The commissary celebrates the impact of the traditional festive meal on service members – from the first Thanksgiving to today’s winter holidays

FORT GREGG-ADAMS, Va.From the first Thanksgiving to today’s winter holidays, the traditional festive meal has been a significant morale boost for service members, especially during wartime.

 With thousands of U.S. military members stationed and deployed worldwide, the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) celebrates the impact the holiday meal makes to help provide a feeling of home.

“When I was aboard a ship far from home, there was nothing like that Thanksgiving dinner or those festive meals during the holidays to lift your spirits,” said Navy Command Master Chief Mario Rivers, senior enlisted advisor to the DeCA director. “I feel spoiled today as we have a commissary to help us save significantly on the products for our holiday meals. For many of our troops deployed or stationed in remote areas they don’t take that special meal for granted.”

Throughout history, the holidays have been celebrated by thousands of deployed service members. Over the years, the services and their respective commissary operations have tried to give deployed service members a little taste of home.

Thanksgiving and Christmas share some common themes, and many families have been celebrating them in the same way for hundreds of years. Many of the traditional foods like turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie, ham and cranberry sauce are now staples at both dinners. However, the holidays for troops haven’t always been so festive, and often they only had sparse rations like hardtack and salt pork for their meals.

During the American Civil War, many of the soldiers were hungry and reduced to stealing from vegetable gardens and begging for scraps from private citizens. During the Siege of Petersburg in 1864, the Confederate Army was holding on for dear life, at near starvation levels. Even some of the Union soldiers were suffering from a lack of provisions and scavenging slaughter pens for meager scraps of meat. 

During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson reminded Americans to remember the American soldiers in Europe and continue with stateside rationing of food to help feed them overseas. The standard ration for American soldiers was greatly improved for Thanksgiving, and soldiers and sailors in combat zones, on ships and in military camps were offered a proper holiday meal. Soldiers in France also received gift packages from their families that were packed with goodies to help boost their morale.

In 1939, Thanksgiving became an official holiday in America when President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the fourth Thursday of each November as the official day to celebrate.

During World War II, the typical military rations were canned and precooked “C” and “K” rations. However, during the holidays, military cooks – sometimes working in rolling field kitchens – went all out and provided traditional meals complete with roasted turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and pies. Whether they were eating in a foxhole, a mess hall, or in ships’ mess, service members enjoyed a break to celebrate the season with a festive meal.

By the time of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, over 12 million pounds of turkey was being shipped overseas for the holidays.

During the Vietnam War, the military attempted to provide as many of the troops as possible with a hot, traditional, Thanksgiving dinner. Most of the meals were prepared at a base away from the fighting and flown by helicopter to the troops serving in remote locations.

In the 2000s, for troops stationed in Afghanistan, the Thanksgiving dinner had been in preparation for months. Food and beverages, including sparkling grape juice, were shipped there up to four months in advance.

“As we prepare for the holidays this year, I want us all to appreciate the feeling of getting together with family and friends to celebrate the season,” Rivers said. “I also want you to remember that we have troops far away from home serving this nation whose only sense of normalcy and peace may be that special festive meal.

“If you have the chance, reach out to that service member overseas and let them know you’re thinking about them; perhaps send them a Commissary Gift Card,” he added. “I wish you all safe and happy holidays.”



About DeCA: The Defense Commissary Agency operates a worldwide chain of commissaries providing groceries to military personnel, retirees and their families in a safe and secure shopping environment. Commissaries provide a military benefit, saving authorized patrons thousands of dollars annually on their purchases compared to similar products at commercial retailers. The discounted prices include a 5-percent surcharge, which covers the costs of building new commissaries and modernizing existing ones. A core military family support element, and a valued part of military pay and benefits, commissaries contribute to family readiness, enhance the quality of life for America’s military and their families, and help recruit and retain the best and brightest men and women to serve their country.



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