Maybe they decorate a Christmas tree and maybe not because the Airmen working at Edwards Air Force Base in California represent numerous multicultural backgrounds, symbolic of their generational family traditions during the holiday season.
A total of 2,266 military personnel live at the base, according to the most recent data available from fiscal year 2017, said Giancarlo Casem, who works in the 412th Test Wing Public Affairs Office at Edwards. Current statistics are estimated to be similar, he noted.
In the 2017 figures, 1,900 family members of military personnel also lived on base and the civilian workforce reached 7,093 that year, Casem said.
Maj. Christopher Campbell of the U.S. Air Force Test Center; Tech. Sgt. David Leon, Jr. of the 412th Security Forces Squadron; and Airman 1st Class Denicka Angeles each described personal approaches to holiday celebrations.
Campbell and Leon still live on base with their families, but Angeles, a newly-wed, lived on based with her fiancé until recently.
Angeles and Thomas Monack, an Army veteran, married in August and just moved into their home in Rosamond.
Campbell and his wife Melissa have a small Christmas tree — about 4-feet high — in the corner of the entryway of their home, a tree with colorful lights that draw the attention of Charlotte, their 3-and-a-half year old daughter. In comparison, trees in their growing up years ranged between 6-feet and 7-feet high. Attached to a wall alongside the tree, the family has three Christmas stockings.
Now they keep decorations sparse because that makes moving easier. The major said he has candlesticks, easy to pack and takes little room. Then, the color candles he chooses depends on the holiday. For Christmas it’s green and red.
The couple has been married 10 years. “Our parents set us up,” Melissa Campbell said. “He was in the Air Force Academy. We’re from Pennsylvania.”
“Outside of Philadelphia,” Christopher Campbell said. The area was surrounded by Christmas tree farms, where people cut down the tree of their choice.
“Almost everyone had a fresh cut tree,” Christopher Campbell said. Each year his family drove around town to see all the lights and decorations.
Trees were covered in bright lights, his wife said. Because of the snowfall, people customarily went sledding, she added. “Pennsylvania is fairly traditional. We had more unique experiences when we lived in England and Japan.”
They’ve lived at Edwards nearly four years, their longest stay anywhere. They lived in Japan three years and in England for two years.
“In Japan, their idea of Christmas is removed from all religious concepts,” Christopher Campbell said. “They typically don’t have trees. But it’s very popular to get Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas Day. We went to the mall. Nothing’s closed. There were people waiting in line to pick up their KFC. The other thing — the traditional Christmas cake, a white cake, covered in whipped cream with strawberries on top.”
“It’s delicious,” Melissa Campbell said.
“We were invited to someone’s house,” Christopher Campbell said.
“So we ran to the store to get a cake,” his wife added.
“England is all about a fancy Christmas dinner,” Major Campbell said.
“It starts at lunch,” his wife noted.
“It’s a big meal,” the Major said. “It’s like our Thanksgiving, two hours of eating. The meal begins with Christmas crackers, but they’re not edible crackers.” Each couple pulls a string at one end of a brightly wrapped cardboard tube and it makes a popping noise. Then they find a small gift inside along with a tissue paper crown.
“The food is similar to here,” Christopher said, “a Christmas roast or a ham. A common dessert is either mints or treacle tart — a pie-like concoction that’s gooey and flavored with Christmas spices. The major compared it to fruitcake with a heavy molasses flavor.
“It’s not as bitter as molasses,” his wife said. “It’s sweeter.”
“We haven’t made it here,” the Major said. “One of our favorite treats is called banoffee pie. We’ve done that a lot here. It has a soft caramel base, layers of bananas and it’s covered in whipped cream, with a dusting of chocolate.”
“We just received word that we will be moving this summer,” the major said. “We’re move in June of 2019. I’ve been assigned to the National Capitol Region, which is military speak for Washington, D.C. We’re excited to be closer to our hometown.”
In the Leon family home, wife Justine also has a decorated tree — at least 6-feet high. There too, stockings hang on a wall because there is no fireplace or mantel. The five stockings are for David Leon, his wife Justine, and the couple’s three daughters — Jenasis, 13; Jiselle, 4; and Jacelyn, 3.
David returned this year from a deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in the southern part of that nation, close to the border with Pakistan.
“It’s an active war zone,” said David. “Pretty much anywhere in Afghanistan is an active war zone. You have to get in a mindset that you’re not in America anymore, so you have to be prepared to act. That’s where training comes in.” But, he added, “It’s no longer about training. It’s about action.” On holidays like Christmas American military bases come under fire.
“It’s nice to be back. That way my wife and kids are not by themselves,” he said. “I left in October of last year. I got back in May this year. I missed all the major holidays.”
Casem pointed out that when Airmen are deployed overseas, their families back home have a lot of support to help them through difficulties or issues they face — a factor meant to ease concerns of the Airman. “That makes a successful deployment, knowing that everything is taken care of back home.”
Justine Leon said her holiday decorations incorporate “just the traditional stuff, decorating the tree and other decorations and making cookies. The kids get to pick. This year we made Christmas-colored Rice Krispies treats.”
The Leons planned to spend the holiday with family in Arizona.
