Christmas lights on a table with a framed picture of a couple.

Navigating Irregular Holidays

Holidays can be difficult to navigate for military families. Some are fragmented by deployments, while others simply have jobs that require working through special days. My spouse has had assignments that put us into, at the very least, the latter category for most holidays. However, deployments have complicated our Yuletide cheer plenty of times, too.

We spent most major holidays apart for the first several years, apart from each other and far away from familiar communities. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and beyond were spent texting or talking over video chat if we were lucky. Some were spent without any chats at all due to duty-related communication inhibitors. We had to learn to be creative quickly so that we too could join in on the traditional holiday fun.

Even if your holidays don’t look the same as your civilian peers, you can still keep from becoming a Scrooge, I promise! Here are four tips that have helped us navigate irregular holidays:

  1. Make your own calendar. Okay, so the calendar says that a holiday falls on a certain day, but you can cheat a little. If your service member works on a holiday, schedule YOUR holiday for a day that works better for you. When my spouse is working or deployed, we postpone the real celebration for when he returns; we call it OUR holiday. If you miss a lot of holidays in a row, you can just have an “everything day” — that’s what we call a day set aside to celebrate all that you missed. What’s more special than a holiday that belongs to just your little family? Use your time apart to plan the best holiday celebration EVER! Plus, that Christmas cookie will taste just as sweet if you make it late.
  2. Make the most of what you have. Technology has afforded some military families the option to video chat with their service members. When my spouse was overseas one Christmas, we used video chat to spend time together. We watched Christmas movies all day, ate snacks and talked. Of course, this option isn’t as good as in-person, but it’s still a nice way to enjoy the day “with” the one you love. If you can’t video chat, or talk on the phone, you can still have some fun. For example, if deployment restricts your communication to email — send a holiday quiz to your service member to take later. There are some silly and fun options that can help to lighten the mood on a tough day. Plus, later you can laugh together at the amusing results like what reindeer you are or what Thanksgiving dish matches your personality.
  3. Gift “together.” There’s something extra special about receiving a gift from your loved one when you’re missing them. However, gifting takes a little planning if your spouse is deployed far away. Think ahead and order items to be delivered to your spouse or put a box of goodies together yourself. My spouse and I frequently took advantage of websites with free shipping to exchange gifts while he was overseas. Such solutions deem it affordable and easy to send stuff ahead of time without having to assemble a whole box yourself. If you can, set up a time to open your presents over the phone or on video chat together. If you can’t chat together in real-time, take a video and share it with your spouse.
  4. Skip it. During my spouse’s extended special duty assignment overseas, we missed almost two years of every major holiday: Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year’s and MORE! After a while, I did what some may call outlandish; I skipped a few holidays. I say it’s okay to SKIP holidays if they make you feel down in the dumps. Treat the day as a regular day and do something that you love to help take your mind off of things. I invested in new hobbies and planned future special postponed holidays with my spouse. If you can spend the day with people that you love, so be it! If it’s easier for you to treat your holiday like any other day, go for it! There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to navigate the tough realities of irregular holidays due to military life.

The bottom line? It’s hard to spend special days apart from your service member. However, for countless military families, there’s simply no way around it. If you can, make your own calendar, make the most of what you’ve got, gift “together” and if all else fails — skip it! No matter what you do, be patient with yourself and your service member — brighter days are just ahead.

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Life After Deployment

Whether you have been through many deployments or just a few, they are challenging. My husband’s latest deployment came out of nowhere, during a global pandemic and with me in the midst of graduate school. While I was not thrilled about being apart, I knew this was part of military life and that it was important to him. I also knew that there were resources available to me through Military OneSource and my military family.

As deployment came to an end, however, I found myself nervous about my husband’s return — how would he be different? How was I different? What about my new routine? Or his? Deployment impacts everyone differently. Everyone’s situation and circumstances are different. Some spouses that are at home have children, some are caregivers for other family members, some work full-time jobs in addition to holding down the homefront. In some cases, our partners return forever changed. In some cases, our partners do not come home.

