For many of us, the holiday season is a time of family gatherings and shared traditions with those closest to us. But for military families stationed far from home, it’s not always possible to spend time with family during the holiday season. While being away from family can cause disappointment, there are also opportunities for military families to create new family traditions and celebrate the holiday season wherever they are.
MFAN’s Advisory Board and staff members have shared some of their favorite traditions and memories to inspire you this holiday season.
joanna Nicoletti – Army Spouse
Our family always makes it an adventure to get our live Christmas tree — we love finding a local tree farm and doing this as a family. I also enjoy going to local holiday events. This year, we attended our town’s tree lighting and holiday parade. Christmas Eve is big in our home (I am Italian). I always cook a shrimp scampi, we bake cookies for Santa, and we watch the Charlie Brown Christmas movie. My wife and I have nixed doing material gifts, and we do an experience/trip. Last year we traveled to Montana after a deployment, just us. This year, she and I will head into the city for ice skating and dinner out at a new spot for the day/evening. This military lifestyle has instilled how important that connection time is.
We carry our holiday traditions all the way through the New Year. We celebrate New Year’s by staying in and inviting another couple over we have made friends with and do an activity, dinner, and watch the ball drop. This year, we’ll be shucking oysters, and I will be cooking a surf/turf for us — I love hosting NYE!
lizann lightfoot – Marine Corps Spouse
We were never stationed near family, and once we had kids we rarely travel home to see relatives. Instead, we have created our own holiday traditions wherever the military sends us! We always make cookies and hot chocolate and bring them to gate guards, the fire station, and the MPs on base, and we invite young, single service members from my husband’s unit over for a home-cooked meal and some card games on Thanksgiving and the week of Christmas. They appreciate it and are usually surprisingly great at hanging out with all our kids!
When we were stationed in the South (where the weather is mild), we would take family walks after dinner to wander the neighborhood on base and see all the lights and decorations. We would also decorate plates of cookies and make cards for the neighbors we see the most, then the kids go around with their red wagon and hand out holiday cheer. We also get together with fellow military families, usually on base, for a cookie exchange. Everyone brings a few dozen of their favorite recipe, then takes home a mixture of everyone else’s. It’s a yummy way to get a good variety.
When we were stationed overseas, we invited local Spanish friends to celebrate Thanksgiving with us since that’s a purely American tradition. But Christmas is something celebrated throughout Europe, so there were tons of festivals, parades, and new traditions to experience! My favorite was the year we traveled to Portugal and woke up Christmas morning in Lisbon with all the church bells ringing. We brought a gift for each child to unwrap and made family memories in an AirBnB near Lisbon’s castle.
Megan Brown – Army Spouse
Every year on Christmas Eve, everyone gets a book. We open our book and spend the evening relaxing, snacking, and drinking hot cocoa. If someone could please remind my kids of the “relaxing” part, that would be great!
isa marie mcintyre – Army Veteran, Retiree Spouse
Every year, our church does an event called Give Love, where we provide gifts to every child in the foster care system in our county. We select cards that provide a child’s Christmas wishlist, and we go out and buy the gifts on the list. Each member of our family selects a child (card) to buy gifts for, and we all go shopping together. Then, our church has a wrapping party to wrap all the gifts. This Give Love event has become a tradition that we all love. The kids get excited shopping for other kids, and we all love wrapping the gifts together.
kristen beattie – Army National Guard Veteran Spouse
One tradition that my husband and I have instituted that now includes our family and friends is to participate in the local Wreaths Across America at the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies in Pittsburgh.
I also have a cookie baking day with some spouses in my neighborhood – some military-connected, some are not – to have a fun day, share recipes, and swap cookies!
janice walton – Air Force Spouse
When we were stationed in Germany, our tradition was to travel as much as possible around the holidays to explore Christmas markets in Germany and throughout Europe. This is our first holiday season back in the states, and we are keeping with our travel theme. We will explore Williamsburg, Virginia since we’ve heard it’s beautiful during the holiday season.
Each year, we also pick out family PJs; we wear them to bed on Christmas Eve and end up wearing them the entire day on Christmas. Our son loves not having to get dressed in “real clothes!”
And, finally, we watch Christmas movies the entire month of December, and only in December!
paul bland – Army Veteran
One of the traditions that we came up with is much like “Friendsgiving” but for Christmas. Since most of my close friends from the Army are spread out in OH and PA, we each take turns hosting for the year. That way, we always have a place to go and a guaranteed time to get together. I think it’s nice reuniting (even if it is for the first time that year!), and we pick up right where we left off.
erin kahn – Marine Corps Spouse
Thanksgiving was always a big holiday for my family when I was growing up, so it was tough when we couldn’t travel to see them over Thanksgiving weekend. We started a tradition where our Elf on the Shelf drops off matching family Christmas pajamas after Thanksgiving dinner, and we all settle in on the couch to watch a Christmas movie before bed. Friday morning, the first thing we do is get the tree up and spend the rest of the weekend decorating and watching movies.
This tradition might be a bit controversial, but we always watch Die Hard on Christmas Eve because it IS a Christmas movie.