Holiday Tribute Trees: A Powerful Way to Remember and Honor our Military Loved Ones
When you lose someone you love, the holiday season takes on a whole new meaning. What once was the “most wonderful time of the year” might now feel anything but. Suddenly there is an empty chair at your table and an empty stocking on your mantel. Old traditions might not feel quite right anymore, so what do you do? In our recent blog post Recreating Holiday Traditions, we shared tips and ideas on how to navigate the holiday season while grieving. One of these tips is to create space to honor your grief and pain. Over the past month, we’ve been inspired to see TAPS families are doing exactly that by creating Holiday Tribute Trees in memory of their military loved ones.
Whether you’re creating your own tree in your home, helping establish one in your community, or joining us at a TAPS Togethers event, Tribute Trees are a powerful way to honor and remember your military loved one during the holiday season and just may provide comfort and healing for you and those around you as well.
Building Community While Honoring and Remembering Their Loved Ones
Jeanne and Donn Weaver’s son, U.S. Army 1LT Todd W. Weaver, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. Following Todd’s death, the couple moved from their home in Hampton, Virgina, to Cocoa Beach, Florida, to be closer to home and "be close to the cleansing waters of the ocean."
Once in Florida, the Weavers wanted to be around those who, like them, understood service and sacrifice. Jeanne began giving speeches at and getting involved with community events. She helped establish four different monuments dedicated to military service. She was active in the community, but also wanted to connect with fellow surviving family members, so she organized a dinner where local surviving military families could get together to honor and remember their loved ones. From that dinner came the idea to do something new together for the holiday season.
"Later, we would join together to do something emotionally constructive — creating a Christmas Tree which would be on display to the public during the holiday season,” Jeanne told TAPS. “Gathering materials, we made our big golden stars with pictures of our loved ones on both sides of the star. Stars were also made for the fallen in earlier wars. Today, the tree is displayed each Christmas Season in memory of our fallen in the Museum of the Veteran Memorial Center, Merritt Island, Florida. A sign stands next to it inviting others who have lost a loved one to war to contact us so that they might also have a star made in memory of their loved one. Most recently, we added a star for an MIA from the Vietnam War whose body was recently recovered.
"What better place than in the Brevard Veterans Memorial Center Museum each year to erect a Christmas tree in honor and memory of our loved ones. Donn and I feel fortunate to be a part of this Veterans Center and to live in Brevard County, which takes pride in all our military men and women serving our country.”
Providing Hope and Healing to Others
What started as something simple has turned into a powerful tool for healing for Jennifer and Jacob Woodall, surviving parents of U.S. Air Force SRA Jacob Woodall. Earlier this year, they created a Mental Health Memory Tree in Jake’s honor and began sharing their journey on TikTok.
“This is our first Christmas without Jake, and I wanted to do something to honor him and to keep my mind a little busy,” Jennifer told TAPS. “I thought it would be nice to create a mental health memory tree. On TikTok, I have connected with people that either struggle themselves or that have also lost someone. They started sending me the names of their loved ones, and I would put them on a tag and hang them on Jake’s tree.
“As of December 8th, we have over 225 names on Jake’s tree. I never, ever thought that I would have so many people sending me names of their loved ones, so that I can honor them on this tree. It breaks my heart to know that there are so many people who suffer, and that there are so many people who think they’re better off if they leave us. We are trying to pick up the pieces after them.
“The feedback that I get on TikTok from all of the families, it’s both heartbreaking and healing for both of us. It may sound a little silly, but it’s almost therapeutic to make the videos of Jake’s tree, and to share Jake’s story. It’s so good for all of us to have somebody say their name, say they matter, and know we miss them so much!”
Remembering and Honoring Those You've Met Along the Way
This holiday season, Katie Langer, surviving fiancé of U.S. Army SGT Jeremy Alan Mittlesteadt, created a Holiday Tribute Tree in honor of Jeremy’s memory. The tree is in her home and, in addition to Jeremey’s name, she included the names of the loved ones of all those she’s met and who have impacted her life since his death last year. Katie shared a video of the tree on her Instagram account.
“Christmastime is such a difficult time when half your heart is missing,” Katie shared with TAPS. “In our home, we’ve decided to create the Honor Tree, a tree celebrating not only the life of my love, SGT Jeremy Mittlesteadt, but the lives and sacrifices of other soldiers gone too soon. Each star represents the fallen soldier of dear friends who we have met through this journey. One side honors the soldier, while the other side names the family left behind, a gentle reminder to lift each one in prayer during the holiday season.”
Connecting with Your TAPS Family
On Saturday, December 10, 2022, TAPS Togethers hosted an ornament-decorating and tree-trimming event on Patrick Space Force Base, just outside of Orlando, Florida. The event brought together local surviving military families for a day of connection and healing as they came together to remember and honor their fallen heroes. Stacey Falzarano, surviving spouse of U.S. Air Force Col Thomas G. Falzarano, attended the event and shared her experience with us.
"The holidays can be difficult for us survivors. But, a TAPS Togethers event can help bring about feelings of hope and joy. During a local Fallen Hero tree-trimming event, we made ornaments and decorated the tree with pictures of our loved ones. As we shared our stories with one another, welcomed new survivors and greeted familiar faces; we cried a little, but we mostly laughed as we talked about our Fallen Heroes.
“This togetherness was simple to foment — a place, a tree, and some basic craft supplies. TAPS Togethers helped us spread the word and provide a little refreshment. An easy-to-organize event turned into a very special means to honor our loved ones and to enjoy one another during the holiday season. Try it in your neighborhood!"
Are you interested in attending or hosting a TAPS Togethers event? Let us know.
Photos courtesy of Jeanne and Donn Weaver, Jennifer and Jacob Woodall, Katie Langer, and Stacey Falzarano.