While most families have been busy wrapping strings of lights around their trees to bring the spirit of Christmas into their homes, two Tooele County families have instead been wrapping their heartstrings around the world to invite the Christmas spirit in. With the fathers of their little families literally on the opposite side of the globe, they will use these heartstrings — and modern technology — to celebrate Christmas together, though they are more than 7,000 miles apart.
Alyssa McClellan, 24, of Erda, and Mariah Brown, 27, of Grantsville, share a common bond this Christmas. They and their children will celebrate Christmas while being separated from their husbands and fathers. Specialist Collin McClellan, 23, and Specialist Travis Brown, 31, are soldiers in the same unit and are currently stationed in Afghanistan. Though their tour of duty is coming to an end, these soldiers will not return home until after the holiday season has come and gone.
“Even though I’m not there physically, I am in their hearts,” Collin said of Alyssa and their twin 2-year-old sons, Riley and Jackson. “I love all three of them until the very end. If I could have anything in the world, it would be to never leave their side again.”
The Browns have three children: Parker, 5, Chloee, 2, and Karsen, 1.
“Being away for the holidays is hard,” Travis said. “But it does not mean that it has to be a depressing time. It just means we get to experience life in a different way. The important thing to me is knowing that I have a wonderful family that loves and supports me.”
There is an 11 and a half hour time difference between Utah and where the soldiers are stationed in Afghanistan. However, this will not interfere with their festivities or family traditions. The celebrations will go on as usual. The time difference means it will be Christmas night for the soldiers when it is Christmas morning for the families.
Through modern technology, the Browns will still participate together in their normal family activities.
“Thanks to the Internet, I am still able to go shopping with my wife, even if it is online shopping,” said Travis. “I will still participate in our family festivities. I plan on Skyping on Christmas Eve. That way I can participate in telling the nativity story, sing Christmas songs and help with the kids’ bedtime routine. After the kids are in bed, I plan on chatting with Mariah while she sets up things for the morning. Then I will Skype on Christmas morning as well so I can see my kids open gifts and play together.”
This will be the third Christmas for the McClellan family. Unlike the Browns, who have been married for seven years, the McClellans have not had much time to establish their family traditions. Their first Christmas was just a few weeks after their twins were born on Dec. 17, 2009. Jackson, whose lungs had not fully developed, was in the neonatal intensive care unit for the first few weeks of his life.
With her husband being gone this year, their only “normal” Christmas was last year when the boys had just turned a year old.
For both wives, dealing with the holidays alone has been one of the hardest challenges of the deployment. The Browns usually spend time together visiting Santa and viewing the lights on Temple Square as a family. Mariah and her children will take a “flat daddy” — a picture of Travis blown up to approximately 16-by-20 inches — with them this year.
“It’s hard to get motivated to do those holiday things without him,” Mariah said. “Some things just won’t happen. I probably won’t put lights on the house. I’ve had a hard time getting enthused about the holidays this year.”
Alyssa said she feels the same.
“I don’t think I realized how much the holidays meant to me until I had to do it by myself,” she said. “At first I didn’t want anything to do with it and thought the boys were young enough that I could just skip out of it.”
When the McClellans talked about this, they decided they needed to still make it special for the boys.
“We want to try to keep their life as normal as possible through all this,” said Alyssa.
Alyssa and the twins will do the usual Christmas activities of getting up early and opening presents. They will include Collin via Skype, if the Internet is working. If the Internet is not working, she will take a video and send it to Collin via email. After the presents are opened and they have had time to share their experiences, Alyssa, Jackson and Riley will spend time with Collin’s family.
Regardless of whether they have good communication on Christmas Day, the McClellans will not miss out on sharing the Christmas experience together. They have plans to celebrate another Christmas with Collin when he returns home.
“Once Collin is home it will be fun, especially for the boys, to do a Christmas for daddy,” Alyssa said. “We’ll reenact Christmas morning and have the boys run and get him up. We will focus on him and let the boys share their excitement about Christmas with him.”
Learning to cherish the little moments that many others take for granted is one of the positive aspects of deployment separation, Alyssa said.
“Those little moments are the things that make up your life,” she said. “It’s not the actual Christmas Day and the coffee cake you eat in the morning, it’s the fact that you can reach out and share those moments together.”
Focusing on those special times is what Mariah feels will make this year’s Christmas a good one, despite the distance.
“We want to focus on traditions and cherish the time we have together during the holidays,” she said. “Sometimes Christmas can get stressful, especially this year. But we don’t want to let that part of Christmas happen. We just want to focus on enjoying the time we do have together. We still are a family. We just aren’t together this year.”
When this deployment ends and they are together again, it is those same small moments they plan on cherishing, Mariah said.
“I definitely feel that I will have a greater appreciation for future holidays with my family,” Travis said. “You don’t realize what a blessing it is to spend time with the ones you love until that opportunity isn’t available.”
Alyssa said although thousands of miles may separate their families this Christmas, modern technology, creativity and a few loving heartstrings will keep them from being disconnected.
“I can firmly say that as hard as this deployment has been, we wouldn’t be as strong or as close as we are right now,” Alyssa said. “He may be thousands of miles away, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt as close to Collin as I do now.”