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A Holiday to Remember: CIA Edition

December 21, 2023

‘Tis the season to be jolly. A time for joy. A time for giving. And it’s no different for CIA officers, of course! This year, we asked our workforce to share their most memorable holiday stories—from both inside and outside the office. Here are some of the responses we received that highlight acts of kindness, wintry rescues, sweet traditions, and heartfelt and hilarious memories that truly capture the spirit of the season.

“Early 2000s Scrooge”

I first joined the Agency in the early 2000s. I had always played in brass quartets for the holidays and figured I would try to find some “pick-up” musicians to play with me at CIA Headquarters. After a quick search, I found a fellow trumpet player, a tuba player, and a French horn player who all wanted to play Christmas carols. 

Grayscale photo of a view of the atrium at CIA Headquarters, where the impromptu brass quartet played Christmas carols.

A view of the atrium at CIA Headquarters, where the impromptu brass quartet played Christmas carols.

One morning, a week before Christmas, we sat down and began to play. And wow, did we play! The beautifully blended sound reverberated through all the levels of the building and even into the cafeteria. Folks sang with us as they went up and down the escalators, and we had quite a crowd in about 5 minutes.

We played for about 20 minutes and decided to take a break. Folks clapped for us and then quickly dispersed to tackle their day. A minute went by when we heard the click-clack of thick high-heels coming down the hall. “Ms. Scrooge” got in the middle of us, pointed feverously at me (not sure how she knew I was in charge), and said, “Knock it off or I am going to tell security! This is not a concert hall!” As she stormed off, we had an awkward moment of perplexed wonderment, and then we all just burst out laughing.   

Of course, we played one last FULL-VOLUME version of ‘Deck the Halls’ and ensured the last FAH-LA-LA went on for about 20 seconds with each of us trying to surpass the other in some way. Truly was one of my most favorite days as a CIA officer! Merry Christmas to All!

“A Beautiful Friendship”

It was December 2017, and I was in the bathroom stall at work quietly crying, trying to pull it together. I had just received a phone call from my husband advising me that his company was letting him go due to corporate cutbacks. While that isn’t any news you want to hear at the holidays, it was the least of my concerns. My daughter, who suffered from epilepsy, recently began to cluster seizure, having upward of 6-8 seizures a day, and my mother’s cancer had metastasized, advancing to stage 4.

When I exited the stall, there was this beautiful woman named Jane who worked in the branch across the hall. She was always pleasant, and I admired her style; however, prior to that day, we had never spoken other than to say “hello.” Jane looked in my eyes, could tell I had been crying, and in the sincerest manner asked me if I was ok. I looked at her, felt the warmth she exuded, and began to rattle off the three things that had happened over the course of the past two weeks. I wanted to lighten the moment and let this nice woman escape the bathroom, so I said, “ugh and look at my hair! I am the reason boxed hair dye should be banned!” Both being blonde, we laughed and understood the struggle is real and went about our day.

A week later, I entered my office and there was a beautifully wrapped gift on my desk. I looked to see if the card would identify who left the gift but a name was nowhere to be found. When I opened the present, I began to cry. It was a gift card to a prestigious hair salon that would cover more than I could have ever dreamed of spending on my hair. I knew due to the uniqueness of the gift it could only have been one Holiday Angel, the woman I met in the bathroom the week before.

Six years later that act of unexpected kindness and generosity has turned into a beautiful friendship that I cherish. Jane is as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside, and this will forever be one of my most treasured holiday memories.

“Pay It Forward”

When I was a little kid, I remember two police officers knocking at our door around Christmastime with a bag of toys for us. I understood years later that those officers’ toys were donated through the Toys for Tots program. Reflecting back, my family was not always in the most stable economic state, and I am truly thankful for Toys for Tots. Fast forward, prior to joining the Agency, I earned the opportunity to serve within that police department. It was a blessing to be on the other side – passing out the Christmas toys and witnessing kids’ reactions. To this day, I seek opportunities to support local programs, as well as the ones back in my hometown, to always pay it forward.

Photo of Marines from Quantico Base “Toys for Tots” program load donations onto a truck.

Marines from Quantico Base “Toys for Tots” program load donations onto a truck.

“Christmas Camaraderie in Afghanistan”

My little story takes place in Afghanistan. 

As everyone who’s been out there knows, a good warzone assignment is very much dependent on the team you are out there with. Outside of your job, there isn’t much to do but eat, sleep, workout… repeat. So being lashed-up with a good team really makes or breaks it.

