Holiday tree shines one last time
December 14, 2011
SCHWETZINGEN, Germany -- As light gradually faded the afternoon of Dec. 7, excited voices of children got louder as they waited for their chance to decorate a tree outside Kilbourne Kaserne in Schwetzingen.
For 24 years, the city of Schwetzingen and U.S. forces from nearby installations have partnered with locals and Americans alike for a tree lighting ceremony.
Due to the transfer of organizations and the closure of both Tompkins Barracks and Kilbourne Kaserne, this ceremony -- the last official one -- was particularly bittersweet.
U.S. Army NATO Brigade Commander Col. B.J. Constantine Jr. gave the opening remarks, and Command Sgt. Maj. Mark K. Schindler translated his words into German.
We thank you for the warm friendship and our hosts, who for so many years opened their hearts and homes for us.
We really appreciate all you've done for us over the years," Constantine said.
Schwetzingen Lord Mayor Dr. René Pöltl said that while there will no longer be an official lighting, the city will always remember and cherish the partnership that existed for so many years.
He also asked the crowd to remember deployed service members from both countries.
"This is a very special time for all families, but don't forget the German and American Soldiers who are alone somewhere in the world, doing their duty for their nations," Pöltl said.
After the speeches, the classic poem "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" was read in English and German.
Soldiers passed out ornaments to the children, some of whom came with their own.
Julia Miller, nearly 3, daughter of Staff Sgt. Mitch Miller from American Forces Network, rode on her dad's shoulders and toted a small felt reindeer.
When the children were given the go-ahead, the toddler joined what resembled a race to decorate the tree as quickly as possible.
Some children needed help reaching branches.
Sgt. Imelda Winslow, a supply sergeant with the NATO Brigade, lifted a small boy a few feet in the air so he could place his ornament on the tree.
Police chief Hubert Böllinger picked up his 3-year-old niece Lilly Lou who he said was so excited by last year's events that she asked to come again.
Just a few minutes into decorating, Santa Claus appeared from a firetruck, and the children turned away from the tree to flock to the jolly man while the U.S. Army Europe Band played "Here Comes Santa Claus."
The band then played the German classic "O Tannenbaum" and "We Wish you a Merry Christmas," and the crowd sang along. After, refreshments were served in the kantine on Tompkins Barracks.
The tree decorating ceremony was started at Kilbourne Kaserne in 1987 by then commander of 1st Personnel Command, Maj. Gen. Ronald Brooks, and Norbert J. Hooks, at the time a liaison officer.
Hooks is now the U.S. Army Europe protocol officer.
"Soon thereafter, we had [the] best contacts with the principal of the Nordstadtschule, which is located in the Schwetzingen Nordstadt.
For many years, the principal and a few teachers as well as some parents along with Soldiers and their children from 1st PERSCOM, made this event a truly great example of German and American friendship," Hooks said.
Each year, the mayor's office obtains a tree and decorates it with lights, which are not turned on until after the children hang their ornaments.
"The Nordstadtschule has always attended (at our invitation) to come over with school children for the opportunity to see the tree and greet Santa Claus," said Richard Pevoski, USANATO Brigade's chief of staff.
In 2008, 1st PERSCOM was inactivated, but many wanted to keep the tradition alive.
"The mayor's office approached us in the fall of 2008 and asked if we'd still be doing a ceremony now that the 1st PERSCOM was no longer active," Pevoski said.
Hooks said he asked then NATO Brigade Commander Col. Leah R. Fuller-Friel to continue the tradition. Fuller-Friel was the first female USANATO brigade commander.
"She, having been a member of 1st PERSCOM when she was a captain, gladly accepted this request and so the tradition lived on," Hooks said.
Tompkins Barracks and Kilbourne Kaserne are scheduled to close within the next year, but many believe the partnership between the U.S. forces and Schwetzingen is everlasting.
"Over the last few years, USANATO has had a very good relationship with the Schwetzingen mayor's office. [In fact], Fredericksburg, Va. is now one of Schwetzingen's official partner cities, and the city has agreed to assist us in the coordination for use of the Schwetzinger Schloss for the USANATO 2012 change of command ceremony," Pevoski said.