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12/22/2015 10:29 am ET

Oprah Shares Bittersweet Memory Of Her Favorite Christmas

Make sure you've got your tissues handy.

Oprah Winfrey has most certainly had a "big life," as she calls it, but that doesn't mean she's forgotten the incredible joy that can come out of hard times and simple gestures. In fact, as Oprah once shared with her "Oprah Show" audience after a 2003 taping, the best Christmas of her life happened when she was 12 years old and dirt poor.

As Oprah recounted, she had been on welfare for part of her life when living with her mother. The year that Oprah was 12, her mom had to break some devastating news to the pre-teen.

"My mother had said, 'We're not going to have Christmas, because we can't afford it,'" Oprah said.

At the time, Oprah had still believed in Santa Claus, but upon hearing that her home wouldn't even have one gift that year, she quickly understood the stark reality. "I was 12. That's when I realized there was no Santa Claus," she said.

Aside from the childhood myth being shattered, a young Oprah was mostly concerned with how she was going to cope in the days after Christmas, when other children would be playing with and showing off their new toys while she would be forced to admit she hadn't received a thing.

"I remember feeling like it [was] going to be really hard on Christmas morning to go outside... You know, you go outside with your toys. What am I going to do when everybody else is outside?" Oprah said. "And what am I going to do when I have to go back to class and say I got nothing?"

Then, some nuns showed up.

"Three nuns came to our house. They gave me a doll, they bought us food and we had our Christmas," Oprah says. "That was the best Christmas of my life."

It may not seem like much on the surface, but nothing since had compared, Oprah said. The reason was simple.

"Somebody remembered," she stated.

It's a feeling Oprah had never forgotten, and it has often motivated her to create that same feeling for other children who had nothing. That's what made her embark on her 2002 ChristmasKindness trip to South Africa, where Oprah and her staff brought gifts for schoolchildren and orphans devastated by the AIDS epidemic.

"I didn't want to just write a check," she said. "I wanted to be able to look in each kid's face and say to that child, 'Somebody remembered you.'"

From toddler to teenagers, more than 50,000 children received a Christmas gift that year. Dolls, radios, soccer balls, clothes, shoes -- they were all distributed, each box with a child's name on it. Former South African president, the late Nelson Mandela, even helped surprise the children as a part of the event. But, for Oprah, the entire experience was about so much more than surprises and presents. It was about validation, showing each child that he or she mattered.

"It was singularly -- I could weep, thinking about it -- singularly the best experience of my life," Oprah said. "It was my mission to do for them what the nuns had done for me."

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