The excitement in the unseasonably warm air was palpable as hundreds of Fort Drum community members gathered Monday at the Commons. Music filled the air as Families anxiously awaited the lighting of the tree and menorah – officially signaling the start of the holiday season.
Chaplain (Col.) Mark A. Frederick, Fort Drum garrison chaplain, said that the holidays are a time to give thanks for the freedoms we enjoy and to those whose selfless service ensures that we continue to enjoy these freedoms.
"May we ever be thankful for the gift of Family, life and love and for all of those who continue to climb the mountain to preserve our country and our freedom," he said.
Chaplain (Capt.) Moshe Lans, 10th Mountain Division (LI) rabbi, spoke about the significance of the Jewish community’s Hanukkah celebration, also known as the "Festival of Lights."
"The Hebrew word Hanukkah – in English – actually means ‘to dedicate,’" he said. "Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration where we increase the amount of light in the world."
Each day, Jews light an additional candle, "warming the world" with the light of their faith, he said.
Maj. Gen. Walter E. Piatt, 10th Mountain Division (LI) and Fort Drum commander, asked attendees to remember those who cannot be here to celebrate with their Families this holiday season.
"I know this time of year we are all praying for peace on Earth," he said. "Please remember – in your hearts – the Soldiers that we have deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa and Korea. Until there is peace on Earth, rest assured that your 10th Mountain Division will be ready."
Piatt asked young Family Members to gather around and help him count down before he pressed the button to light the tree and the menorah. The crowd erupted in cheers, and attendees joined together to sing "Joy to the World" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."
As the crowd sang "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," a Fort Drum fire truck pulled into the parking lot. Sirens blared as Santa stepped out and led visitors into the Commons, where they were treated to an evening of food, fun and Family-friendly entertainment.
Hal Greer, director of Fort Drum’s Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation, said that the event is an opportunity to show gratitude for the sacrifices of our Soldiers and their Families.
"We started this event many years ago to provide Families whose loved ones were deployed with an event where they could make memories together," he said. "Whether our Families are able to be together for the holidays or not, we want to make sure they know that they are an important part of our Army Family."
Greer said that the outpouring of support for Soldiers and Families has continued to grow throughout the years, and the success of the event is due to the collaborative efforts of Fort Drum and community organizations.
"We couldn’t do all of this by ourselves," he said. "We are all about developing a sense of community and getting people involved. This is just one way that we can bring everyone together and show them how much we appreciate them."
Staff members from Child and Youth Services kept guests entertained with games and crafts, while children eagerly waited in line for their turn to speak with Santa.
Six-year-old Allison Anguino said that she has been good this year, and she asked Santa to bring her a doll.
"I help my mom with the dishes, and sometimes I make pancakes with her," she said. "I can even flip them myself."
Allison watched as an elf put her name and age into "Santa’s Toy Machine." Minutes later, a conveyor belt dispensed a gift just for her. Her eyes lit up as she thanked an elf from Fort Drum Mountain Community Homes, and then excitedly showed her mother the puzzle she had received.
Outside, Family Members lined up to receive yet another gift – a farm-fresh tree, provided by the Christmas Spirit Foundation’s "Trees for Troops" program.
As Family Members drove up, Soldier volunteers from across the installation loaded the trees onto their vehicles.
Dick and Mary Ellen Darling, owners of Darling’s Tree Farm in Clifton Springs and New York state co-chairmen of the Christmas Spirit Foundation, looked on proudly. The couple has assisted with the program, which provides free trees to Soldiers and Families at more than 60 military installations worldwide, since 2005.
This year the Darlings celebrated a new milestone as they distributed the program’s 200,000th tree to Spc. Phillip Vidal and his Family. Vidal, who grew up on the island of Dominica, said that they looked forward to celebrating the holidays at their "home away from home," and they were excited to have a real tree for the first time.
Piatt thanked the Darling family, as well as representatives from Federal Express for their assistance in shipping and distributing the trees. He said that while giving a tree may seem like a small gesture, it is one that means a great deal to the Soldiers and Families who receive them.
"It reminds you what you are serving for," Piatt said. "When … someone sends you a live tree and you’re deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq – some of the most dangerous places in the world – and you smell that smell – it brings you back home."
As the evening came to a close, Greer said that he and the staff at FMWR were honored to have been a part of making the holidays special for Fort Drum Soldiers and Families.
"We want the holidays to be a special time for our children and Families," he said. "This event is all about giving them an opportunity to celebrate and make memories together."