“It will be the first time in a long time that the entire family got together — 10 grandkids will be in the house and three dogs,” Justine Leon said. She was born in Chicago and lived there until age 9, when she moved to Germany with her two older sisters who were both in the Air Force. They lived in Germany about three years. Justine Leon is a military veteran.
“That’s how we met, in the Security Forces. Oklahoma is where I joined,” she said.
“I was born in Spain,” said David Leon. “My dad’s retired Air Force. He was stationed in Spain when I was born.” He was a year old when his family left Spain and headed to California.
“I moved six times when my dad was in. Then I moved three times since I’ve been in — Arizona, Texas and then Edwards,” he said.
During the holiday season, “food is the biggest thing,” said the David. That’s true for both his family and his wife’s family, a blend of two cultures. David Leon comes from Mexican lineage and his wife’s family roots are in the Philippines. So their Christmas meal consists of tamales and menudo — a peppery soup or stew with tripe, pozole and assorted vegetables. Also on the dinner table is lumpia, a kind of egg roll popular in the Philippines and pancit, transparent long glass noodles, another dish from the Philippines.
Justine Leon said the long noodles grant long life to the diner and are also popular at birthday celebrations and New Year’s. At New Year’s celebrations the table offerings include 12 types of round fruit — “long-lasting food for each month to make sure you don’t go hungry.
Casem, also of Philippine heritage, said, “during New Year’s we would jump around to grow taller, and open the front door and back door to clear any omens.”
“All the negativity is supposed to leave the house,” Justine Leon said. “You get a bowl of rice, put coins inside, even dollars. It’s for prosperity in the coming year.”
“We listen to Mexican music for Christmas. We’ll do Christmas music too,” said David.
For the children. plastic candy canes are filled with M&M’s, little toys and puzzles, Justine Leon said.
David Leon said he has been at Edwards for two years, in Arizona six years and in Texas four years. He was deployed to Iraq in 2007 and 2011.
Because Angeles and her husband just moved into their Rosamond home, and were having carpeting installed, they didn’t have any holiday decorations this year. Angeles met for her interview with Aerotech News and Review at a coffee shop in town.
She and her husband hail from Northern California. They met in 2014 at De Anza College, a community college in Cupertino. She’s been in the military two years. She knew, at a young age, that she wanted to pursue a military career.
“Before I joined, I went to thank people who supported my decision. One was my sixth-grade teacher. She’s actually a family friend,” Angeles said. Until she entered the Air Force, only one relative served in the military, an uncle in the Navy.
“I followed in his footsteps. He’s the reason my whole family is here. Otherwise, we would have been in the Philippines. He brought my mom here. My husband’s family has a heavy military background. He is an Army veteran. Private 1st Class Thomas Monack. He was a combat engineer. He served in Afghanistan 13 months. He spent Christmas in Afghanistan.”
Angeles said her husband was on active duty for four years, then was on call for another four years. His eight years were completed in 2016. She has a photo of her husband standing in front of an Army tent in Afghanistan together with then Sgt. Aumoana Sailo, currently Sgt. 1st Class Sailo from Hawaii. Their tent was decorated with Christmas ornaments back in 2009.
Although her home isn’t decorated for the holiday, she said at Edwards “we decorated the entire work center. We wrapped the desks in gift wrap and (attached) snowflakes and ornaments.”
In addition to the inspiration Angeles gained from her uncle, she also credits her husband for her military career. “He gave me the encouragement. I love what I do. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like a job. I should be promoted soon, going from an E-3 to an E-4. I am an aviation resource manager. We clear air crew to fly.”
As far as her family customs for the holidays, Angeles said, “I grew up with the tradition of opening gifts at midnight on Christmas Eve, instead of Christmas morning. Our celebration was Christmas Eve.” On Christmas Day the family ate leftovers and watched movies. On Christmas Eve the meal consisted of roast beef and ham, plus the trimmings.
“My uncle, with 20 years in the Navy, became accustomed to traditional American food instead of Filipino food. My mom would save long noodles for New Year’s, long noodles, long life. I used to joke with her and say, ‘it’s going to be a long year.’”
Her husband’s ancestry is Italian, but his relatives have been in this country for so many generations that they completely adopted American practices for the holidays.
Every Christmas has been different since we met. We have to decide who’s family we’re going to see. At her uncle’s house there is a Christmas tree. But, Angeles said, “We’re not big on decorating. We might rent a cabin in Utah next Christmas. With kids, we’ll definitely have a Christmas tree.”
“I grew up in a small apartment, too small for a tree.” Her mother did hang lights. “She likes Christmas lights. That’s about it. Christmas celebrations in the Philippines were big. Their decorations were different. They had this big giant star with lights. Sometimes they would blink. It’s called a parol.” Parols are festive, multi-colored decorations which typically measure about 2-feet in diameter.
“I might try to build one myself,” Angeles said. When the couple lived on base, she said, they had a shelf on one wall that resembled a mantel. She decorated it with garland and lights.
“I bake a lot and I bring it to work. The cookies I make best are raspberry white chocolate. My husband and my pilot joke that I’m fattening them up. Coming from two completely different backgrounds we’re still trying to find our own tradition.”