Military life does not take time off for the holiday season. Military families across the globe experience numerous holidays, which are meant to bring families together, separated from the ones they love most. In this article, we go straight to the source and share recommendations from families who have experienced holiday seasons away from their loved ones due to military life. Military REACH connected with several military family members to ask a few questions about how they handled the holiday season. Themes emerged such as being intentional, planning ahead, and building community wherever you are.
1. What advice do you have for other military families who will not be together during the holiday season (e.g., deployment, PCS, on-call)?
“Don’t wait to be included. Plan your own event and invite others. It is important to surround yourself with people and stay busy during the holidays. For on-call or duty days, visit your service-member, if allowed. The kids loved eating on the ship or meeting Dad at the McDonald’s across the parking lot. It was a special treat to see him at work and the opportunities were rare which made them extra special.” – Karen, Navy Spouse
“Focus on the good. Enjoy whomever you are with. Be upbeat when your military person calls.” – Bryant, Army Veteran
“My biggest piece of advice would be to not underestimate the power of a hand written letter. Regardless of whether you are on the sending or receiving end, letters can be uplifting. Even though we have a lot of electronic technology, there is something different and warming about having a letter in your hands that you can tangibly hold from someone you care about. You would be surprised at how quickly the mail service moves back and forth even if you are some-where like Iraq. In fact, I still have some of my letters in a scrapbook box.” – James, Air Force Veteran
“Get with people who feel like family and make the best of what you have.” – Laurie, Army Spouse and Mom
“I recommend planning for flexibility in your family traditions in advance! My family has multiple family traditions at each holiday, so if my dad was ever going to miss out on a holiday due to his service, we would look at each tradition and pick which ones we really wanted him to be part of and postpone those, so he could participate. Some things he encouraged us to do in his absence, and others we would specifically wait to do until he returned home or was available via video chat. We might also adapt one tradition so it accommodated his work schedule. For instance, we might open all of our Christmas gifts except the ones from him and wait until he was home to open those, as well as give him our gifts. That way, we got to enjoy some of our usual Christmas activities and still were able to save some special traditions to specifically do with him.” – Davina, daughter of an Army Special Forces Veteran
“Just be there for your friends, hang out with someone who you care for.” – Emi, daughter of a Green Beret, sister to an Infantryman
“Plan ahead. Prior to deployments (even months ahead) parents can shop for kids’ presents together and save them for Christmas. Plan on a time (with backups) to communicate on or near Christmas. Many military commands hold a special holiday meal, served by senior leaders, on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day for those personnel on-duty who must remain on the base or ship. Often, family members are invited to join them. This provides a great opportunity for everyone to spend at least a little time together.” – David, Navy Veteran
“Make the best of it!!” – Connor, Army Veteran and Son of Army Veteran
2. What have others done to support you during the holiday season that was helpful?
“My mother was always great at providing me and my siblings with options and choices when it came to celebrating holidays when my father was working. She would offer to do lots of fun things with us, like shop for an Angel Tree or attend a holiday show, which was great for keeping us distracted from focusing on the negatives. At the same time though, she was always accepting if any of us weren’t feeling up to being busy and just wanted to spend some quiet time at home, and would instead facilitate a Holiday movie night with just the family. She was always working to stay in tune with us and genuinely let us make our own choices.” – Davina, daughter of an Army Special Forces Veteran
“We hung out and tried making new traditions.” – Connor, Army Veteran and Son of Army Veteran
“We created traditions amongst us; we told stories of family memories.” – Bryant, Army Veteran
“....everywhere we moved we met amazing people. Others have fed me, watched my children, celebrated holidays with us, sat patiently with me in waiting rooms while my kids had medical procedures, taken me for medical procedures, lifted us up when we needed it and let us cry when we needed that too. Our family would have never survived 30 years of Navy life without the support of others. The value is immeasurable.” – Karen, Navy Spouse
“If possible, spending time with family during the holidays is a way to alleviate some of the stress of separation. [However,] that’s easy to say if you’re deployed and don’t have to drag 2-3 toddlers through airports to go see Grandma and Grandpa all that way across the country. If traveling to existing family is not an option, form a ‘new family’ around you.” – David, Navy Veteran
“Included me and my family in their own traditions.” – Laurie, Army Spouse and Mom
“Honestly, a big thing that friends and family would do for me that was helpful during the holidays was to send me packages that had homemade desserts/snacks that I was familiar with. Even if it wasn’t technically a holiday food. The fact that someone would send me something (like homemade oatmeal raisin cookies or homemade peppermint bark) that I could eat and also hand out to my fellow service members really helped me feel like I wasn’t completely missing holiday traditions or gatherings while I was gone.” – James, Air Force Veteran