A murmur of sleigh bells jingled through the air as Fort Campbell’s young and old sang a cadence of “Here Comes Santa Claus” at the tree lighting ceremony Wednesday night at 101st Airborne Division headquarters, McAuliffe Hall.
Children gasped in delight and gingerly reached out to stroke Santa’s red velvet coat as he and Mrs. Claus entered the building and made their way to his throne.
Before Mr. and Mrs. Claus greeted their guests, members of the 101st Airborne Division Band performed several Christmas carols and Maj. Gen. Gary J. Volesky, commander of the 101st Airborne Division and Fort Campbell, addressed the crowd and flipped the switch, turning on the Christmas tree lights.
Volesky recruited a handful of children, Cadence, 10, her 7-year-old brother Christopher and their youngest brother, Landon to help flip the switch.
The three children are members of a Gold Star Family. Their fallen service member is Spc. Russell Hercules. He died Oct. 1, 2009 in Afghanistan while assigned to Company F, 4th Battalion, 159th Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division.
Hundreds of people packed into the bottom floor of division headquarters to stand in line to visit with Santa Claus and have their photo taken with him. Some people waited in line for more than 90 minutes. Catherine Walker, Morale, Welfare and Recreation special events coordinator, said the tree lighting ceremony is a long-standing tradition at the installation that brings Families back year after year.
“It’s a great way for us to kick off the holiday season,” she said. “It is an opportunity for them to come together as a Family, to hear our commanding general and to visit Santa.”
During the holiday season, especially, it is important to be able to demonstrate that the Fort Campbell community is an Army Family, Walker said, because it is a way of supporting the installation’s Families.
“This is a chance for them to come and get into the holiday spirit,” she said. “We want them to be embraced by the Army Family. If the Soldier is deployed, the Army Family is here with their Family. We are all here standing with them. This is a joyous season to celebrate.”
Colonel Andras Martan, Staff Judge Advocate, and his wife brought their son, Andras, to the ceremony because he enjoys listening to the 101st Band perform.
“We really brought him here for two reasons,” Martan said. “One, he likes the music and two, just to be a part of the celebration along with other Families at Fort Campbell.”
Martan said his son is ecstatic to see Santa again this year and to have the chance to personally ask him for a Thomas the Tank Engine train set for Christmas.
“I’m pretty sure he is going to get it,” Martan joked.
Andras was not the only child at the ceremony prepared to ask Santa for a special present this year. Six-year-old Briley Williams said she was determined to ask Santa for a Monster High bicycle while her friend and neighbor, 8-year-old Addison Jurecki said she wanted pajamas with a dolphin print.
Addison’s younger brother Gavin, 6, said he wanted a Star Wars fighter ship, and her youngest sister, Ally, 4, said she wanted light up house slippers for Christmas.
Their mother, Katie Jurecki, Army spouse, said it was difficult for each of the children to pick a single gift to ask Santa for, but they were finally able to narrow down their requests.
She said this is the second year her Family has attended the ceremony.
“They like to sing the songs and see the tree,” she said. “They really like the tree outside because it is so big.”
After visiting with Santa, each child was presented with a set of new Disney Infinity toys for Christmas. They were then able to pick a toy and a book from a table full of gifts donated to MWR.
“Santa has helpers all throughout the world,” Walker said. “Some of those helpers this year that focused on the tree lighting ceremony were Operation Homefront and Blue Star Families.”
One of the head elves, Melissa Swift, Operation Homefront spokesperson, said about 2,000 gifts were donated to MWR by Operation Homefront. Swift said these toys were collected through donations from the area.
Walker said MWR received several other donations from other elves throughout the community.
“This local and national community of elves is recognizing Fort Campbell Soldiers and their Families and want to make sure that they feel the support, concern and love that [people] outside our gates have for Fort Campbell,” she said.
The Christmas tree will be on display through the first week of January. Families are welcome to visit the tree and take photos in front of it for their holiday cards, Walker said.
“We really want out Soldiers and Families to know that while we are showing our support through the tree lighting ceremony, we are supportive all year-round,” she said.
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