GRANITEVILLE — Ashton Leischner, a third grader at Graniteville Elementary, learned Friday that good things can come in large packages, too.

During a holiday program, Santa Claus pulled Ashton's name from a Christmas stocking to receive a special gift in a box taller than he is and wrapped in festive red and green paper and topped with a big, red bow. Although Ashton didn't know it, his name was the only one in the stocking.

When Ashton climbed up on a ladder to open the mystery present, he found the best Christmas gift he could have received this year: his Dad, Sgt. 1st Class Travis Leischner, home for the holidays after a nearly year-long deployment in Syria. Leischner is with the National Guard unit out of Graniteville, the 1221st Engineering Company. He left for Syria on Jan. 6.

After initial hugs, Ashton, standing at attention, honored his Dad with a military salute.

Leischner waited in the box while students sang Christmas songs as anticipation grew about who would be chosen to get the package sitting on the cafeteria's stage between Santa and Mrs. Claus and the Christmas tree.

“It felt like forever in the box,” Leischner said. “It was difficult, but seeing the surprise on my son's face was worth everything.”

Ashton knew his Dad already was in Texas for demobilization, but Leischner's surprise homecoming in a Christmas package remained a secret.

“I don't like to lie to him, so I beat around the bush a little bit,” Leischner said. “He kept asking when I was coming home, and I told him I really didn't know yet but I promised I'd see him soon.”

Ashton said his Dad's return home for the holidays was at the top of his Christmas list, along with games for his Xbox. He didn't know his wish would come true until he saw the top of a green cammie cap when opening the box.

“I saw a military hat and thought, 'Oh, that might be my Dad,'” Ashton said, adding that, like his Dad, he wants to be a soldier when he grows up. “I was just excited and surprised.”

Leischner is home for good now and is looking forward to spending Christmas with his family.

“That's why I do everything I do on a daily basis,” he said. “Just to be back home with my family means everything to me.”

Larry Wood covers education for the Aiken Standard.