FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- Fort Rucker ushered in the holiday season with its annual tree lighting and Commanding General's Holiday Concert Dec. 3 to packed houses at Howze Field and the post theater, respectively.

Special guests Santa and Mrs. Claus joined the hundreds in attendance as youth and community choirs, the Maneuver Center of Excellence Band and even uninvited guest, the Grinch, helped open the holidays on post with the sounds of the season and a call by Maj. Gen. William K. Gayler, U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence and Fort Rucker commanding general, to remember the many Soldiers who serve away from home and loved ones this year.

TREE LIGHTING

"My wife gave me the best advice right before I walked up here when she said, 'Don't talk long -- the kids are excited,'" he said.

"As we begin this season, remember there are many, many Soldiers far away from their families during this Christmas holiday and this holiday season. Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers," Gayler added. "We have over 140,000 Soldiers all over the world today that don't get the opportunity to be with loved ones and to tell each other what they mean to them. So, take that opportunity over this holiday season, and share the spirit of Christmas and the love you have for your family and community."

Narrator Mike Kozlowski, Army Community Service, then announced the winners of the Directorate of Family, and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Christmas Ornament Contest winners, adding that many of the ornaments on the post tree were the creations of Fort Rucker youth who entered the contest.

Winners were: Emma Ryan in the ages 3-5 category; Mark Meadows, 6-8; and Dorian Smith, 9-11 and overall winner.

Smith then helped the CG light the tree just before Santa and Mrs. Claus arrived via escort by the Directorate of Public Safety Community Police while riding in a Fort Rucker firetruck. The North Pole duo then walked down the red carpet laid out in welcome to the cheers of gathered youth, handed out treats and encouraged all to join them at The Landing for photos with Santa.

CG'S HOLIDAY CONCERT

Gayler spoke again as the MCOE Band from Fort Benning, Georgia, took the stage.

"You didn't come to hear me, but I wanted to say Merry Christmas to all of you," he said before thanking the communities in the Wiregrass for their outstanding support of Fort Rucker and the Army. "This is our gift to you, to give back to you for all that you do for us. Please sit back and enjoy the evening."

Chief Warrant Officer of the Aviation Branch CW5 Joseph B. Roland and Command Sgt. Maj. of the Aviation Branch Brian N. Hauke then took to the stage and treated the audience to a reading of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," accompanied by the band.

As holiday favorite after holiday favorite filled the theater, a guest in a red suit made a sudden appearance, but this wasn't the jolly old elf -- it was the Grinch set on ruining the night by wreaking havoc on the band, throwing around the presents under the tree in front of the stage and taunting the crowd before being run off by Capt. Aaron Morris, band commander.

After things calmed back down, the band played a rousing rendition of "O Holy Night," featuring the trumpet of Spc. Brandon Dickson, and also dedicated "All I Want for Christmas is You," to deployed Soldiers everywhere.

Students from Fort Rucker Elementary School then performed "The Twelve Days of Christmas," before Santa Claus showed up with the Grinch in tow, who apologized and passed out treats and took selfies with the crowd before Morris began closing the show.

"The Maneuver Center of Excellence Band and I truly hope that you've enjoyed this evening and that it's helped you and yours get into holiday spirit," he said. "For us, we deeply cherish evenings like this, an opportunity where we can all come together with a shared purpose and unity to celebrate and enjoy each other's company.

"With all of the headlines we see day to day, opportunities like tonight may seem increasingly rare," Morris added. "But let tonight be a reminder to all of us, regardless of where we're from or what or how we choose to celebrate, we can do best together. We wish you a merry Christmas, happy holidays, and may you have a blessed and happy New Year."