Shhh…(read this in a whispering, nature-show-host Australian accent). Right over there — look between the hobby-store shelves — you’ll see the first Nordic land elves tending to candy cane fields and rows of evergreens. Crikey — I witnessed those elves frolicking in the hobby stores this August! That is just too soon. I can’t deal with it. I savor the holidays with my family, and seeing the decor so early in the year makes it seem like it’s an everyday occurrence. Military families don’t always get to spend holidays with one another or their extended families.
With each new deployment date announcement, my mind raced through the calendar to see which holidays we were losing. I’m not typically such a negative nelly, but spending birthdays, anniversaries, federal and religious holidays alone is a big deal, especially when you are stationed overseas or across the country from your extended family. It’s something you have to prepare for mentally and plan out to make it through without falling into the pit of depression. For those of you who’ve been there, you know I’m not being melodramatic. It really is a big deal and it is best to face it head on.
From experience, I can tell you that the best place to start is in your own mind. Whether you are the one leaving on deployment or the one left behind, you both need to readjust your thinking and expectations of the holiday. Take a moment to whine and complain to one another and get it out of your system. It isn’t what you want, but you can’t change the situation, so change how you think about it. It will be tough, but you can make the holiday special if you work together and plan ahead.
Focusing on what you can do to make the holiday special within your current circumstances is the best use of your time and efforts (verses wallowing in the pit of gloom). It will be tough, but with planning, you can make it memorable and fun. Whichever holiday(s) you are planning for, you can use the following life hacks and just tweak them to fit your situation.
Brainstorm (or make a list, for all you fellow type A’s) with your family about what traditions really make the holiday for each of you. Include food, drinks, games, songs, events, etc. Then look through the list and have everyone pick out at least one thing they can’t live without. That will be the basis for your plans. Find ways to keep or observe and share those key family traditions wherever you are located.
- Take pictures, voice memos or videos to send to one another (including family and friends).
- Email pictures, voice memos, videos, letters and eCards to stay connected and involved.
- Mail picture, voice memo, videos, letters, cards, baked goods or wrapped gifts early.
- Purchase, wrap or pack gifts with deployed member before they leave.
- Set up a contact near home and in the service unit to help you surprise your spouse on holidays.
- Use real-time video call applications to watch each other open gifts or be part of some activities.
Just like you learn to distract a toddler from an impending tantrum, you have to distract your mind a bit — or at least give it something new to look forward to. One way our family has found to do that is to introduce something new into our holidays each year (kudos to my uncle for the idea). This started out with adding a new dish to our family meal and morphed into trying new activities for the day.
- Play a white elephant gift exchange (Google it for the rules). The gifts tend to be anything from gag gifts to useful or just fun. Some gag gifts (we call them bombs) continue to turn up year after year. We adopted this during Thanksgiving and Christmas, but it works for any occasion.
- Invite others without local family to your holiday table and activities. Be the family and support that your friends need. Include them in your activities and involve their favorite traditions too. This is really where the military community is at its best, when we look out for one another.
- Arrange a progressive dinner with other military families. Brunch and parade watching at one house, then everyone travels to the next house for a late dinner and football or board games, and later, everyone heads to the last house for dessert and enjoys a group game like white elephant.
- Adopt new traditions from your host country if you are living in a foreign land. Do a little research about the particular holiday, and try out one of the customs. For the American-specific holidays, you can still include customs or recipes specific to the country in general. Change it up!
- Go to events and volunteer before, during and after the holiday. Make a week of celebrations and helping others instead of focusing only on the one day. Take in a movie, parade, concerts, and serve at the food bank, homeless shelter, animal shelter or other community organization.
- Create your own activities if there aren’t any around that suit your tastes. An ugly sweater party, board game night and silly games you see on late-night comedy shows that you turn into neighborhood tournaments should help jump start your creative ideas for entertainment.
Embrace the change. You’ll be surprised at what you enjoy and will want to continue to do year after year. We’ve adopted some of the new food and activities into our family traditions. Holidays away from family can be tough, but with planning, you can have memorable and fun-filled celebrations that connect you across the miles.