FORT RUCKER, Ala. (December 12, 2013) -- Hot cocoa and holiday cheer were just a couple of things that Soldiers, Families and civilians were able to experience Dec. 5 as Fort Rucker lit up its Christmas tree to officially ring in the holiday season.

The installation held its 11th annual Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on Howze Field that included music, singing, and Santa, but most importantly, togetherness, according to Kristi Fink, Fort Rucker special events coordinator.

"This is a great way for us to start the season and get people excited about Christmas," said Fink. "It's also a great time to get military Families and (the surrounding community) together."

Col. Stuart J. McRae, Fort Rucker garrison commander, hosted the ceremony and reminded people of the reason for the season, as well as to remember those that couldn't be there to join them on the field.

"Remember those from our ranks that can't be here tonight because of ongoing deployments," he said during the ceremony. "And keep those that are serving in harm's way, along with their Families, in our thoughts and prayers during this holiday season."

The ceremony kicked off with holiday music by the 98th Army "Silver Wings" Band followed by the Salute to Military Families Family of Excellence award.

"This time of year is a time when we recognize our military Families, their contributions to our Soldiers and Family members, and our civilians who serve here on Fort Rucker," said McRae.

The Family of Excellence Award was presented to the Eblen Family, which consists of CW3 Joval Eblen, E Company, 1st Battalion, 212th Aviation Regiment executive officer, his wife, Irene, and their four children, 10-year-old Divina, 9-year-old Isabella, 8-year-old Isaiah and 6-year-old Maribel.

Families were nominated based on their contributions to improve the quality of life for Soldiers and Family members in their unit, organization and the Fort Rucker community, according to McRae.

Along with being his unit's executive officer, Joval is also a UH-60 instructor pilot on the installation. Irene is an accomplished musician, playing both the cello and violin, and their children are involved in numerous activities that range from playing the violin, piano and soccer.

Joval said that his first thought after finding out about the award was that there were so many other Families who he thought were more deserving, and gave most of the credit to Irene.

"I think (the award) is kind of a (testament) to her character," he said. "I don't think that I do much more than anybody else on this installation does in support of the warfighter and training, but she does a lot of things above and beyond."

"We have gained a lot of strength being a military Family," said Irene with tears in her eyes. "We just enjoy our military life and try to share that and encourage others to have a great time being a military Family."

The Family was presented with a certificate that read, "Your care and concern has enhanced the quality of life for Soldiers, civilians and their Family members. Your willingness and commitment to share your resources and time is truly commendable and reflects the great credit upon you, the United States Army Aviation Center of Excellence, and the United States Army."

After the Family of Excellence Award presentation, people were treated to caroling by the Child Development Center choir, Girl Scout Troops choir and the Combined Chapel choir, followed by the presentation of the awards for the ornament contest hosted by the Directorate of Family, Morale, Welfare and Recreation.

The winners of the ornament contest were: Savannah Conner, 3-5 year-old contest winner; Charlotte Burch, 6-8 year-old contest winner; and Eden Grimes, 9-11 year-old contest winner.

After all the awards were handed out and gift baskets were received, the countdown to the tree lighting began as the Eblen Family helped flip the switch and light up the holiday season before welcoming the big man himself -- Santa Claus.

Santa arrived on a shiny, red fire truck with his elves to hand out candy canes and meet with the children before heading off to The Landing where people enjoyed a spaghetti dinner and took photos with the jolly man in red.

After the ceremony was over, many walked away full of holiday cheer.

"I think that it's great that there's an event like this on Fort Rucker," said Joseph Colin, civilian from Enterprise. "Since it's so warm here in the South around this time of year, we miss out a lot on that holiday feel. Something like this helps you get into the holiday spirit and just makes it feel so much like a close-knit community."