This trip I was luckily out there with a really good group. I knew a few of the officers from prior trips, but mostly, we just worked and played well together. We all decided to have a party and a White Elephant gift exchange for Christmas. The only rules were that you had to buy the gift in country and couldn’t go over $10. At any rate, most of us went to the bazaar and found the weirdest thing you could find. When all was said and done, I ended up taking home this small, ugly, epoxy cube with a map of Afghanistan and a scorpion inside. This weird little thing is still sitting on my desk at work. Here it is:

Image of a toy scorpion encased in acrylic with a transparent map of Afghanistan

There’s another aspect to the camaraderie inherent in those types of assignments. For instance, when we’re here in the Washington D.C. metro area, we do our thing at work, then shoot out in all directions to go home to our families. But out there, all we had was each other, and the only thing that would dull the pain of being away from our family during a major holiday season like that were the officers standing next to you. Like I said, we all got along – we all laughed together and really valued each other for the time we all were forced to be together.

We ended the night with a campfire and even built a tiny little snowman. To this day, I keep in touch with many of the officers I served with during that assignment.

“A Christmas Gathering”

When our children were young, we lived in rural Minnesota. Most of our family wintered in Texas, so we were on our own during the holidays. Instead of spending Christmas with just the few of us, we decided to hold a holiday gathering at our church to spread the joy of the season.

We used the church kitchen and lunchroom to create a place for elderly and those alone around Christmas to come gather, eat, and celebrate together. My family was planning to prepare the whole meal, but when others learned of what we were doing, they contributed delicious desserts and other food items. We decorated the dining area and set up some comfortable chairs found throughout the church around a nice tree next to the piano.

The local bus and volunteers provided transportation to and from the church. Outside it was cold and snowy. Inside it was as cozy as you could imagine!

The event was such a great success. We had several elderly people, along with a dozen or so others who would have otherwise spent Christmas by themselves. I still remember the face of one man. He was probably about 90-years-old, a prominent person in the community, and widowed. He didn’t have any children living close by, so he was especially delighted to hear our children sing as their dad played the piano. Everyone had a wonderful feeling of being together with “family members” of all ages to share a meal and stories, sing, and watch the children play.

This holiday gathering took place over 25 years ago and has since become an annual tradition at our old church enjoyed by many. Today, in talking with my grown children, they didn’t fully understand at the time how important this was for others, but they do now. It is a memory they use to remember to give their time to others.

“Icy Road Angels”

Many years ago, I was driving home from college on Christmas Eve. Though the night was clear and the highway nearly empty, the two-hour drive took longer than usual due to icy Pennsylvania roads. Halfway home I saw a car approaching cautiously behind me. Its high beams were on, reflecting into my face, and at our pace it would probably be behind me for many miles. I was irrationally frustrated, prompted by the long drive at low speed, so rather than let them pass I decided to hit the gas—just a little—to get out of range of those headlights.

Well, that little tap on the gas pedal was enough to send me into a skid, and before I was aware of it, I found my car sitting at a 45-degree angle, its rear end up on an embankment and its nose pointing perpendicularly at the road. I opened the door, stepped down, and rubbed my head where it had bumped the ceiling despite my safety belt.

I looked back at the driver I was ready to yell at and saw that the little car had pulled over a hundred feet behind. An elderly couple was heading toward me, the wife well ahead of him, her heels clattering as she gingerly navigated the icy road.

"Are you all right?" she asked in some Eastern European accent. "I'm all right," I said as she reached me.

Before my anger could expel another word, she wrapped her arms around me and cried in relief, “Merry Christmas!” And all that irrational bitterness inside me faded away. I felt so sheepish that I didn’t mention their headlights.

Then, as we surveyed my car’s ridiculous position, a semi-truck appeared and pulled over. The driver stepped out to see if he could help, and in the next ten minutes, three more cars appeared. Every one of them pulled over and stepped out to help.

In this era before cell phones, the trucker volunteered to call for a tow truck, but one of the other men surmised that we had enough muscle to put the car back on the road ourselves. They even insisted I sit in the driver’s seat while they easily rescued the vehicle. In minutes, I was sharing Merry Christmases with my departing road angels as I prepared to finish my drive home – a drive that, unsurprisingly, felt a whole lot warmer and more relaxing.

"Santa Paws"

Many years before I joined the Agency, I worked in a pet store. One service we offered at the store was “Santa Paws” – a store associate dressed in a Dalmatian mascot costume, complete with red coat and Santa hat. During the holiday season, we’d offer sessions for owners to bring in their beloved fur- and feather- (and even scale-!) babies, who could then be posed with Santa Paws for a memorable holiday snapshot. Oftentimes the pets were not thrilled to have their own “jolly old elf” encounter! The funniest one I experienced was a macaw that an owner brought in. To this day, I have not heard a bird with such a … colorful … vocabulary! He was NOT interested in sitting on Santa’s lap!!

