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Santa caught in the act: Gifts Greenlandic children during Operation Julemand

QAANAAQ, Greenland – A Qaanaaq child explores her Julemand gift Dec. 22, 2015. The gift-giving was part of Operation Julemand, an annual tradition by Thule Air Base personnel to donate toys and educational materials to Greenlandic children. The program has been going since 1959. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Victoria Camarillo)

QAANAAQ, Greenland – A Qaanaaq child explores her Julemand gift Dec. 22, 2015. The gift-giving was part of Operation Julemand, an annual tradition by Thule Air Base personnel to donate toys and educational materials to Greenlandic children. The program has been going since 1959. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Victoria Camarillo)

QAANAAQ, Greenland - Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Dellacca, 821st Support Squadron, dresses as Santa Claus as he greets the Qaanaaq attendees for Thule Air Base’s annual Julemand trip, Dec. 22, 2015. The gift-giving was part of Operation Julemand, an annual tradition by Thule Air Base personnel to donate toys and educational materials to Greenlandic children. The program has been going since 1959. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Victoria Camarillo)

QAANAAQ, Greenland - Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Dellacca, 821st Support Squadron, dresses as Santa Claus as he greets the Qaanaaq attendees for Thule Air Base’s annual Julemand trip, Dec. 22, 2015. The gift-giving was part of Operation Julemand, an annual tradition by Thule Air Base personnel to donate toys and educational materials to Greenlandic children. The program has been going since 1959. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Victoria Camarillo)

QAANAAQ, Greenland - Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Dellacca, 821st Support Squadron, holds a Qaanaaq infant during their annual Julemand trip, Dec. 22, 2015. The gift-giving was part of Operation Julemand, an annual tradition by Thule Air Base personnel to donate toys and educational materials to Greenlandic children. The program has been going since 1959. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Victoria Camarillo)

QAANAAQ, Greenland - Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Dellacca, 821st Support Squadron, holds a Qaanaaq infant during their annual Julemand trip, Dec. 22, 2015. The gift-giving was part of Operation Julemand, an annual tradition by Thule Air Base personnel to donate toys and educational materials to Greenlandic children. The program has been going since 1959. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Victoria Camarillo)

QAANAAQ, Greenland - Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Dellacca, 821st Support Squadron, greets a group of Qaanaaq children waiting to see Santa during the annual Julemand trip, Dec. 22, 2015. The gift-giving was part of Operation Julemand, an annual tradition by Thule Air Base personnel to donate toys and educational materials to Greenlandic children. The program has been going since 1959. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Victoria Camarillo)

QAANAAQ, Greenland - Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Dellacca, 821st Support Squadron, greets a group of Qaanaaq children waiting to see Santa during the annual Julemand trip, Dec. 22, 2015. The gift-giving was part of Operation Julemand, an annual tradition by Thule Air Base personnel to donate toys and educational materials to Greenlandic children. The program has been going since 1959. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Victoria Camarillo)

QAANAAQ, Greenland - Tech. Sgts. Jerome Cole and Andre Heags, 821st Support Squadron, celebrate Operation Julemand with Qaanaaq families, Dec. 22, 2015. The gift-giving trip was part of Operation Julemand, an annual tradition by Thule Air Base personnel to donate toys and educational materials to Greenlandic children. The program has been going since 1959. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Victoria Camarillo)

QAANAAQ, Greenland - Tech. Sgts. Jerome Cole and Andre Heags, 821st Support Squadron, celebrate Operation Julemand with Qaanaaq families, Dec. 22, 2015. The gift-giving trip was part of Operation Julemand, an annual tradition by Thule Air Base personnel to donate toys and educational materials to Greenlandic children. The program has been going since 1959. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Victoria Camarillo)

QAANAAQ, Greenland - Two Qaanaaq girls attend the Julemand Christmas event, Dec. 22, 2015. The gift-giving was part of Operation Julemand, an annual tradition by Thule Air Base personnel to donate toys and educational materials to Greenlandic children. The program has been going since 1959. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Victoria Camarillo)

QAANAAQ, Greenland - Two Qaanaaq girls attend the Julemand Christmas event, Dec. 22, 2015. The gift-giving was part of Operation Julemand, an annual tradition by Thule Air Base personnel to donate toys and educational materials to Greenlandic children. The program has been going since 1959. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Victoria Camarillo)

THULE AIR BASE, Greenland -- As Christmas approached, Airmen and leadership from Thule Air Base travel to the closest town, about 65 miles away, during their annual trip to deliver gifts to Greenlandic children.

Named Operation Julemand, Thule Air Base personnel have been providing Christmas gifts to local children since 1959, and has expanded over the years to include playgrounds and educational materials purchased through fundraisers at Thule. The program was originally named Operation Santa Claus, but has since been renamed Operation Julemand -- Danish for "Christmas Man" and the equivalent to Santa Claus. This multi-national effort is held by U.S., Danish and Canadian military and civilian employees at Thule to promote goodwill.

Children in the town of Qaanaaq could not have expected the multitude of gifts Julemand had in store for them during his most recent visit.

Our team eagerly waited to travel to Qaanaaq and surprise the children. However the weather was not cooperative this year and the trip was delayed by a few days. Once we received the greenlight to go, my eagerness intensified at the chance to bring a little warmth to the children in the far north village of Qaanaaq.

I think I have a fairly reserved, quiet type of personality, yet was selected to play Santa.

Thule Chaplain (Capt.) Charles Hollstein is the chair of the Julemand committee and gave me the opportunity to play Santa; coincidental as I happen to have a Santa suit leftover from Halloween.

I have never done anything remotely similar to this and wasn't sure what to expect.
Some of the elders welcomed us once we arrived at Qaanaaq airfield.

I rode into town on their fire truck to the local gym, where the bright lights and loud sirens alerted the children as they waited excitedly to greet us.
I entered the gym first and was awestruck by the turnout of many more than I expected.

The younger aged children immediately mobbed me as we slowly made our way through the room, decorated by a large Christmas tree in the center. I greeted the children and adults alike with the classic "Merry Christmas" and "ho-ho-ho."

Our group was introduced and both I and Col. Stuart Pettis, 821st Air Base Group commander, gave short speeches, which were translated.

I extended my gratitude to the town of Qaanaaq for hosting the event, and our excitement to celebrate with them during the holiday.

In return, the children along with a few adults sang songs in Greenlandic as they held hands and circled the tree. During this, a small boy grabbed my hand and pulled me into the center circle to take part in the show.

The children patiently waited through the speeches and the singing to finally get to what they anxiously waited for - presents!

Presents were individually marked by gender and age along with a child's name. There were six girls, perhaps high school age, who helped us by calling out names.

Every child received a gift. In addition to the gifts the children received, we brought more than $10,000 in computer equipment for the school in Qaanaaq and a new generator for the school/church/town center in Qeqertat.

Tech. Sgt. Jerome Cole and Tech. Sgt. Andre Heags opened two giant plastic bags filled with sweets to distribute to everyone there. What started as an orderly line quickly turned into an overjoyed swarm around them. This was truly a sight to see.

Afterwards, we walked next door to the festively decorated community center where we were offered hot beverages and light snacks before being escorted back to the airfield.

One of the workers at the airfield brought his child to work, and I was immediately relieved I had not removed my beard. As we waited for our helicopter I was able to partake in my last duty as Santa for the day. The young boy sat on my knee and as the father translated for us he told me about his year and what he wanted for Christmas.

At last, our mission was complete. Our group left with smiles on our face and monumental joy in our hearts. What a wonderful feeling to boost morale and accord for the U.S., Danish and Greenlandic parties involved.

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