Holding Onto Holiday Traditions as a Military Spouse

Growing up on Long Island, we always did the same things at Christmastime. We went to NYC to see the tree. We saw the Rockettes at Radio City. We went to the same farm in Connecticut to cut down our Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving, packing up the car with turkey leftovers that we ate cold in the car. My dad and I would go shopping around December 22 because because we were procrastinators. My mom and I would wrap presents while watching the cheesiest Christmas movies. We always baked the same cookies and opened presents in the same place. I loved it all and I still do a lot of those things when my family whenever I’m home for the holidays.

But now, my family and I have some of our own special traditions. Even though they are “traditions,” they look so different from year to year because we’re always moving. We don’t have the option to go to the same places every year.

I used to think that tradition meant doing everything exactly the same every year. When I got married, our first Christmas in Hawaii was so important to me. I thought that we would always do the same traditions every single year and that we had to establish those traditions during our first Christmas together. But during our first married Christmas together, my husband worked – not something I want to repeat every year. Thanks to military life, we will never do the same exact things every year. And I’ve learned to not only be okay with that, but to love it.

Now we’re on our 9th married Christmas, and every single one has been different. I’ve tried to keep a few traditions the same in whatever form they can take:

We always watch our favorite Christmas movies. That’s easy – you can do that anywhere. We always make tons of fancy food and cookies.

We take family photos every year. I’d love to be able to take a picture in the same exact place every year, but we obviously can’t. So, we always take them in a spot that is representative of where we are living. We took them on the beach in Hawaii and in the mountains in Colorado. Then we mail out Christmas cards and scramble to get all of our military friends’ addresses.

We make decorating our Christmas tree together a big event with a home cooked dinner and a “fancy” bottle of wine. We make a special trip to the store together to pick out cards for our families.

We always give each other ornaments for Christmas. I always get my husband ornaments that represent where we are living. Our Christmas tree is covered in the shapes of different states we’ve lived in and different things that represent those states.

We wear matching Christmas pajamas all season long, but on Christmas Day, we wear them from morning to night. That’s another thing that’s easy to do no matter where you live.

During our first married Christmas, we bought Christmas stockings. One year when we were PCSing, we couldn’t really do big gifts. So instead, we put our Christmas stockings in our suitcases and filled them up for each other while we were traveling in between duty stations. These stockings have been around the world and every time I look at them now I think about filling Nick’s up while we were in between duty stations.

That same year, we decided to run to the Navy Exchange and buy a fake Christmas tree. I was feeling really down that we could not cut down a tree, but we were PCSing and it didn’t make sense. Now, I love that we bring this tree with us wherever we live. Instead of cutting down a tree every year, I love bringing our tree out every single year because I think about all of the places we’ve lived and memories attached to it.

Our holidays will be spent in different cities, with different people. I’ve spent Thanksgivings with people I’ve met once and then have never seen again. Sometimes we’re with family. Sometimes we’re not. I love that our Christmases don’t blend together but that I can remember each one so distinctly because they are all so different.

There was the Christmas we lived across the street from a Christmas Tree Farm in Maryland, but never got a tree from there because we had to PCS. There was the Thanksgiving we were on a road trip moving across the country. There were the Thanksgivings we crammed almost 20 people from the boat into our small apartment. There was the Christmas we spent in Japan, visiting Hiroshima. There was the Christmas in Hawaii where we watched our friends’ dog and had Christmas at their house, opening up presents under their Christmas tree while we looked out at the beach.

Nick and I can’t go to the same farm every year to cut down a tree. But we can have a fake tree that we bring all over the world with us. We can collect ornaments from all of the places we live and hang them on that tree. We might not always celebrate Christmas on Christmas, but we will always find a day to sit down together, our own version of the holiday.

I’ve learned how to truly cherish the season. I don’t take any traditions for granted. I don’t want to just go through the motions and do things because I always do them. Christmas is truly a special time and I do the best I can to be present and enjoy it, to do the things that make me happy. There are so many things to do at Christmas and so many cookies to bake, that I want to try something new every single year. And on the years we can make it happen, there is no joy quite like getting off a 10-hour plane ride, home finally for the holidays. It makes that family time even more special.

But if you’re feeling sad because you’re not going to be home for the holidays, or because you can’t do the things you normally do at Christmas, you’re not alone.

Do something you’ve never done before. Put on Christmas pajamas and watch your favorite movies with some hot cocoa. Bake your favorite cookies. Get some military spouses together and have them do some of your traditions with you and then do the same for them. Go shopping together. Host a cookie swap. 

Do a virtual Secret Santa with family or friends who you can’t see in person. Find an organization that you can adopt a family through and buy them as many presents as you can.

If you’re having a hard Christmas, know that this too shall pass and that every Christmas as a military spouse is different. Hopefully, next year will be better.

What are your favorite Christmas traditions? Which ones have changed?

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