For military families, the winter holiday season is as frequently about boxes and shipping manifests as it is about carols and mistletoe. With November and December known as the “other” PCS season, second only to summer, many military families find themselves in temporary lodgings or waiting for household goods to arrive during the holidays.
Here are a few tips from spouses who’ve been there on keeping the season merry and bright:
Keep traditions, minimalist-style
No, this probably won’t be the year you rival the Griswolds in light displays or feed the entire neighborhood pumpkin pie from your grandmother’s recipe.
But don’t throw away all your traditions.
The key is to think small, portable, and festive. Army wife Sarah Caiafa’s family keeps their traditions for the holidays, wherever they are. “We do advent calendars, and we also do St. Nick’s shoes by the door,” Caiafa said. Whether it’s an heirloom menorah or a favorite Kwanzaa tablecloth, bring something that is important to your family and set it up, wherever you might be. There are great minimalist gifts that don’t just take up space.
It was around Halloween when Air Force wife Lorin Beier’s family moved to Okinawa, and the temporary lodgings were not festive. “I had a few tiny, battery [operated] pumpkins that I put out,” Beier said. The December holidays are merry in miniature, too.
When Caiafa’s family moved to Wiesbaden, Germany, she put up a two-foot Christmas tree so Santa could come. Military families find that smaller versions of normal decorations are easier to carry, especially overseas, and the small versions don’t take up as much room in temporary lodgings. This is a time-honored tradition – when Navy veteran and Department of Defense civilian Albert Priddy moved his family to Germany in the 1960s, he bought a small Christmas tree at the local market and decorated with a few ornaments from Germany.
“We didn’t have much room in our pension,” Priddy noted, explaining that a German pension is similar to a room at a bed and breakfast. “But I wanted to celebrate Christmas anyway.”
Flex your timing
Arrange for your leave to fall over the holidays, if you can. “We were fortunate enough to take our PCS leave during the holidays and paid the extra to spend time at home with family,” said Army wife Kelsey Hays, who is stationed in Germany. “It was a bit weird not getting to decorate our own house.”
But spending the holidays with family created memories to last a lifetime and gave the Hays family quality time with loved ones before moving overseas.
Embrace your new duty station and explore their traditions that celebrate the season. Wherever you are, the locals probably have some new-to-you ways to celebrate. Assigned to Europe over the holidays?
Check out the world-famous German Christkindlmarkts, or Christmas markets; they look like little villages covered in snow, and the Glüwein, a traditional hot, mulled wine, will keep you feeling jolly even in the cold. Stationed on the southern coast? Ring in the New Year riding the waves or sunworshipping in the sand. Stationed in Minot, N.D.? If you’re brave, try lutefisk, a gelatinous, brined fish commonly served for the holidays by Scandinavian-Americans.
Plan and send ahead
No time to shop when you arrive at your next duty station? Not sure what the local stores will have? Get a P.O. Box or use your APO/FPO Box and ship ahead. Hays used that strategy when her family moved to Germany.
“I did order some gifts online for the girls and had them shipped ahead, which helped [with celebrating the holidays],” Hays said, noting they also planned for an extra suitcase to take Christmas gifts from family with them. “It worked out well, too, because then they had some new toys and books while we were in lodging.”
Eat outside the box
The holidays traditionally feature festive meals with all the trimmings, but that can be impossible when all the cookware available is a hotel microwave and a mini-fridge. There are options other than turkey microwaved from a frozen dinner – how about kung pao chicken for Christmas dinner?
Asian restaurants are frequently open on holidays like Christmas and New Year’s Day. If you’d prefer a cheeseburger to mu shu pork for ringing in the New Year, there are a few chain restaurants that stay open on major holidays; for example, historically, Denny’s is open, even on Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Consider eating with the troops – dining facilities are open on the holidays, too, and they usually have nice meals planned, sometimes with fancier fare like shrimp or lobster.
Call ahead to see if there are any restrictions. If you’re in housing but lacking household goods, meet your neighbors and see if those not visiting loved ones would like to have a holiday potluck. Offer to bring store-bought pie, and help with clean-up. Chances are, you’ll find your neighbors have holiday moving stories of their own.
For more great holiday articles like these, check out 25 Days of Military Spouse Christmas