In military life, holiday traditions are like military families: portable and adaptable. Because they celebrate in many different circumstances and locations—sometimes even in mid-move—military families look for creative ways to make spirits bright and maintain traditions in transition.
“We purposefully established traditions that travel well,” says Amy Bushatz, Army wife, executive editor at Military.com and a coauthor of Stories Around the Table: Laughter, Wisdom and Strength in Military Life. “On Christmas Eve, we seek out a local light display and then have dinner at a greasy-spoon diner, a place virtually guaranteed to exist in every single town in America.” If they are not able to celebrate on the actual holiday, Amy said her family designates their own date to celebrate.
Army wife Maria Reed is the host and creator of Moving With the Military, a home improvement and lifestyle series for military families. For Maria, the atmosphere of her home is important, especially at the holidays.
“My home is not just four walls. This is my life,” says Maria. “My children are growing up here. This is where we find the love and joy of being a military family.”
Even if a holiday coincides with a move, and everything is still in boxes, Maria’s advice is still the same: Don’t hesitate. Decorate! “Put up the tree,” she says. “Get it up! If you don’t have your household goods, make ornaments with your kids. Use pine cones, glitter, make snowflakes from clothespins.”
Keeping old traditions in a new place sometimes takes initiative, and Navy wife and writer Alison Buckholtz is up to the challenge. Soon after a move, she helped create a celebration for her community as well as her family.
“The first time I was too far from home to attend a family-led Passover seder, I wasn’t sure if I could put one together on my own, but I knew I had to try,” says Alison, author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War and coauthor of Stories Around the Table. Knowing other families also needed a place to go for the special meal, Alison and her husband opened their home to their new community.
“It’s so important to our family to mark Jewish holidays wherever we are and to help others do the same,” she says. “During that Passover seder, our house was full of people who were just happy to spend the holiday together. It’s one of my happiest memories of that particular tour.”
Many military families make it a practice to add new traditions to family celebrations or find new holidays to celebrate. Then, even when they’re doing something they’ve never done before, they’re practicing a family tradition: Weihnachtsmarkt in Europe, Tanabata in Japan, fiestas in Guam, or Mardi Gras in Louisiana.
“I love to incorporate new traditions and foods into our holidays,” says Maria. “At Fort Stewart (Georgia) we learned about hummingbird cake. Now I make that cake for my family and share it with other military spouses.”
Sharing is a tradition that’s welcome everywhere.
“Wherever we are, we bake goodies for our neighbors and those on duty at the gate,” says Air Force wife and Sarah Holtzmann, also a coauthor of Stories Around the Table. To show her children the importance of giving, Sarah enlists her children to help with delivering the treats in the neighborhood.
When living overseas far from family, any holiday becomes a reason to gather with military friends to celebrate. Maria suggests having a holiday potluck as a way to get acquainted with neighbors.
For bringing the family together, even across the miles, a favorite holiday story is hard to beat, even over the phone or video link. “We listen to ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, as read by Grandma—by Facetime if we are not together,” says Sarah. Feeling at home in a new place can be difficult at the holidays, but celebrations and traditions help create connections.
“Find a love of home, where ever home is,” Maria says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s temporary. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Make it perfect for you with what you have now.”
Sometimes it takes the simplest of things to make home just right. When Sarah’s new home didn’t have a fireplace for hanging stockings for Christmas, she got creative and made a wooden hanger where her kids could hang their stockings. “You could say I nailed it,” she quips—and the hanger can go with her family for the next move.
Military families can make any holiday meaningful, even when celebrating their traditions in transition. All it takes is generosity, creativity, initiative—and maybe a hammer.