By Sydney Johnson
While deployments to the frontlines are undeniably difficult during the holidays, even service members stationed in “safe” locations feel the struggle of being apart from their families during this important season.
When freshly-minted U.S. Naval Academy graduate, then-Ensign Alexandria Alvarez, was stationed in sunny Jacksonville, Florida, she was ready to serve and do what she’d dreamt of for years: serve her country.
The weather was gorgeous, but once the holiday season arrived, it just didn’t feel right with the temperatures outside warm enough for short-sleeved t-shirts. Since she had grown up in northern New Jersey, Alvarez was used to seeing her breath in the cold winter air and wearing a coat during Christmastime.
“It was weird being warm,” she said.
She and her fellow service members were split into two groups for holiday leave. All of her friends went home for first leave, which overlapped with Christmas, while she got to go home for second leave, which overlapped with New Year’s.
Alvarez told her older brother that she was hesitant to decorate because she lived alone and wasn’t going to have anyone with her for the holidays. The idea of having nothing in her house that signified Christmas baffled him, so he told her to at least find something small.
Convinced, she made her way to the store the day after Thanksgiving, in search of a modest three-foot tree. Although she found the small tree she was searching for, once she caught a glimpse of a seven-and-a-half-footer, she opted for the larger tree.
As the red-calendar December days drew closer, being away from family and friends slowly began to sink in for Alvarez.
Christmas Eve for the Alvarez family was – and still is – filled with traditions, including eating a hearty meal, getting cozy to open presents at midnight, playing games, watching movies and enjoying each other’s company. Because of the family’s Latin heritage, it’s the biggest holiday of the year for them, which is why being away for the first time ever was tough for the now-lieutenant.
Luckily, Christmas Eve “wasn’t as bad” because Alvarez was busy on duty. However, the following day – Christmas Day itself – was when it really sunk in that she was alone for Christmas.
“I got off duty, went to my townhouse and turned on the A.C. to make it cold. I bundled up in a blanket, put on a robe and FaceTimed [family members] as I opened presents and then watched Christmas movies.”
To everyone’s surprise, Alvarez wasn’t the first family member to use the A.C.-chilling trick to create a winter holiday ambiance.
Twenty-three years prior, Alvarez’s aunt, former Engineman Carla Johnson, found herself stationed in a tropical location for the holiday: Guam.
The island of Guam, located in the Pacific, provided Johnson with some great memories, but it wasn’t the most ideal place for a Jersey girl to spend Christmas. She had been lucky enough to go home for Christmas during her first year in the Navy, but she had to improvise for the following two Christmases, which she spent apart from her family and with her three friends instead.
“One of the things we did, since we lived on a tropical island, was we went and got a tree,” Johnson said. “We would make warm foods, as opposed to tropical foods and we watched “The Sound of Music,” which I made them do.”
Additionally, Johnson and her friends started a new, unconventional tradition that her niece would unknowingly re-kindle decades later:
“We would blast the A.C. so it would feel like we were someplace cold.”
Without even knowing it, with more than two decades between these two family members’ time in service, both Alvarez and Johnson used the power of their air conditioning units to bring themselves closer to home for Christmas – making a new holiday tradition in the process.