The holidays often bring a change in the weather; Christmas trees and decorations; gift-giving; and warm gatherings in a warm place. But for those in the military, particularly those deployed far away from home, this time of year can also bring pangs of longing for family and friends back home.
The push-pull of the holidays — that absence from home combined with a desire to take ‘home’ with you — has led those who are far afield to bring their traditions with them wherever they go. For generations, that’s meant decorations, lights, and festive cheer have graced overseas bases and austere outposts — often aided by a bit of rank-and-file ingenuity — like the time U.S. troops built a Christmas tree out of sandbags.
But there’s one Christmas tradition that seems particularly at odds with the environment it finds itself in, yet it persists nonetheless: Santa Claus at war.
Santa Claus’ foray into war and conflict zones date back to at least the 1800s,
with Harper’s Weekly publishing an illustration of Kris Kringle giving gifts to beleaguered Union troops in 1862 — a year into the Civil War.
Santa Claus in Camp (from Harper’s Weekly), January 3, 1863, Wood engraving, by Thomas Nast. Nast’s image was published in the 1862 Christmas issue of Harper’s Weekly, during days filled with both trials for the Union and rising hope. Santa Claus has arrived by sleigh in a Union army camp to distribute gifts. (Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Father Christmas has made the rounds in the years since, with American troops posing as Santa during both World Wars, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and other conflicts. In a dangerous place that is far from family and friends, the “ho, ho, hos” of a soldier going through similar hardship can be a welcome distraction.
Army Sgt. Hiram Proutly hands out packages to US Army Pvt. Albert Weber and Cpl. William Goldstein in England during World War II.
In recent years, the red-suited likeness of Jolly Old St. Nick has appeared downrange in Iraq and Afghanistan, from Baghdad to Mosul and on to Sangin and Marjah. In November 2011, a kitted-out yet-beardless Santa visited Marines with 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment in Sangin, Afghanistan to bring them a laugh — and hand out Gerber multi-tools, knives. Or at least, one of his helpers, Sgt. Maj. Larry J. Harrington, did, donning a Santa suit to visit Marines in remote outposts along a strip of dirt highway linking the Nahri Saraj and Kajaki Districts.
Sgt. Maj. Larry J. Harrington donning a Santa suit to visit Marines in remote outposts in Afghanistan. (Photo by James Clark)
And on Christmas Day 2008, Santa appeared in red top and Army camouflage at a combat outpost in Khost Province, which no doubt lightened the mood for 101st Airborne Division grunts tense “after a mortar attack,” according to the caption by Getty photographer Jonathan Saruk.
A US soldier from the 101st Airborne dressed as Santa Claus poses for a picture after a mortar attack at a combat outpost at the Sabari District Center on Christmas Day December 25, 2008, in Sabari District, Khost Province, Afghanistan. Khost province borders the Waziristan region in Pakistan, where it is believed foreign fighters cross into Afghanistan to combat coalition forces. (Photo by Jonathan Saruk/Getty Images)
The character has also cropped up over the years at tumultuous times and amid civil unrest; in December 2014,
a Palestinian protestor dressed as Santa Claus hurled a tear gas canister back at Israeli security personnel on the West Bank. In 2003, he was in Seoul, South Korea protesting the Iraq War, and in 2019 he was in Baghdad posing with a rose alongside Iraqi security forces at another protest.
Santa has also made numerous appearances alongside U.S. allies downrange, giving out gifts to British soldiers at Camp Bastion, or with South Korean troops in 2002 shortly after the War in Afghanistan had begun. Though Santa Claus may be best known as a children’s story or the lead character in the vast majority of Hallmark movies, it’s no real wonder that his reach extends beyond — to scenes and moments where you’d least expect him. It’s not particularly surprising, wherever people go, they take their traditions with them.
Here are more photos of Santa Claus through the years and wars.
