Navigating the holidays while living a military life can be tricky. There’s usually more questions than answers. Do you travel home? Do you save the money and stay put? Will holidays feel less magical if we are so far from family? Will our family be upset if we choose to stay home?
If you are new to the military life or if you are staying put this year, I wanted to first take a moment to encourage you. Then give you some things to do to help ease the pain that sometimes comes with missing your own family at the holidays.
You may be staying home this year because the Good Ol’ Army (or Marines, or Air Force, or Navy, or Coast Guard, or National Guard, or WHATEVER branch you’re affiliated with) is saying you have to. Whether it’s a mile-radius cap or a travel restriction, they’ve taken your choice away from you–and that. is. hard. I just wanted to make sure you knew that. This life is not an easy one and it’s perfectly fine to shake your fist at Uncle Sam over the upcoming holidays. I get it. If I choose to stay home, then that’s fine. But if I am TOLD I have to stay home–I definitely go through a period of deep mourning. All that to say–don’t feel like you have to be thrilled about staying put, but just keep in mind that this is, sometimes unfortunately, a hard part of the life we lead. Have an extra bread roll (or six, if you feel like it) at Thanksgiving to lift your spirits and just know that you are not alone in the hardness of military life and choices sometimes being taken from you.
Now on to the real Holiday Business: how do you make a place that’s not your home feel like home when you are wanting home the most?
Many of us have holiday traditions. I myself have an extremely long list of traditions that my husband (bless him for humoring me always) and I have implemented into our holidays. Traditions are big for me not only because we spend holidays alone frequently, but also because I lost my mom. Because of that I have tried to implement as many of my family’s meaningful traditions into my family’s life as possible. The word “meaningful” is important here. Not every tradition needs to be carried on. If you hated it as a kid, and still hate it, let it go. But if you loved it as a little kid, begrudgingly obliged your parent(s) with as many eye rolls as possible as a teen, and now love it–do it FOR SURE. Your kids will thank you one day.
One way to get your holiday prep on is make a list of the traditions you want to include in your holidays this year. There will be nothing harder than sitting in the throws of the holiday season, missin’ your Mama, looking at Facebook posts of your extended family getting together, and remembering something you wish you had time to do with your own family to lift your spirits. I have a little notebook where I wrote down as many traditions as I could remember. That way when November and December are on the horizon I can plan out when we are going to drink cocoa and drive around looking at Christmas lights, or when I can make a big batch of my great-grandmother’s pie crusts to have ready for all my holiday baking. Perhaps, though, you grew up in a family who didn’t really have any traditions. Well, I have something for you, too.
On the same note, if you are staying home this is the year to start your own traditions. There is something so special about getting to spend holidays with just your family. There is beauty in getting to start traditions that will live on in the memories of your children. Sometimes we can let the heaviness of our own extended family’s traditions weigh us down and put so much pressure on us that we have no room left to try new things. My encouragement here is to not let that be the case this year. That’s why, to reiterate, it’s important to only use the meaningful traditions from your family. That way you have space (on your calendar and emotionally) to begin anew with some of your own.
Have you ever seen someone’s post about something they do “every year” and thought, even for a tiny second, “That sounds so fun. Maybe next year.” Well this. is. your. moment! Add them to your handy-dandy list (or scrap of paper in your junk drawer if you’re less Type A). Make that list of Christmas movies you’re going to watch every Friday between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Wrap up those books and put them under your tree for your kids to open every day of Advent (they don’t have to be new books. Don’t break your bank!). Make a trophy and play a family football game after you finish the Turkey. Have a gingerbread building contest and let your neighbors be the judge. Get. you. some. traditions! (Not too many that you drown). But trust me, there is something so special about starting something new with your family when you’re all on your own for the holidays.
If your spouse is in the military, chances are, you’re living somewhere you typically wouldn’t (or wouldn’t have even chosen…) in “normal life.” As someone who the Army has sent to both the Sun City of El Paso and the Rain-Land of Washington state (and a few no-man’s lands in-between), I get what it’s like to live somewhere you never thought you would be. The good thing is, if you’re near a military installation, they are going to have some events for you! (Even with COVID.) I know there will be some events at our own military installation that I look forward to every year. Maybe it’s the post (or base) Tree Lighting Ceremony (which is always free) or a Turkey Day 5k (usually pretty cheap), there are some fun things to do that the military will provide. Jump in (even if your spouse has duty) and try to make the most of it.
San Antonio is a great city to be stationed in–there is SO much to do, even with COVID and the holidays! There’s a HUGE number of drive-through light shows (some free, some expensive, some right in that middle-sweet spot). Small towns outside the city have parades on the calendar. Farms (near and far) will still be hosting Christmas events. There are things to do. Start with things you would like to do, Google them, and then decide if they are worth it, get it on your calendar (and off your handy dandy list) and make it happen! If you’re missing home this year, a great soul-soother is making where the military sends you home, and the only way to do that is to get out and enjoy some of what your–temporary–community has to offer.
A Few Notes on the Stress
Holidays can be exciting, fun, and magical. They can also be the most stressful time of the year. I remember that for a few years I lived in great panic over the holidays. I remember the year my husband chose to go sit at a duty desk, leaving me alone (something that was hard for me in the moment, if I’m being honest), so another soldier could see his family and his little girl open her presents (totally worth it!). I remember the years (before I made my list) that I forgot to buy things for a certain hand-me-down family recipe and had a good loud cry on the kitchen floor. But eventually I came to this conclusion: I get to decide. And so do you.
You get to decide to let the stress of it all weigh you down or not. You get to decide if not being near your extended family will have a negative impact on the family you have in front of you. You get to decide on what you cook, what you bake, when you open presents, if you do presents at all, and how to execute every holiday. You don’t have to get up, let your kids open their gifts, then rip them away from their new treasures just to rush to Grammy’s house in the morning, Aunt Lindy’s in the afternoon, and get home way too late to enjoy your day. You get to be in charge of what you do.
Friends, military life is hard. Holidays can also be hard. There are years your service member will be working (or, hardest of all, deployed). There are years there will be a global pandemic that ruins pretty much everything (reeaalllly hoping this isn’t a year played on repeat). There are years that finances will prevent you from going home. My advice to you is this: make it a holiday season that you can remember fondly. The old verbiage of “making the most of it” can seem hard and a little played out, but in a life where you often don’t have a lot of choices, you can still choose joy.