By Terri Barnes
When it comes to altered holiday plans, curtailed travel, and limited family gatherings, military families might wonder what all the fuss is about. We’ve been here before. Yes, we get it. It’s hard to be outside those holiday comfort zones, but we’ve learned that unusual times can inspire new ways to celebrate, ways that are still meaningful and memorable. Perhaps our experiences can offer a glimmer of hope for civilian friends and neighbors in this pandemic season.
When the holidays roll around, a military family often can’t gather around the holiday table with grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles. We may be in a new location without a large friend group—yet. Deployment or other circumstances might separate us from our spouses or—for active duty members—our children. Each holiday season is different from the last, so we don’t get used to the changes, we adapt.
It’s hard to be outside our comfort zones at the holidays, but we’ve learned that unusual times can inspire new ways to celebrate, ways that are still meaningful and memorable.
Whether stationed overseas or across the country, military families can’t rely on the comfort of visiting the same local light display or Christmas tree farm every year. We might be living in the mountains, the desert, or the tropics. It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. Sometimes it’s just lonely, but the lessons we’ve learned in those those difficult seasons could be helpful to military and civilians families this year. For everyone facing an unusual or difficult holiday season, here are some new ways to celebrate special days:
Lean on Friends
We may not have invented “framily”—friends who become like family—but military families knew it was a thing long before it had a name. We’ve celebrated some wonderful holidays with good friends when we couldn’t be with our family. If a big group isn’t practical, get together with a couple of friends. If gatherings aren’t possible, or if neighbors aren’t friends yet, connect by dropping off homemade holiday decorations or treats. Use this season to build new relationships. You might find someone else in need of friends to lean on.
Sure, those big family gatherings are a lot of chaotic fun, but why not take advantage of simpler days while they’re available? Limited holiday options might mean less stress and money spent coordinating travel, preparing big meals, and making time for all the relatives. That also means more room to reflect on the meaning of holiday observances; more space to be mindful of moments with just a few special people. Chaos will surely return. For now, enjoy the benefits of quieter days while they’re here.
A pared down holiday offers another thing most holidays are short on: time. Holiday busy-ness doesn’t always leave time to try something new, but if this holiday is less full and busy, it could provide opportunities to branch out. Perhaps that could include sharing with someone in need, preparing meals, delivering food or clothing. Branching out could also include exploring where you are. Every time and place has its own flavor and opportunities that might not come again. Find something unique to the location or culture and incorporate it into the celebration this year. These experiences can create treasured memories and new traditions.
Even if this isn’t the holiday you hoped for, it’s one that will never come again. Be there for it. Next year you might be with the loved ones you’re missing today, but for now enjoy the ones you’re with. Store up memories and stories to tell around the fire in years to come. Make a gratitude list. In every year there’s something to be thankful for, and your list may be longer than you realize.
Even in challenging times, celebrations are important. They remind us of what is essential, even when—or because—we have to be apart. With intentionality and openness to new experiences, even a difficult holiday can be a meaningful one.
Terri Barnes is the author of Spouse Calls: Messages From a Military Life, based on her long-running column in Stars and Stripes. She and her Air Force husband and their military family have celebrated unusual and meaningful holidays on multiple continents—sometimes on separate continents. Terri is also the editor of multiple award-winning books from Elva Resa Publishing.
More ideas and encouragement for the holidays: