Brother Tyler Lewis, 6, though, was in the spirit as he cozied up to the jolly elf and quietly asked for a BB gun. Older siblings Jacob Steever, 18, and Emma-Leigh Steever, 14, stood and waited with their mother, Meighan Lewis.
Then a man wearing a soldier’s camouflage stepped out from where he had concealed himself and they heard a familiar voice.
“Hey, I heard somebody wanted daddy for Christmas,” said Army Maj. Jeff Lewis. He knelt down and threw open his arms to the surprised youngsters.
Braelyn, in pale pink tights, a blue dress and her blonde hair in tiny pigtails, got down from the sleigh and ran to hug her dad. Tyler followed.
The crowd clapped.
Lewis had returned home for two weeks leave from Afghanistan, flying in only a few hours earlier and waiting for his cue to appear at the Santa display.
With help from his wife, stepchildren Jacob and Emma-Leigh and friends, he brightened Braelyn’s and Tyler’s holiday with a Christmas gift even Santa can’t top.
“There is no better time to come home than Christmas,” he said.
Lewis, who is on active duty, was stationed at the Anniston Army Depot as the deputy director of contracting five years ago. Then, earlier this year, he was deployed to Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan. It called to mind Christmas about seven years previous in Iraq, when he wasn’t able to come home.
“I was having the worst Christmas of my life,” Lewis said of that year-long deployment.
So when Lewis, who has been in the military for 18 years, learned he would be deployed to Afghanistan during 2013, he began making arrangements to surprise his children with a visit at Christmas. It was the sort of visit his wife wouldn’t have expected.
“It was a real surprise to me that Christmas was open,” Meighan Lewis said, referring to the schedule of Jeff’s unit.
The parents chose to not tell the youngest children, thereby making Friday’s treat possible.
Also fortunate to have witnessed the homecoming was Jacob Steever. He recently enlisted in the Marines and was notified earlier this year that he would have to leave for basic training in early December. But the military pushed his training back. His commanders gave him an opportunity to leave earlier this week, but he decided to wait.
“I wanted to see him before I left,” Steever said. “Seeing Jeff makes me proud, and it’s one of the main reasons I want to be in the military.”
The family, who lives in Oxford, came to the area five years ago when Jeff Lewis was stationed at the depot. Since then, Meighan Lewis has gotten a job teaching math at Munford High School. When Jeff is overseas, the family stays in touch through video chats. Also, each week he sends a video and a book home in a yellow package. The video shows him reading and his younger children are able to follow along in his book.
“They know the yellow packages are from daddy,” Meighan said.
Friday’s reunion wasn’t significant just for the Lewis family; it also helped make Christmas brighter for onlookers at the mall. While some cheered, others fought back tears and Santa shook Jeff’s hand.
“This is Christmas, folks,” Santa said, before returning to his work on the sleigh.
Staff writer Laura Gaddy: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LGaddy_Star.