Inside DOD   Know Your Military

Drive-Thru Winter Wonderland Greets Military Families

Dec. 11, 2020 | BY Katie Lange, DOD News

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade: that’s an old adage many people have had to take to heart this year. It’s also a motto a lot of military kids have grown up with, so when the COVID-19 pandemic canceled a lot of their 2020 plans, they adjusted. 

This holiday season, organizations that usually help some of the Defense Department’s most deserving families had to adjust their usual plans, too, when it came to showering those families with Christmas cheer. 

A man dressed as the Grinch slinks away from Santa as he holds two large red bags.
Winter Wonderland 2020
During a drive-thru holiday event for military families in Arlington, Va., the Grinch jokingly tries to sneak off with bags of Santa's goodies.
Photo By: Daniel Swartz
VIRIN: 201207-O-ZZ999-106

Every December in the National Capital Region, families of the fallen and children with at least one parent on a high deployment cycle are celebrated at the Ritz Carlton in Arlington, Virginia. The hotel’s ballroom is transformed into a winter wonderland complete with snowball pits, a toy room, a hot chocolate bar and visits from Christmas mainstays like Santa and the Grinch. 

"We typically have a large contingent of those children just because of the nature of the sacrifices that they've made," said Emma Dockery, founder of the nonprofit Yellow Ribbons United. "Those are always our first go-to just because they sacrificed so much for the nation. We feel like they need to be honored for such."

A man dressed as the Grinch waves to two boys in the back seat of an SUV.
Winter Wonderland 2020
The Grinch waves to two boys in the back seat of an SUV. The family was attending a drive-thru holiday event for military families in Arlington, Va., Dec. 7, 2020.
Photo By: Daniel Swartz
VIRIN: 201207-O-ZZ999-105
A child in reindeer ears looks out an open car window at Santa.
Winter Wonderland 2020
A military child looks out her car window at Santa during a drive-thru holiday event in Arlington, Va., Dec. 7, 2020.
Photo By: Daniel Swartz
VIRIN: 201207-O-ZZ999-101

Just like everything else, though, the pandemic brought those 2020 plans to a halt. 

But again – when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. And that’s exactly what organizers did. 

Dockery said the families are so special that they couldn’t forgo the experience entirely, so -- like everything else this year -- the celebration was modified. 

A small child sits in a car holding a box while a woman smiles beside him.
Winter Wonderland 2020
A drive-thru holiday event for military families in Arlington, Va., put a smile on the faces of the children in attendance, who received toys and other goodies, Dec. 7, 2020.
Photo By: Daniel Swartz
VIRIN: 201207-O-ZZ999-104

Volunteers set up a drive-thru event at the old Navy Annex parking lot at Arlington National Cemetery. The site, which will eventually become part of the expanded cemetery, is a symbol in itself for many of the kids attending. 

"For some of the families of the fallen, I think it's going to be a really sweet memory to be right there, kind of near your loved one and be able to have some holiday cheer," Dockery said. 

Two small children smile while looking out of their SUV.
Winter Wonderland 2020
Two small children from a military family smile out of the window during a drive-thru holiday event in Arlington, Va., Dec. 7, 2020.
Photo By: Daniel Swartz
VIRIN: 201207-O-ZZ999-108
Santa waves to two minivans.
Winter Wonderland 2020
Santa waves to passing vans full of military families during a drive-thru holiday event in Arlington, Va., Dec. 7, 2020.
Photo By: Daniel Swartz
VIRIN: 201207-O-ZZ999-109

From the safety of their cars, masked-up kids got to see the Grinch, the Elf on the Shelf and the Gingerbread Man. All of this was done for them amid beautiful holiday music, decorations and Santa, who wasn’t going to miss it! 

"This year, [children] have had to exercise so much patience and so much growth as individuals. They go to school online, not really being able to see their friends and not really being able to have the same interactions," Dockery said. "So, anything we can do as a community to really be able to get behind them and show support for them is so needed."

Each family then idled for a few minutes so Santa and some of his helpers could deliver bags of toys and other goodies into their trunks before heading home. No one got out of their car, and all volunteers remained in their masks and gloves. 

A man puts a full bag into a trunk.
Winter Wonderland 2020
A volunteer at a drive-thru holiday event for military families in Arlington, Va., puts a bag of goodies in a family's car, Dec. 7, 2020.
Photo By: Daniel Swartz
VIRIN: 201207-O-ZZ999-103
A woman hands a stuffed animal to a child through a car window.
Winter Wonderland 2020
Children of military families were given toys and other goodies during a drive-thru event in Arlington, Va., Dec. 7, 2020.
Photo By: Daniel Swartz
VIRIN: 201207-O-ZZ999-107

"It’s very different from what they’ve experienced in the past, but at least it’s something to create some sort of happy holiday memories," Dockery said. 

Dockery, whose dad spent 30 years in the military, remembers what it was like when he was deployed during the Gulf War holiday season. She said it’s years like this that encapsulate why taking care of these families is so important. 

"I know what that feels like to have a loved one missing from the table," she said. "In a year that’s been so crazy and so hard for all of us, we – as civilians – experienced some of the hardships [they do] of not having people around, or just having that feeling of uncertainty." 

A child in a car seat holds toys while waving out of her window.
Winter Wonderland 2020
Military children were treated to toys and other goodies during a drive-thru holiday event in Arlington, Va., Dec. 7, 2020.
Photo By: Daniel Swartz
VIRIN: 201207-O-ZZ999-110

Yellow Ribbons United partnered with Veterans Success Group to pull off the event. 

By the looks of some of those little faces, I’d say it was still a success!