The problem: Military families get used to celebrating holidays far from family. Here’s how to make the most of it!
When I was younger, Thanksgiving meant piling into our station wagon at 4 AM, driving up the East Coast, and spending a 4-day weekend in Connecticut with my aunts and uncles. When the families all combined, there were 13 cousins, sleeping in one house! We had a glorious time, and ate and laughed all weekend long.
But I haven’t celebrated holidays with my family for a long time. I married into the military, and then had four children. Now, we live thousands of miles from family, and are happy if someone flies out to see us once a year.
Military life has led us to some wild places: East Coast, West Coast, overseas in Spain. I have celebrated plenty of holidays without my husband during his numerous deployments. But I have been lucky to celebrate many with him home, too. Over the years, we have adapted to all the challenges, and have learned an important lesson about celebrating holidays: the military IS your family. So no matter where you find yourself this year, here are some creative ways to adapt and have a great time with your military family.
If your Spouse is Deployed
Assuming you are unable or unwilling to return ‘home’ and celebrate with your own family, there are lots of ways to take advantage of celebrating near your base. If you’re looking for additional deployment resources, check out my Deployment Masterclass.
Celebrate with other spouses in the unit. If your friends have deployed spouses too, plan a casual, kid-friendly Potluck. Then no one has to do too much cooking, and you can all enjoy each other’s company while the kids play. If no one wants to host it, you can reserve a clubhouse in base housing for free. Just… make sure to cook the turkey in advance!
Enjoy a free meal. Maybe you never considered dining out for Thanksgiving or Christmas, but around military bases there are often restaurants and churches that want to host families for free. Bring a friend with you if you want some company. We have enjoyed some delicious meals served with love. And honestly, anytime I don’t have to cook during deployment is a good day for me.
Invite family to visit. Maybe you can’t afford to fly home, or you don’t want to drive 15 hours with kids in the car. I totally get that. But what about your siblings and parents? Would they be able to visit YOU? Having even one relative visit us during a holiday makes it a special celebration. And having an extra adult around makes everything easier.
Send special care packages. One way to lift your spirits is to plan a special holiday care package for your deployed loved one. You can get the kids involved, or ask family members to contribute something special. There are tons of care package ideas on my Pinterest board.
Reach out to others. Remember that you aren’t the only one alone or far from family. Plan to bring some food to single service members in the barracks. Or invite some service members to your home, if you are comfortable. Grab a friend and spend the day volunteering at a Food Bank or local church outreach. Whenever I focus on the needs of others, I find my own loneliness and worries melt away.
Use technology to include your family. Schedule a phone call or Skype date during the big family get-together back home, so you can say hi to those aunts and uncles and cousins you haven’t seen in a while. Let your kids see their grandparents and share some holiday memories with them through Facebook Live videos or photos.
If you are Overseas
The holidays are especially challenging when you live overseas. Not only are you far from home, but the local country may not even celebrate certain holidays. And if they do, their traditions will be different. It won’t feel like home. But that’s ok, it can actually be better!
Order things well in advance. If you want decorations, food, or gifts that you cannot find in your host country, then you can usually order them online. Just place order 1 month ahead of time, because holiday shipping slows down the base post office.
Keep some American traditions. What are your favorite treasured traditions? If you have kids, what is important that you share with them? You can still enjoy hot chocolate in a tropical environment, or make pumpkin pie in Japan. You just might need to get things from the Commissary, from Amazon, or have family ship them to you from the States.
Learn new local traditions. When we lived in Spain, we learned many new traditions: There are Christmas Markets in many towns. Epiphany (January 6) was a more important celebration than Christmas Day, because that’s when gifts are exchanged. There are always public parades for holidays. On New Years’ Eve, locals attempt to eat 12 large grapes at midnight. We participated in all these activities, and learned to love them! Now that we live in America, we miss them.
Invite locals over for dinner. One of my favorite memories from living overseas was inviting my Spanish friend and her family over for Thanksgiving dinner. They were so honored to learn about our American traditions, and they were excited about everything from the Macy’s parade to mashed potatoes.
Consider taking a vacation. Some American holidays are a great chance to travel, because they are not local holidays. So you will find great deals on flights and hotel rooms. Even Christmas can be a fun time to visit another country. Our first Christmas overseas, we went to Lisbon, Portugal. We woke up Christmas morning in a historic district, looking at a castle, listening to church bells. We didn’t feel homesick at all, just eager to soak it all in.
So if you find yourselves celebrating holidays far from family, don’t spend too much time worrying about what you are missing! Think instead about all the new traditions you can enjoy!