on the tree. While Mom baked, Dad and I would string lights in the grapefruit tree out front until it became a big sparkling ball. On September 15, 1986, Dad died suddenly of a heart attack at age 71. Mom and I couldn’t bear the thought of spending our first Christmas at home without him that year. He always sat in the same chair as we all opened our gifts. We knew it would have been heartbreaking to see that special chair empty on Christmas morning. So Mom and I drove from our home in Scottsdale to Sedona. It was beautiful there, but we felt lonesome. It just didn’t feel right when we went to midnight Mass alone. We might have been better off staying home. Christmas was never magical again for me until I married and had a child, but even now Mom and I still get melancholy at the holidays. Before we took down the tree each year, Dad would always say a prayer that we would be together the next Christmas. I cling to that prayer, which serves as a reminder that it’s important to be grateful in the present for the people you love because, well, you never know.
—Actress Catherine Hicks
In february 1962, three years after Castro marched into our native Havana, my father and mother sent me to the United States so I could attend a church school and be free to practice my faith. I was one of more than 14,000 Cuban children who fled under Operation Pedro Pan. I arrived in Orlando speaking a handful of English words. I was shuttled from one youth camp to a second, then to a foster home. Walter and Eileen Young made me feel like family from my first day in their care. A few years later, when Mrs. Young’s mother became ill, I moved to my second set of foster parents, Jim and June Berkmeyer, who showered me with love and kindness. In 1966, I got word that my parents and sister, Margarita, had been given permission to leave Cuba. I found them a small rental house and a job for my dad at the Lee Dairy, where he would earn $85 a week. That December, we had the Christmas I had been praying for all those years. In my parents’ tiny home, Mami and Papi, my brother Rafael (who left Cuba the same year I did), Margarita, the Youngs, the Berkmeyers and I celebrated the birth of Christ with a traditional Cuban holiday dinner—roast pig, black beans and rice. The Youngs and the Berkmeyers have been there throughout the milestones of my life. I consider them all my parents.
—Mel Martinez, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
Not long after my wife, Barbara, and I met, we moved to Nashville so I could pursue my dream of a country music career. Neither of us had family in Nashville, so each year at Christmastime we traveled either to my home state of Louisiana or to Massachusetts, where Barbara is from. In December 1986, Barbara was pregnant with our first child. We planned to visit her family that year. But two days before Christmas, Barb starting having contractions, three weeks early. I made that 90-mile- an-hour run to the hospital, even though she wasn’t in hard labor, because I’d seen it on TV so many times. I was almost hoping an officer would stop me so I could say, “We’re having a baby!” Barbara gave birth to our daughter on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, sitting in Barb’s hospital room cuddling this baby with a Santa Claus hat on, it suddenly hit me. There wasn’t the hustle and bustle and singing and sounds of laughter, all those loud noises of the season. It was quiet and peaceful—just Barb and me, and this new, incredible gift. We took Molly home the day after Christmas. I snapped pictures of her under the tree, and we sent them out with the baby announcements: “Look what we got for Christmas!” Two years later, we added our son, Eric, to our family. We don’t always go “home” for Christmas anymore. Once you’ve got kids, home is wherever you are.
—Musician Kix Brooks of Brooks & Dunn
The Man in the Red Suit
The moment when I understood there is an amazing man who visits children all over the world and gives them presents was mysterious and magical for me. I remember making sure that my list had been sent weeks before, that Santa had food and, of course, a drink for all those tired reindeer. I even remember the feel of my warm pajamas after my bath. Sleeping was such a problem that night, but eventually I did, and, oh, when I woke! I loved the biscuit with the bite taken out of it, and Santa’s reply saying that he hoped I enjoyed the presents and that he hadn’t forgotten anything—and he hadn’t! That was what was so miraculous. He knew everything—even things I had mentioned months ago but had forgotten. Now I’m a little older, but I still believe in the spirit of that man who dashes all over the world making children smile on Christmas morning.
—Actor Daniel Radcliffe
What is your most unforgettable holiday memory? Tell us in the comments below.