In this holiday season like none other, the pandemic is forcing many to adapt their traditions, spending holidays away from family — like so many military families have done for years.
Many military families are resilient and flexible, adapting and creating new traditions in new places. So we put out a call asking readers to share some of your traditions, and perhaps bring some much-needed cheer to others.
One such holiday tradition involves 32 years of tree stumps.
It started by chance, after a newly married Air Force couple decided they would get a live Christmas tree for their home in South Carolina. She’d never had a live tree growing up, but that was a tradition in his family.
Being deployed on Christmas is hard, but these warm stories will soften even the iciest of hearts.
You know that few inches of the bottom of the live tree you cut off, so the tree will drink water and stay fresh longer? While cleaning up after getting the tree situated, she tossed that tree stump into the decoration box.
“The next year, we opened the décor box to do our tree and there was the stump from the year before,” she said. Her idea: write the year on the stump, and use it as an ornament. “Fast forward 31 years, and now we have 32 stumps! Because of our collection of ornaments over the years, now we don’t put them on the tree, but we build a garland with them,” said the wife, whose husband remains on active duty.
“They have become the cornerstone of our yearly decorations!”
But each stump has a sort of personality of its own, with different shapes and sizes that represent the size and shape of their house, location, duty station, she said. “From temporary housing to on- and off-base housing, it really has been fun collecting them. Additionally, at every new house we have to get creative on where we display them!”
The garland has gotten long and heavy, and it’s found a home on stair bannisters, door trim, walls, and across bookshelves, depending on the location.
“In the military, we can’t build a permanent forever home, but we can build memories that will bring joy for a lifetime and give stability for our family within our walls, no matter where those walls are located,” she said.
For others, the favorite holiday traditions range from bourbon-laced eggnog to German Christkindlmarkts.
One common tradition among military families might be more rare this year because of fewer gatherings during these holidays.
As retired Army Staff Sgt. Robert H. Clemons recalls, “We would invite anyone over that could not be home or with family during Christmas. We would have a tree-trimming party where all the guests would bring over a Christmas decoration for the tree, making them feel like part of our family.”
Stephanie Tischler writes that her favorite memory when her husband was in the military “was cooking for all of the single soldiers that couldn’t make it home for the holidays. Our house was always full of joy with our military family.”
Judith Hartung Schirman took her family to the ship. “Our family had Christmas dinner on the ship. Our children were so surprised to find chocolate milk on tap,” she wrote. “The guys were happy to have children visit the ship, also.”
Donald Huff wrote, “As senior NCO, I would work on [the] dining hall serving line serving holiday meals to our airmen.”
Becky Ellison-Hart wrote that her family’s Christmas tradition will be changing this year because of pandemic closures. “We are usually living far from extended family, so our family goes to the movies on Christmas night. Sad we won’t get to go this year,” she wrote.
Making a move to a new duty station during the holidays seemed to be a “tradition” for the Atkins family, as they did it three years in a row, said Ryan Atkins, though perhaps not the favorite tradition. “Kinda hard to hide presents and reassure kids that Santa will indeed find us while we move!” he wrote.
Living in faraway places, experiencing the traditions of other countries during the holidays, makes a lifetime impression on military children. “One of my favorites growing up in the military was in Germany and it was called the Laternenfest (Lantern festival), which was a tradition held around Christmas time,” wrote Juxta Enal on Facebook. “It was truly a white Christmas with chestnuts roasting on open fires and people gathered around bonfires, hot apple cider and more. Great times.”
Theresa Gregory had just two words: “German Christkindlmarkts.”
Others recall the white elephant gift exchanges, the chapel Christmas services, the Christmas tables of the Protestant Women of the Chapel.
Bill Bennett recalls making his special eggnog with bourbon and ice cubes.
But Gene Rubb sums it up for a lot of military families: “Plain and simple we wanted to be together.”