“White Elephant Gift Exchange”

I was posted overseas, and one year, we included the local staff in our holiday celebration. We had a really fun White Elephant gift exchange that involved lots of laughter at the gag gifts peppered in with the nice gifts. One officer got a gag gift, which everyone made fun of, calling it gaudy and cheap. It was a very glossy ceramic nativity scene with a really bad paint job. However, when one of the local staff had a chance to pick a new gift or “rob” someone of their already-chosen gift, he went for the gag gift that people laughed at. He was so happy to have it and said he was going to give it to his wife because she would love it. That warmed my heart, and I still think of him whenever I participate in a White Elephant gift exchange.

“‘Christmas Ruff’ the Stuffed Toy Pup”

A few years ago, I was at a store with my then almost 2-year-old daughter who, as toddlers do, was touching and exploring every Christmas decoration she could reach. She came upon a life-sized golden retriever statue, to which she gave an adorable embrace. Unexpectedly, the statue’s head started moving and singing a Christmas song while still in her little arms. Frightened, she stumbled backwards and ran to me crying and clutching at my legs. I was mostly disappointed to not get the experience on video, but a passersby had a more compassionate approach. Only minutes later, the gentleman presented my daughter with a stuffed dog wearing a Christmas scarf that was larger than her along with the purchase receipt. He told me that he didn’t want her to grow up afraid of dogs, and then he turned around and left the store. Years later, “Christmas Ruff” is still a favorite toy and a great Christmas memory.

“Holiday Kitten Rescue in Japan”

With the winter holidays approaching, my husband and I were doing some sightseeing in Japan on the day before we were to fly home. Wandering quaint alleys, we heard a faint mewing noise. After a brief search, we discovered a sickly stray kitten. We happened to notice a store nearby whose owner left out food for stray cats, so we went there for help.

The store owner was very concerned, gave us a box, and even offered us money to help take the kitten to a veterinarian. We then carried the kitten, which was mewing loudly in its box, through a crowded and bustling marketplace to find a taxi stand. Luckily, the taxi driver knew of a local vet’s office that was still open and took us there, even calling ahead to make sure the vet was available.

The vet met us at the door and took the kitten for a quick exam. We were upset, thinking the poor kitty was too far gone to be saved, but at least she was no longer lost and cold. Just then, the vet came out of the exam room and told us the kitten would be fine—she was merely dirty from being previously stuck in a glue trap. He would wash her with special soap and find her a home. He didn’t even charge us anything.

We left Japan with warm hearts at the kindness of everyone willing to help a small kitten and having had such a memorable adventure on our last day in town.

“A Christmas Miracle!”

When I became a Naturalized U.S. citizen, my son was provided a Lawful Permanent Resident visa to join me in the U.S. Though I could barely afford my own existence, I concluded that at least we would have each other.

Every day on my daily two-mile trek to work, I greeted a lady sipping coffee on her warm, enclosed patio. I made the journey to and from work on foot with tissues in my shoes to ward off the cold concrete because the soles were too thin.

One day in December, the lady seemed to want to chat. I was early for work so I didn’t mind when she joined me, though she walked much slower than I would have liked. She introduced herself, told me about her relatives, then inquired about mine. I shared that I was excited about my son’s upcoming arrival. She made me promise to introduce him. As a matter of fact, she claimed that in order to ensure that she met him, she needed his arrival date and my address.

My son arrived on December 20th, and I picked him up with just enough cash for our transportation. On Christmas Eve, soon after retiring to bed, I heard a knock on our door and assumed it was a mistake. As the persistent knock grew louder, I decided to answer. My son slept and didn’t stir. At the door, there she was! 

Four others appeared when she yelled to a vehicle in front of my house. The off-loading took about 20 minutes. I was shocked. I received groceries, gifts, a boy’s bicycle, cards with cash, and “childcare” vouchers. I often strive to pay it forward daily.

“1940s Holiday Cookie Tradition”

Here is a holiday story that my family has continued to this day which was started in the late 1940’s.

In the late 1940s, my great aunt would bake cookies and decorate them to sell at my great uncle’s manufacturing plant in Ohio for extra cash during the holidays. Often, during the baking, some cookies would break or come out over-cooked. She would gather her kids and my mom and her siblings and let them decorate the reject cookies. As one can expect, the younger kids made a great big mess and, as they aged from year to year, their talent at decorating became much more refined. As my mom grew older and had kids of her own, she carried on that tradition with my siblings and me. So, when I started having kids, I could not resist my family tradition and have been decorating cookies with my kids for over 25 years. Yes, I still decorate as well. I’m not willing to give that up regardless of my age. I even use my great-grandmother’s sugar cookie recipe. Here’s a picture of some of our cookie creations and the simple recipe we use. To everyone: have a great Holiday season and have safe travels wherever the next few weeks take you.

A photo of an old fashioned recipe and directions to make sugar cookies.

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