Military family holidays can be even more stressful than typical family holidays. However, the unique challenges of military life don’t have to dampen the season.
We often are stationed far away from both sides of our families. Military families have to decide between the crazy stress of packing everything up to travel for the holidays or missing out on much-needed family time.
Depending on whether your military member gets a four-day pass or takes leave, you might be facing driving for two or more days to be present with your family for only a day or two. Add in small children and it’s not easy to make a cross-country trek.
Because we live so far away, military family holidays often include huge get-togethers, so you might make the sacrifice to make the journey. But extended family isn’t always easy.
What can you do to best handle the military family holidays?
Invite people to come to you. While civilians don’t always have the flexibility of military leave, if they can come to you, it’s nice to share your current duty station’s attractions with your family. There are always new ‘favorite’ restaurants and interesting places to go.
Alternate the travel years so no one is always hosting and no one is always traveling. It is hard to build your own traditions when you’re never at home. But building family traditions that can travel with you is good for a family that moves every couple of years. Try to find things that don’t depend on a location.
If you travel, plan ahead with your spouse who you will see, how you will handle potential conflicts. Be a team to combat the possible challenges of your mean sister or crazy grandpa or his family that doesn’t get along.
Share your feelings without judging – I feel judged by your mom or I feel your uncle says inappropriate comments in front of the kids. How should we handle that? Give your spouse a chance to offer suggestions or opt out of the trip. Sometimes, if the conflict is not something avoidable, it’s ok to stay home. *Bonus, if they live over your mileage limit you can just say, we couldn’t get a pass.
Buy cheap plane tickets when Southwest or Expedia have sales. Sign up for the email list of all the travel, airline sites and watch for great deals from your closest airport to family. Some sites even allow you to save searches and get notifications when prices drop.
Buying plane tickets ahead of time can sound risky when you can’t always plan ahead. Sometimes a military member gets leave and sometimes they don’t. Always buy plane tickets that are refundable or can be rescheduled. Trains and busses can be more economical if time isn’t an issue.
What can you do when military life means you don’t always get to plan ahead?
This military life isn’t always flexible. We don’t get to decide when the army makes demands of my husband. You can’t always celebrate on the holiday. Don’t let the date on the calendar matter too much. Even Christmas can come a day early or late.
The best part of military family holidays is that we can extend the celebration and enjoy the season however we choose!
Don’t take it out on your spouse!
My husband has had staff duty every year over holiday weekends for several years. As much as it broke my heart to be separated again after years of deployments and training schools, being upset and angry would only hurt my husband. He already feels badly for not being home for the holiday and working while everyone else is celebrating.
Find ways to celebrate in unique ways that don’t have to be tied to the date.
Build your own traditions as a family. Two families have come together to make a new family. Try to combine aspects of both yours and your spouse’s family traditions. Talk about the traditions that are important to you both ahead of time so you can mindfully decide how to incorporate as many as you can. Especially if your spouse is from a different culture or if your family is stationed in a different culture, celebrating traditions is a way to bring home wherever you are.
Have a pie baking day ahead of Christmas. Make all the pies that you both loved growing up. Even if they don’t all get eaten, you can freeze most kinds of pie fairly easily. Maybe add a pie you’ve both always wanted to try!
With the family, have one or two advent calendars so that each child gets to help count down to Christmas. My family had a chain of verses that told the Christmas story and two different types of advent calendars so we each got to count down the days at breakfast.
When decorating the tree each year, buy each child a special ornament. Some years do a theme, like Disney or a special movie and buy an ornament in that theme for everyone. Other years choose ornaments for that represents each child’s activities or interests or choose ornaments celebrating the best of a new duty station.
What makes this especially fun is that when the children grow up and begin their own families, they will have these ornaments to remind them of their childhood. Since the kids will take their ornaments as they establish their own homes, you might want to buy one for the family tree each year as well so you can treasure the memories long after the kids have kids.
Over time, kids will often forget the presents they opened on Christmas morning, but they will remember how they felt about home and family during the holidays.
Decorating the tree, baking, reading stories, game nights, Christmas music and hot chocolate are simple ways to create memories and family traditions that can follow your family wherever the military sends you!
If you’re active duty and your spouse deploys . . .
Try not to let yourself get too sad about his missing a day on a calendar together. Remind him that you miss him, but that you can’t wait to celebrate with him when he gets home. Find fun ways to incorporate his travels into your celebration this year. As a family, study the area where he is and their Christmas or holiday traditions.
Write him letters. Email just can’t replace a real old-fashioned, hand-written card from home.
Mail him stuffed toys to take pictures with where he is and send back to the kids for Christmas. If daddy can’t be home, at least these toys will remind them that daddy is okay and loves them. Print each child a picture with their stuffed toy and daddy from around the world and make a keepsake ornament with them.
If you can, try to speak or video chat during the holiday meal or opening presents. Let everyone have a turn to talk and share their favorite parts of the holiday. If you can send him gifts ahead of time, then he can open them on the phone as well.
Save a gift until he comes home. Leave a beautifully wrapped box somewhere to remind all of you that he’s coming home, and Christmas won’t officially be over until he does.
Find your tribe!
If you’re facing the holidays alone due to the military, and you can’t travel to your family, find a tribe: your FRG, church, PWOC, neighbors, co-workers. The women in my tribes have made the unbearable holidays during deployments bearable and even special. Military wives stick together! And whether active duty or a veteran’s spouse, we military wives make friends quickly. These ladies are a lifeline. Invite them to your home for a big potluck meal, plan a cookie swap, host a Bad Santa gift exchange.
Military family holidays might not be celebrated on the same day or in the same way, but the sense of love and family and connection will span the globe if necessary.