Holiday traditions in the Royal Canadian Air Force

News Article / December 20, 2019

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By Joanna Calder

As do all military organizations, the Royal Canadian Air Force treasures and maintains a number of special traditions associated with the holiday period.

From Christmas dinners to “sticky floors” to New Year’s levees, many of these traditions are shared with the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Army.

The highlight of holiday celebrations is a Christmas dinner that features all the usual trimmings: turkey, dressing, gravy and dessert. But in the Canadian Armed Forces, the most senior personnel serve the most junior. The officers and the senior non-commissioned members don cook’s hats and aprons and serve the junior non-commissioned members who keep unit activities humming along on a day-to-day basis. 

 During the dinner, and perhaps for the whole day, the most senior and most junior members of the unit trade places. This means that a wing or squadron commander will switch jobs and ranks – including exchanging tunics – with one of the newest or most junior members of the unit. The wing or squadron chief warrant officer also trades with a junior member – although in some cases he or she trades with the oldest non-commissioned member. The handover of responsibilities may even be formalized with the signing of certificates recognizing the honorary – and very temporary – appointments.

Did you know?
On December 25, 1944, 402 Squadron was stationed in Belgium. The squadron’s Spitfires were out on a late mission when the pilots realized that they would not be back in time for Christmas dinner. Returning late in the evening, the pilots went to the mess hall, expecting to find cold leftovers. To their amazement and delight, they found the entire squadron waiting for their arrival. The dinner did not begin until everyone in the squadron was there.

The officers and non-commissioned members often mix and mingle during the holiday season during what are called “at homes”. Normally, officers, senior non-commissioned officers and junior non-commissioned members socialize and dine in their own messes. But during the holiday season, messes may invite the members of another mess to visit them. Protocol is relaxed a little and airmen and airwomen of all ranks have a chance to see how the other half lives.

Bands and music have always been part of military heritage and tradition, and that comes to the fore during the Christmas season during events ranging from small sing-alongs to full-blown public concerts. It’s an opportunity to showcase the amateur and professional musical talent that exists throughout the Canadian Armed Forces and share some Christmas musical cheer with others.

Up in the far North, the world’s most northerly supply section at Canadian Forces Station Alert in Nunavut has a secret mission – supplying Santa Claus. While Santa and his elves work feverishly to create toys and other gifts, the raw materials have to come from somewhere. Although no-one talks about it much, those raw materials come through Alert – which is after all only 817 kilometres from Santa’s home at the North Pole. A sign has been spotted at Alert that reads “We supply Santa Claus”. Could it be true?

Santa Claus himself often comes to call during the days leading up to Christmas. He may visit serving members in their workplace or spend time with their families – often at the local Military Family Resource Centre.

Or the jolly old elf may show up during a unit’s “sticky floor”.  The origins of “sticky floors” are murky, but the tradition may have started in the 1970s at Building 155 at Canadian Forces Base Rockcliffe in Ottawa. (Building 155, which was demolished in 2003, was home to the Director General Aerospace Equipment Program Management organization and the logistics centre for the forces' aircraft fleet.)

In that more free-wheeling era, contractors would show up near Christmas with lashings of liquor to celebrate the holiday and express their appreciation – a practice that is distinctly frowned upon today. The name probably refers to the condition of the tiled floor after beer, liquor and other libations were spilled on it.

This is not to be confused with sticky buns – any kind of sweet roll or pastry covered in icing, syrup or sticky sweetener – although sticky buns could be served during a sticky floor.

Nowadays, a sticky floor is generally a stand-up social gathering during the holiday period that is convened by or sanctioned by a senior officer. It’s a chance for folks to get to know one another better and perhaps share a glass of Christmas cheer. Mini-golf, played on a course that snakes through various section locations, may be a feature of sticky floors. Sometimes participants pay a fee to play, and the funds collected go to charity.

Other holiday traditions also focus on charity work and caring for others.  Many wings hold food drives or participate in local community food drives, visit the elderly in nursing homes, often bringing gifts and entertainment, share Christmas cheer with hospitalized children and support many charities. Since 2003, the RCAF’s tactical helicopter community has delivered gifts to children at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto, and spent time with children who have to remain in hospital over the holiday season. In 2019, this tradition expanded to Kingston, Ontario, and Edmonton, Alberta.

The RCAF also supports the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in their “Toys for the North” program. Since 2010, the RCMP and other organizations have collected toys to be delivered to children in remote and northern areas near Thunder Bay, Ontario, and Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. The Air Force gives the Mounties a helping hand by providing CC-130 Hercules transport for the toys and other gifts to the two locations.

In Winnipeg, a new annual holiday tradition was established in 2018 with the lighting of a large, outdoor Menorah at 17 Wing to celebrate Chanukah. At the time, Rabbi Captain Noteh Glogauer, a wing chaplain, said it was the first public Menorah lit at 17 Wing and possibly the first in the Canadian Armed Forces.

On a lighter note, the Royal Canadian Air Force shares a unique tradition with their colleagues in the United States Air Force – tracking Santa on Christmas Eve. Members of NORAD in both the United States and Canada follow Santa on his journey around the world, using high-tech surveillance equipment – including Santa Cams. Canadian fighter pilots vie for the honour of escorting Santa as he makes his journey through Canadian airspace.

Once Christmas festivities have passed, the next big event is New Year’s. In addition to parties and celebrations on New Year’s Eve, military personnel partake of another tradition on New Year’s Day – the levee. On January 1st, messes open their doors to visitors, both military and civilian, who greet each other, accept refreshments and wish each other the best of the New Year.

Although the tradition of levees began in Europe, holding a New Year’s levee is almost exclusively a Canadian phenomenon. Dating back to the 17th century, Canadian levees began as receptions hosted by government officials. As representatives of the Crown, commissioned officers were also expected to host callers. Today, however, officers’ messes, senior non-commissioned officers’ messes and junior non-commissioned members’ messes may all hold levees.

Government officials from the Governor General to town mayors still host levees, although these civilian levees are often held in the afternoon – or even shortly after January 1st – while military levees are almost always held on the morning of New Year’s Day.

“Moose milk” may be served at the levees or during other holiday occasions. It’s a distinctly Canadian festive drink served in military messes across the country and around the world. It definitely overshadows eggnog and is a revelation to non-Canadians who encounter it. The recipe varies from unit to unit, but it’s always prepared by the gallon and contains key ingredients such as rum and/or whisky, coffee liqueur, cream, milk, vanilla ice cream, sugar and nutmeg. The exact recipe may be a closely guarded secret, but the result will be thick and frothy – and deadly. Go to any Christmas or New Year’s celebration at an air wing, and someone will have mixed up a batch of this memorable concoction.

As well-loved as these holiday traditions are, Christmas during operational missions may be very different, of course. But efforts are made to spread holiday cheer and serve holiday meals no matter where Canadian Armed Forces members are deployed. Whether at home in Canada, in the deserts of the Middle East, or in the frigid snows of Canadian Forces Station Alert in Nunavut, the men and women of the Royal Canadian Air Force do their best to relax and enjoy holiday festivities – even if for only a few minutes.

All members of the Royal Canadian Air Force wish you and yours the very best of the holiday season.

Thanks to Brigadier-General (retired) Terry Leversedge, Colonel (retired) Mel Dempster and Colonel (retired) Dave Peart for their recollections of sticky floors at Building 155.


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