Mom knew, but the kids didn't.
A husband circled the date, but his mother-in-law had no clue.
Paula and Brian Mountain, who drove 10 hours from Boston to greet their son, didn't know until a few days ago that the USS Wasp would arrive home on Christmas Eve.
"I was holding out for a little Christmas surprise," said Jeffery Alston of Virginia Beach, sporting a Santa hat and a candy cane tucked behind one ear. He waited until Saturday morning to tell his mother-in-law that her daughter, Petty Officer 1st Class Sarah Kelly-Alston, would be home -- within hours -- for the holiday.
"It's crazy, it's fun. It makes the rain disappear."
Stories of holiday secrecy swirled throughout the gaggle of families and friends gathered beneath a row of heated tents at the edge of Pier 9 at Norfolk Naval Station.
They had come to greet about 1,000 sailors aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, one of three ships that returned from a six-month deployment Saturday.
The amphibious transport dock San Antonio also returned to Norfolk on Saturday, and the dock landing ship Whidbey Island returned to Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story in Virginia Beach.
More than 4,000 sailors and Marines from the Wasp Amphibious Ready Group served in the Mediterranean Sea and Arabian Gulf over the past six months. The group was involved in operations against the Islamic State group, including the liberation of Sirte, Libya, while supporting Operation Odyssey Lightning, according to a Navy news release.
By 10:30 a.m., a line of moms, dads, babies in strollers, friends, children, cousins and lovers gazed out the plastic windows of the tent into a battleship gray morning searching for any sign of the ship. Sailors served pizza, glazed doughnuts, coffee and big bags of popcorn. Shrieks emerged from a bounce house erected for the kids, and a Navy trio of trumpet and strings played a few holiday carols.
"My kids didn't know until five minutes ago," said Natasha Martin of Virginia Beach, awaiting the arrival of her husband, Petty Officer 1st Class Sean Martin Sr.
"We were so surprised!" said Sean Jr., age 9. "And we're thankful, too," he added, hugging his sister, Xahria, 7, who was gripping a sign that read, "Welcome home Dad!"
Throughout the tent, people toted signs revealing that family and loved ones measure deployments in different ways.
"181 days since our last kiss," said Amanda Wiltshire's sign. The Portsmouth resident was awaiting the return of her husband, Lt. Stephen Wiltshire.
Mallory Pillsbury of Newport News calculated time away from her fiance, Petty Office 2nd Class Michael King, with a bit more precision. Her sign, in big, bold cutout letters, said, "We've Waited 6 months, 182 days and 262,080 minutes."
For Natasha Martin, her husband's deployment was measured in missed milestones -- since Dad deployed, their 9-month-old son had started to sit up and stand.
A sign on a stroller carrying a newborn said, "Out of my way, I'm meeting my daddy today."
By 11:02, the crowd, carrying a rainbow of umbrellas, splashed through puddles to line the rail of the pier.
"I see it! I see it!" a child shouted. A cheer erupted. And there it was, emerging from the fog: the formidable Wasp, a massive U.S. flag billowing from above and a row of sailors standing tall lining the battleship's squared-off bow. Santa was onboard, too.
An hour later, a column of sailors carrying boxes, roses and combat boots and lugging packs on their backs strode purposefully toward the crowd.
For thousands of Navy families, the holidays had finally arrived.