Santa gives a thumbs-up during the USO Holiday Troop Visit Dec. 16, 2010. Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey led the star-studded group which included singer Jordin Sparks, actress Minka Kelly, former pro-basketball player Robert Horry and comedian Thomas ‘Nephew Tommy’ Miles, to boost morale and deliver some holiday cheer to troops deployed overseas. Capt. James Thomas, dressed as Santa, shakes hands with Soldiers in the motor pool of Patrol Base Assassin. Thomas serves with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, Multi-National Division – Baghdad. He flew around on Christmas day with Col. Pat White, commander of the Iron Brigade, to lift Soldiers’ spirits. Thomas is a native of Oskaloosa, Kan., and White is native of Apple Valley, Calif. Soldiers of 1st Battalion The Scots Guards are pictured delivering Christmas mail in style on a quad bike at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Oulette. (UK Ministry of Defense photo) An unmasked John Cena performs a standing fireman’s carry takeover on World Wrestling Entertainment Chairman Vince McMahon. Cena had entered the ring as Santa Claus and taunted McMahon, causing McMahon to pull off Cena’s beard and hat. (U.S. Army photo/Spc. Michael Howard) Capt. Clace Perzel, left, rides a military motorcycle side-car dressed as Santa Claus as he bids farewell to troops after distributing gifts to mark Christmas at the U.S base in Ghazni province, west of Kabul, Afghanistan on Christmas eve Saturday Dec. 24, 2005. Others unidentified.(AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq, Pool) Santa Claus reviews his flight plan for his Dec. 25 trek across the globe in the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command Current Operations Center Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013, at the NORAD and USNORTHCOM headquarters at Peterson Air Force, Colo. Santa’s visit today comes in advance of the commands’ annual NORAD Tracks Santa outreach effort, which is expected to reach more than 20 million unique visitors on the www.noradsanta.org website. British Warrant Officer 1 Scott Hawke, dressed up as Santa Claus, surprised troops in by asking them to meet him at a specified time to discuss a serious issue. Morale was lifted as Santa appeared around the corner in a white pickup truck headed up by Rudolph and Santa’s helper, and parcels from friends and families back in the UK and Germany were dished out to the troops in December 2013. (UK Ministry of Defense photo) U.S. Army Sgt. Roland Spano Jr. of Baton Rouge, La., dressed as Santa Claus fixes his costume as two South Korean soldiers pass behind him at the new building of the post exchange store Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2002 at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Coalition soldiers stationed at the base do their shopping at the store for their celebration of Christmas. (AP Photo/Pat Roque) Pfc. Kyle Garcia from Ridgefield, Wash., right, along with Spc. Steven Galvin from Holstein, Iowa, of 2nd Platoon Bravo Company 2-327 Infantry, returns fires after a sudden attack by Taliban on Combat Out Post Badel in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border on Friday, Dec. 24, 2010. The two U.S. soldiers were wearing Santa Claus hats to celebrate Christmas eve inside the small outpost when Taliban fighters shot at them from a hillside outside the base. Still wearing the hats, the soldiers rushed to take defensive positions and returned fire on the Taliban. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool) Iraqi security forces take pictures with a protester dressed as Santa Claus during ongoing protests on Rasheed Street in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban) Dressed as Santa Claus, Sgt Robert Youmans, Advanced Airborne School, lands at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, on Dec. 16, 1963. (US Army photo) In Vietnam, “Santa Claus” talks with a group of hospital patients during the Bob Hope Christmas Show, December 1970. (US Army photo) Commander Don Mackinnon, seen here on the left wearing black, starts the Santa race. The festive spirit has arrived onboard HMS Protector, the Royal Navy’s 5,000 tonne Ice Patrol Ship. After breaking ice for the first time this Austral Summer, 20 members of HMS Protector’s Ship’s Company took to the ice dressed as Santa Claus in support of the Ship’s affiliated charity, East Anglian Children’s Hospice. The Santas, accompanied by Rudolph, were gathered at 10am for a gentle warm up led by the Executive Officer, Commander Don Mackinnon, currently in command for this Antarctic Patrol, before it was “on your marks, get set, ….ho ho ho”. The Santa run was conducted on ice in the waters surrounding Deception Island, a dormant, water-filled caldera volcano, one of only two in the world. Breaking through a sheet of snow covered ice before coming to a planned stop, HMS Protector took position and disembarked her personnel to test the ice conditions and drill ice core samples to ensure the ice was safe, before Protector’s eager Santas followed via the ship’s accommodation ladder. Amid perfect weather conditions, and under the watchful eye of two seals that had taken up post next to the ship, the Santas completed their run. Annually, East Anglian Children’s Hospice conducts nine Santa runs across Essex and East Anglia throughout the festive period, raising thousands of pounds for the charity. USS CONSTELLATION, THE PERSIAN GULF – DECEMBER 24: U.S. Navy sailor Rick Pellicciotti from Follansbee, West Virginia, dressed as Santa Claus helps wheel a load of bombs to fighter planes on the deck of the USS Constellation December 24 , 2002 in the Persian Gulf. The crew of the aircraft carrier celebrated Christmas one day early because they have a full day of work on Christmas day. The war planes from the aircraft carrier have the mission to patrol the no-fly zone in southern Iraq. The no-fly zones in southern and northern Iraq were established after the 1991 Persian Gulf war to prevent Iraq from carrying out airstrikes against Shiites in southern Iraq and Kurdish forces in the north of the country. The zones have been patrolled by the United States Air Force and Navy and by the British. