BY JENNIFER WOODWORTH, PSY.D
Many countries do not celebrate the holiday season the way families do in the United States. So, how might you create your own holiday spirit?
Military families are constantly on the move and traveling from base to base, separated due to training or deployment; however the holiday season can be particularly difficult when apart from family. This especially impacts families who are stationed overseas, and while you might have your immediate family with you, extended family and traditional get-togethers are oceans away. Also, many countries do not celebrate the holiday season the way families do in the United States. So, how might you create your own holiday spirit?
If you are heading to an overseas duty station, take some decorations or special holiday keepsakes with you in the move. Each person in the family can contribute a few items to a holiday box that you can bring out at the holiday season. The country you are moving to or living in may not recognize or celebrate the holidays the way you are used to. These items can make you feel closer to home and bring some comfort to your family. Adding items to your holiday box that are traditional to the host country will help in remembering those holiday times.
By the time you are reading this article, your shopping may already be complete. With current technology, you are able to order supplies and gifts online; however the shipping time might be much longer. Know the local post office guidelines for shipping items either into, or out of the country.
Just like any holiday, excitement can build up and, before you know it, the holiday is upon you and you are stressed out with all the things you need to accomplish. Prioritize your list and follow through on what you want to achieve.
Many times, holiday celebrations revolve around a meal that has followed hours of preparation. Finding items that you would use for a traditional meal might be difficult in your host country, and that might mean having to be creative with your meal ideas. Also, there may be limited availability of items at the commissary or exchange, so shop early for items that can be stored. Include foods that are traditional in the area to add to your family’s meal.
Decorating for the holidays can be a special part of family connection. However, you might not be able to decorate in ways you have when living in the United States. Depending on where you are stationed, you may not be able to find a traditional Christmas tree and have to be flexible in either buying a plant native to the area or creating your own tree. Maybe you even brought a small artificial tree with you. Decorate with the items that you have brought with you as well as incorporating decorations that are traditional to the country you are stationed in, even if they might not be specifically associated with the holiday.
Check out activities that are local to where you are living. If you are living on an installation, check into organized traditional holiday events; or contact the U.S. consulate or embassy to connect with other expatriates in the area. The United Service Organization (USO) may have a local office that can assist in finding activities, connections with other families, or other resources and support for your family. Engagement in the traditions of the host country can create learning opportunities about how holidays are celebrated, and the values of the culture.
Whether you do so with other military families or with a family from the host country, gather with others to create a sense of extended family. Share about your traditions and what you are enjoying most about celebrating in another country.
Give back. Creating a new tradition of giving back by reaching out to volunteer organizations can assist in connecting with the local community. It also fosters a sense of gratitude and thankfulness in your family for what they have and what they are able to give.
Staying connected with extended family. Skype, Facetime, and other video chat programs can help you communicate with your loved ones that are in the United States or other parts of the world. Staying connected throughout the year and talking with your family can help ease the physical separation during the holidays.
Most military families do not get the chance to be stationed overseas and experience the wonderful traditions of other countries. Create memorable moments that might even be incorporated into future celebrations. •
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jennifer Woodworth is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Vista, CA. She has worked in the mental health field for seven years. Her husband is retired from the Marine Corps and she has three children ages six, eight, and ten.
HOLIDAYS ABROAD: The Hevener family
The Heveners are currently stationed in Okinawa, Japan. They have celebrated two holiday seasons in Okinawa now. Mandy is married to SSgt Mike Hevener and they have two children, Natalie (8) and Lucas (3). Mandy shares that in Okinawa, Christmas Eve is celebrated more like Valentine’s Day and is focused on couples rather than the family. This has been difficult for the family to incorporate into their traditions, however a few days before Christmas, they visit the local zoo to view the annual holiday Christmas lights. They enjoy local vendors, music, a light show and viewing the holiday lights strewn throughout the whole park. Traditional music, decorations, and festivities help the Heveners feel connected to home. The Heveners engage in their traditional Christmas tree-decorating the day after American Thanksgiving, bake goods, and enjoy family time. In order to minimize feeling homesick, the family incorporates their older traditions with new ones. For example, they eat a traditional Thanksgiving buffet dinner at the base club and then go home for some dessert and family fun.
HOLIDAYS ABROAD: The Lowry family
The Lowry family has done three tours in Japan and feels that celebrating holidays away from home is “normal.” Gunnery sergeant Matthew Lowry is married to Laurie, and they are currently stationed in Iwakuni, Japan with four children ranging in ages from 7 to 14. They celebrate American Thanksgiving by exploring the area and finding somewhere new to visit. They choose not to cook turkey since they are celebrating with just their immediate family. However, after their adventure of exploration, they go home and cook steak. They have created their own tradition of “Steaksgiving.” For Christmas, they celebrate in a more traditional way by hosting gingerbread house parties and many social gatherings with local “self-made family” that are stationed close by.
HOLIDAYS ABROAD: The Philpot family
Major Jim Philpot, his wife Kathi, and children Katelyn (now 9) and Jackson (now 6) were stationed in Stuttgart, Germany from 2010 to 2013. Kathi states that the biggest challenge about the holidays may actually be for the families that are “left behind” in the United States! The Philpot family took one holiday as an opportunity for Jim’s parents to visit Germany; and they created wonderful memories by traveling to Italy for a ski trip. They enjoyed the local culture and went to Christmas markets, drank gluvine (a popular mulled drink that is served during the holiday period), decorated with local items, and shopped. Kathi suggests sending boxes of local treats to family in the United States so that they can experience a bit of the host country’s culture along with you. The Philpot family also made long-term friendships during their station in Germany by getting together with other families not just during the holidays but throughout their time living abroad.
RESOURCES FOR OVERSEAS SERVICE MEMBERS
USO – United Service organization
Military in Germany
Armed Services YMCA
Full Circle Home – Deployed service members can send a gift box home to their spouse
for the holiday season http://www.fullcirclehome.org/
Operation Homefront Toy Distribution – Toys and holiday meals
Trees for Troops – Providing Christmas trees for active duty service members and their
Toys for Tots
Soldier’s Angels – Holiday Meals
Homefront America – Toys and Holiday Meals