‘Tis the Season – A Military Family's Guide to Finding Your Holiday Mojo

Our jack-o-lanterns have long been composted and we’ve rounded the bend on Thanksgiving. That can only mean one thing: the holiday season is upon us. Welcome. Here’s a mug of homemade hot chocolate topped with freshly whipped cream and a peppermint stick that was hand pulled at a little shop downtown with locally sourced ingredients and fair-trade cacao.

Just kidding. Those candy cane dreams haven’t moved off my pinterest board, yet. I can whip you up a mean Swiss Miss, though, with a drop of doTerra peppermint for flare. Just don’t inhale as you sip…it could be a little intense.

Ahhhh, the magic of the holiday season.

While the glow of twinkle lights can have an enchanting effect, it is also very easy to be sucked into the turmoil of the season. The added pressures only compound the fact that most military families live transient lifestyles away from home. These things considered, it can be pretty easy to catch a case of the Scrooges.

In this season of added stress and responsibility - the season of pressure to make things perfect and meaningful and special – is there a way to bring some of that magic back? If the plot of every holiday movie is to be believed, the answer to that is yes. And, having fought through my own levels of Scrooge, I would have to agree. Here are some ways you can find balance between old and new and increase the joy of your holiday season.

Scrap any notion that a perfect holiday experience exists.

First off, this one just needs to be said. There’s something about the holidays that bring back sweet nostalgia and the longing of simpler, happier, times. As children, we were largely unaware of the amount of additional work required during the holidays. Where we saw presents under a tree, our parents endured long lines, planning, budgeting, building, and wrapping to make that happen. As adults, we try to recapture those feelings – often – by doing “more.” Unfortunately, the “more” cycle often leaves us both drained and disappointed.

My advice is this: edit your holiday chore list and do only the things that bring you and your

family actual joy. Exhausted at the thought of marathon cooking for the holiday bake sale, followed by making cookies with your kids, finishing up with the gingerbread village ensemble decorating? Let some of it go. For us, it was the gingerbread houses that did me in. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that my kids spent all of 30 seconds getting covered in icing, and I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to get the stupid cookie squares to resemble a house and picking jaw breakers up off the floor before the toddler got them. Quite frankly, I’m sick of the crappy gingerbread house kits with the little candy choking hazards…and while I love the idea of a beautiful wintery confection scene sprawled out across my dining room buffet, I’ve come to accept reality. I don’t need that nonsense in my life.

Develop your own, portable, traditions.

For those of us who didn’t grow up as a military child, having to create the feeling of Christmas in a strange new place can be really unnerving. So many of our Christmas feelings are tied to traditions we held as children. My husband and I both grew up in Michigan – which is like the most Christmas-y of all places – so believe me when I say that we really struggled with our first Christmas, away from family, in a crappy little rental house in Pace, Florida. Christmas for me meant piles of fluffy snow, down-filled jackets, and a sleigh bell parade with an actual horse-drawn sleigh. Christmas was NOT flip-flops, festive beer cozies, and brown grass.

After trying in vain for a number of weeks to capture the spirit of Christmas in our new home, we decided one night to find it, no matter what it took. We set out toward our least crappy idea, and that was the mall. What transpired that night ended up becoming one of our favorite traditions. We spent the evening acting on whatever whim came over us. We bought each other silly little presents and restaurant hopped across Pensacola for what ended up being a 1,000-course meal – the only rule being that we couldn’t eat more than one course at each restaurant. We wrapped up the night sitting in the trunk of our car (we had to improvise) eating ice cream cones for dessert. It had been silly. It had been fun. And we were finally feeling festive.

The little wooden giraffe he won me at the arcade that night sits on my desk, and we’ve since eaten “trunk” ice cream with views ranging from a WaWa parking lot to Boston Harbor.

Be silly, jump in, sometimes the most random nonsense can develop some of your happiest traditions. Even better, find something that is not tied to a specific place.

Give back.

There are so many amazing organizations that it is really easy to give back during the holiday season. Unfortunately, our schedules are often so busy that we rely on monetary donations. While funding a project or organization is fantastic, it limits our exposure and feedback of the good that we’re contributing to.