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) CAMP VIRGINIA, KUWAIT – DECEMBER 25: U.S. Army Captain William T. Johnson, from Richmond, Virginia, wears a Santa Claus outfit with a camouflage flak jacket and carries an M-16 rifle as he welcomes soldiers to Christmas dinner December 25, 2002 at Camp Virginia in the Kuwaiti desert. More than 10,000 soldiers are spending the holidays away from their families while on exercises in Kuwait near the Iraqi border. (Photo by Scott Nelson/Getty Images) BASRA, IRAQ: A British army soldier wearing with Santa Claus hat brings a food during a Christmas lunch in Multi-National Division (MND-SE) headquarters, at Basra International Airport, in Basra, 550kms southeast of Baghdad, 25 December 2003. AFP PHOTO/Mauricio LIMA (Photo credit should read MAURICIO LIMA/AFP via Getty Images) BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN: US air force serviceman looks at a traditionaly dressed local girl, as another one poses with Santa Claus at their base at the airport of Manas, some 30 km from Bishkek, 25 December 2005, during Christmas celebrations. AFP PHOTO/ VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO (Photo credit should read VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP via Getty Images) SAN JOSE, TINIAN – DECEMBER, 1971: A U.S. Navy petty officer dressed as Santa Claus greets children on the island of Tinian in the West Pacific Ocean. In the 1970s, Navy personnel from Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron One (VQ-1) based on Guam distributed Christmas gifts to the children of the Tinian, one of the three principal islands of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana islands in the Western Pacific region known as Micronesia. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Archive Photos/Getty Images) 5104602RA_Micronesia27.jpg US soldiers dressed as Santa Claus hand candies to fellow soldiers at the Hammer base in southern Baghdad on Christmas eve, 24 December 2007. Christians around the world will celebrate Christmas tomorrow marking the birth of Jesus Christ. AFP PHOTO / ALI AL-SAADI (Photo credit should read ALI AL-SAADI/AFP via Getty Images) A Colombian soldier fancy dressed as Santa Claus rappels down from a Blackhawk military helicopter on December 17, 2008, in Medellin, Antioquia department, Colombia. AFP PHOTO/Raul ARBOLEDA (Photo credit should read RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP via Getty Images) A US soldier from the 101st Airborne dressed as Santa Claus hands out gifts at a combat outpost at the Sabari District Center on Christmas Day December 25, 2008 in Sabari District, Khost Province, Afghanistan. Khost province borders the Waziristan region in Pakistan, where it is believed foreign fighters cross into Afghanistan to combat coalition forces. (Photo by Jonathan Saruk/Getty Images) A Palestinian man wearing a Santa Claus costume throws a tear gas capsule back to the Israeli security forces during a protest against the separation barrier and Jewish settlement construction at Bilin Village, in Ramallah, West Bank on December 26, 2014. (Photo by Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images) During a Christmas cease fire at Fire Base Evans on Dec. 25, 1969, in Cu Chi, South Vietnam, troops relaxed, cleaned equipment, attended religious services and set up a small Santa Claus and a little Christmas tree atop an armored vehicle, shown here with a shaving cream “Merry Christmas” scored on its side. A Royal Air Force crew member waves while wearing a Santa Claus costume at ISAF headquarters in Kabul on December 25, 2016. / AFP / WAKIL KOHSAR (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images) An Iraqi odontology student dressed in a Santa Claus outfit distribute gifts to impoverished children outside their shanty home in the Iraqi holy Shiite city of Najaf on December 25, 2016 / AFP / Haidar HAMDANI (Photo credit should read HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP via Getty Images) During the docking manoeuvre of the German frigate “Lübeck” a Santa Claus stands on the pier and throws sweets to the crew. After sea surveillance in the Mediterranean Sea, the ship returned to its home base in Wilhelmshaven. Photo: Mohssen Assanimoghaddam/dpa (Photo by Mohssen Assanimoghaddam/picture alliance via Getty Images) Armed military police deployed to keep order as Santa gives out presents to the local children in the town of Zakho in Kurdistan Iraq on Dec 31, 2018. (Photo by Geovien So/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images) US NATO troopers receive chocolate and sweets from the Santa Claus who pays a visit to Tuzla airbase on December 25, 1995. The base is the home and headquarters of the NATO Task Force Eagle. (Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP) (Photo by ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images) Santa Claus went on a helicopter during a Christmasparty in Military base in the Black sea town of Varna, Bulgaria on 20 December 2019. (Photo by /Impact Press Group/NurPhoto via Getty Images) Read more on
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