We are all on our own journey and adjusting to life after deployment will look different for everyone. I think we need to recognize and honor that, not only for ourselves but also to help support each other.

Navigating the changes that occur in a family, a household, ourselves and our partners during a deployment is not always easy, and that should be normalized. It is okay to have to work through adjustments — and you are not alone.

Military OneSource has great deployment resources ranging from how to talk to your kids, to single service members preparing for deployment — your bases are covered. Whatever your personal situation, remember that we’re all in this together.

Photo of Lizann and her family at Christmas.

Planning Your Holiday Gift Budget as a Military Spouse

After limited celebrations and restricted travel in 2020, we all have a lot to make up for in the 2021 holiday season! There are people we want to see, parties we can’t wait to attend, gifts to exchange and favorite meals to enjoy. Military families look forward to holiday celebrations as much as anyone else, but sometimes being stationed far from family means extra costs and expenses during this season. If you and your spouse don’t discuss holiday plans and prepare in advance for your end-of-year spending, then you can easily get caught by surprise with a very high credit card bill in the new year.

Follow these guidelines when planning your holiday gift-giving:

  1. Discuss travel options. Traveling “home” to see family can be one of the biggest holiday expenses for a military family. Even with military discounts, most airlines have increased ticket prices close to the holidays. Do you and your spouse have the funds to fly home with the kids this year? Or might it be better to pay for one or two tickets and fly someone out to visit you? Does it make sense to drive home instead of flying? Perhaps your service member could take extended leave to allow for longer travel days.
  2. Know your spouse’s expectations. Does your spouse expect to exchange gifts with every member of their family? Or maybe just their best friend? And what kind of gifts will you get each other? Some people save up for a large home purchase at the end of the year. Others expect an expensive gift from their spouse. And still others don’t really get in the gift-giving spirit and don’t expect extravagant gifts in their relationship. Which category describes you? Is it the same for your spouse? Be sure to talk to them about what you expect from them and what price range you want to gift to them. Surprise gifts can be fun, but not if the other person gets upset by the price tag! If you share a gift budget and your expectations with each other, then everyone is more likely to enjoy the season.
  3. Coordinate with relatives. When planning your holiday gift budget, you first need to know how many gifts you are purchasing, and for whom. Make a list of who you will be giving gifts to this year. Decide whether you are including non-family members like co-workers, your child’s teachers, your landlord, etc. Then brainstorm ways that family members can get involved and help. If your service member is deployed, there are likely many people who want to contribute to a holiday care package. If your kids live far from grandparents, tell the grandparents what special gift your kids truly need this year. If your parents want to send something and you don’t know what to ask for, they can get gift cards that you’ll give to your child’s teachers. Getting other people to contribute to your holiday gift budget means less you spend out of pocket.
  4. Plan your gift budget. When you live far from family, it can sometimes feel like the only way to make up for missing a holiday celebration is by sending a lot of gifts. This can also be true for deployed service members, who may try to compensate for missing their kids by ordering every toy sold on Amazon. It’s a natural reaction to missing your loved ones, but it isn’t healthy for your bank account balance. Now is the time to discuss gift-giving expectations with your spouse. Look at the gift list you created and discussed with family. Whether you plan to give gift cards or personalized gifts, estimate the gift price for each name on the list, then add up your total.
  5. Balance your expenses. Your holiday gift budget may end up being a whole paycheck, or more than you usually spend in a month, so start thinking now about ways to break up the spending and buff up your savings. If you cut back on some household spending in September and October, you will have more available for gifts near the end of the year. Another strategy is to start buying gifts early in the fall so you can spread out your gift spending over multiple billing cycles. Either method can work for your family, but you and your spouse need to discuss it and get on the same page.
  6. Allow for extra shipping time. If you are stationed overseas, you probably already know that it can take weeks for a package to reach the States. Similarly, remind anyone who is sending gifts to you or the kids that the post office has holiday deadlines for delivery to different parts of the world. These are posted on their website. Pay attention to these deadlines, especially when shipping gifts or care packages to a deployed service member.

With these budget guidelines in mind, your family can smoothly navigate the common challenges of holiday gift-giving.

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