Give back in time and presence.

Volunteer in your local area soup kitchen, deliver a stack of pizza to the firehouse, walk dogs at the local shelter, rock babies in the NICU. Get out into your community and see the tangible difference you can make. Bring your children with you. I promise, an afternoon spent in service will be much more memorable than another crappy gingerbread house.

Dig into local customs.

The military lifestyle offers us a really amazing opportunity to immerse ourselves in different cultures and customs. Let go of what has been and explore what is. Check out the local tree lighting, have breakfast with Santa at the museum, get a cup of Burdicks’s hot chocolate while you walk Harvard Square, dance to the jazzy Christmas tunes in the French Quarter, watch the local rendition of The Nutcracker, get the winter blend at your local coffee shop. If you don’t know – ask! I’ve found that people are often more than happy to share their favorite experiences – and you can often times find things well off the beaten path. Don’t limit yourself with your nostalgia; embrace what is around you. There is always happiness - if you look for it.

Locally source your holiday menu.

It wasn’t until we moved to the deep south that I realized how much food can be a love language. Sharing a meal with someone is a simple but profound way of showing love. The care and pride that goes into a dish is never more evident than when you’re digging into a bowl of gumbo and the topic of conversation is the importance of perfecting your roux.

It’s not just in the South; cooking traditions are handed down all over. I’ve had a lot of fun learning new, local, recipes and incorporating them into our holiday spread. From tamales and black-eyed peas, to blue crab and oysters, it can be a lot of fun to explore local food customs and broaden your holiday fare.

Give yourself permission to stay put.

This one is a hard one. Many times military families feel compelled to go home for the holidays. We want to see everyone. We want to experience the Christmas of our youths…so we pack up all the kids and all the presents and all the crap and we go. And then we spend the entire time running, visiting, trying to catch up, but not having enough time for it all. Our kids get thrown off schedule. There’s not a moment to rest. Then, we pack up the kids, the presents, the crap, and we trek it all back home. It’s exhausting.

Certainly, if Christmas at home with Nanna and Poppa makes your cup runneth over, then stick with it. But if you’re struggling with the thought of going through the annual holiday song and dance? Don’t do it.

Our oldest was 3 when we finally threw our hands up. She’d spent 14 nights sleeping on a couch, an air mattress, a sleeping bag on the floor, or crammed between us. Because of their size, Santa left her Christmas presents back in North Carolina. We had a sad string of lights and a wreath on the front door for decoration (because why put up a tree if we aren’t going to be home). It was the most depressing Christmas we’d ever experienced. As we drug ourselves into the house at 4am after 16 hours of driving, and watched her lose her mind over being in her own bed (the happiest we’d seen her the entire holiday season) we knew we had to let the dream of Christmas in Michigan go. In all honesty that dream wasn’t a reality for any of us, least of all our child. While my husband and I have memories of our magical Christmas mornings in our childhood homes – hers were quickly becoming days strapped in a car, sleeping in random locations, and not being able to play with her awesome presents as we hopped from family to family.

It wasn’t easy to let it go, and it did disappoint our family. But five years later, I can tell you it’s turned out for the best. Our three kiddos are developing their own Christmas memories, sometimes extended family are able to travel and be part of it, and we enjoy that when it happens. We’ve swapped our big Michigan trip for the summer…the location is equally as beautiful, the schedule laid back, and sleeping on the ground is exponentially more exciting when you’re under the stars.

While the twinkle of our youth is enchanting, it can be overwhelming to be the one behind the curtain. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, we should feel empowered as we move into this holiday season. Our adult selves can overhaul our traditions and make new ones…and that’s where the true magic lies.

Wishing the happiest of holidays to you and yours!

Nichole Weakley is a Marine spouse and mother of three. She's recently swapped high-powered corporate work with the quiet life of a professor and homeschooling mom. As of this summer, she's found herself tending to her most recent dream - a 21 acre nature reserve outside the Nation's Capitol named Ever Nook Hollow. Having only ever planned to live *no further than walking distance* of a Starbucks, the learning curve has been a little steep. Written entries of this new adventure are forthcoming, but you can find her on Instagram at: @evernookhollow

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