With the flip of a switch, a towering evergreen tree laden with homemade decorations and lights cast a soft glow across Howze Parade Field before hundreds of community members Dec. 3.
Five-year-old Emma Hatcher and U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence and Fort Rucker Commander Maj. Gen. James O. Barclay III managed the colorful display controls during the annual post Christmas tree lighting ceremony.
"This is the official kickoff to the holiday season," Barclay said.
Military children submitted ornaments to decorate the installation tree through a Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation contest last month. Hatcher was named the overall winner. Barclay and Garrison Commander Col. Yvette Kelley also recognized Ellis Burrill, 3; Lily Sines, 5; and Reese Fletcher, 9; for winning in various age categories.
Inspired by her military father CW2 Steve Hatcher's Army service, Hatcher designed a helicopter ornament decorated with the words, "I love the USA."
The pint-sized artist said she enjoyed counting down to the lighting ceremony with Barclay and the crowd.
Her mother, Jen, said her husband is currently serving in Iraq, and she noted spending time with their "military Family" here helps make the holidays feel more special.
"My military Family understands what we are going through," Jen said. "We have three girls. It is hard for them to understand why daddy hasn't come home. It is even harder for me to explain as the time passes. I have Family, friends, the Hearts Apart program, the Flatiron Family and fellow spouses to keep us busy. They make sure we are taken care of. I feel very blessed to have them."
While celebrating the Army Family Christmas, event attendees warmed themselves with coffee and hot chocolate. Post children's choirs entertained the crowd with traditional Christmas carols. Santa Claus paraded down Novosel Street on a classic fire truck, greeting children with handfuls of candy.
Deborah Friederichs, of Dothan, brought her granddaughter, Abigail, 4, to see St. Nick and to visit with other Army Families, who often spend the holidays away from relatives.
"It's a ritual that is Family-oriented so they can have memories," Friederichs said. "It makes a little bit of home come here."
While Abigail, daughter of CW3 Joshua Friederichs, might not understand the military Family concept, her grandmother said the ceremony was still special for her.
"In a 4-year-old's eyes, this is the most important reason for the season," she said of the lights, candy and interaction with other children.
Flight school student 2nd Lt. Charles Ackley attended with his 19-month-old son, Jameson, for similar reasons.
"You get out and you get to see other Families," the D Company, 1st Battalion, 145th Aviation Regiment Soldier said. "We all share one common thing and in the end, we're all brothers and sisters."
The best part of the event for Jameson, however, was simply sharing his wish list with Santa in person by the large Christmas tree on Howze Parade Field, according to his dad.