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How Military Families Navigate the Holidays

by Lizann Lightfoot - September 28th, 2021

How Military Families Navigate the Holidays

Military families face unique challenges around the holidays:

  • Sometimes you have to prepare for a holiday PCS, which completely overwhelms you and drains all the festivity from the season.

  • Other families may struggle through a holiday deployment, where their service member is on the other side of the world. Parents have to decide whether to visit families at home, which means holiday travel, wrangling the kids alone, in crowded airports.

  • And some years, even when there is no PCS move or deployment, military families still struggle with the challenge of being stationed far from families.

All these situations have forced military families to be flexible and learn creative ways to adapt their holiday traditions. Here are some ways military families have learned to navigate the holidays that may help you this year too!

Less stress is best

Everyone has their favorite holiday traditions—the food, the parties, all the decorations, the family gatherings, the nights out with friends! Like much of military life, you may have to improvise. Start early and plan ahead so you have time to organize events.  Consider doing a potluck with neighbors and friends, so no one has to cook the full meal. This is especially helpful when your service member is gone, or all your things are packed up for a PCS move! Or find an open restaurant to eat at and cherish the time you have together as a whole family. If all your decorations are packed away, don’t worry about getting everything put up in time. Light a candle, or decorate a tiny 3-foot tree, and you’ll feel a little more festive.

Tech to the rescue!

It’s important to include everyone in your holiday celebrations. Whether your spouse is deployed, you can’t visit the grandparents, or you just live too far from your siblings, tech can help bring everyone closer together. Video calls can help people feel present during holiday festivities, so pull up Zoom or Facetime while you are cooking, decorating, or opening gifts. For older relatives who don’t use video calls, put the phone on speaker and just “hang out” with each other.

When planning your holiday meal, make it more fun with your parent or friend on the phone. Talk about what you’re making and what you’re watching while you cook. It feels as if we are together even if when we are not. You can also use video-watching apps to share your favorite holiday movies with someone far away. Marco Polo is a fun app that lets you record video messages for a friend, who can watch them later at a convenient time. This is perfect for people in different time zones. Celebrating important moments together over phone or video calls can help you feel like you are all in the same room!

Send a little love

Another way to make the holidays fun when you can’t be together is to go all out on the care packages. Typically, we might think of care packages for our deployed military member or a college student who is away, but pull out that know-how for your family on Christmas! Decorate the box, include an ornament from your tree and swap them with each other so that a part of you is with them and vice-versa. You can also do gift exchanges with people you would typically visit in person. And if your service member is deployed, include them in the exchanges and care packages too!

Go home if you can

This isn’t an option for some, but sometimes it is the best thing for your mental health. Being around family can make it seem as though you are closer to your spouse during a deployment season. It is also a great distraction for kids who will miss daddy or mommy being there to open gifts and share in yearly family traditions.

When moving during the holidays, make it a quick trip home if possible. Bring presents in the car with you, so they don’t get packed into storage during the move. If you are moving overseas, put Christmas gifts in your express shipment so if you arrive during the holidays to your new duty station, your gifts arrive soon after. Keep a couple of small gifts on hand for the trip.

Consider flying Space-A

If you are stationed far from family, you MAY be able to get a free flight home on a military aircraft using Space-A travel. However, understand that this process requires a lot of research and advance planning, and you also need a back-up plan, since seats are never guaranteed. Finding Space-A flights can be really challenging at three times of year: PCS season; school vacations; and the year-end holidays. In the latter two situations, there are many military families hoping to save money on travel, so competition is fierce, particularly for would-be travelers in the lower categories.

Communication is key

Holidays are already stressful; it is important to allow your kids to express themselves and their feelings during this difficult year. It is hard to deal with being joyous when they are down about their parent being gone, or they have to leave friends due to a PCS. Young children may not understand family plans being canceled due to quarantine restrictions. Talking through it will help you all. Remember kids pick up on your vibes, so do your best to be positive in all of this.

If you are preparing to move this year, will help you get a head start on learning about your new area, the schools, local neighborhoods etc. It can give your family comfort knowing what exactly they are walking into. And that is reason to celebrate!

Lizann Lightfoot

Lizann Lightfoot

Lizann Lightfoot, the "Seasoned Spouse" is a professional writer and speaker for the military community. After two decades with her service member, her family has been through 7 deployments and 6 PCS moves. Lizann has raised 5 children and published several books for military families. Her most recent book is "Open When: Letters of Encouragement for Military Spouses" published Sept 2021 by Elva Resa. You can find Lizann's articles and resources at