Christmas Tree with Decorations Near a Fireplace with Lights

When I lived at home with my parents, my sister and I were devoted to our family traditions.

Heaven help my parents if they dared to deviate from our beloved rituals of Mannheim Steamroller on the way home from Thanksgiving dinner, frosting sugar cookies, and singing carols around the piano on Christmas Eve. My sister and I played Barbie Nutcracker, choosing costumes for each movement of the ballet, well into our teens because it was our hallowed tradition. We had little understanding or flexibility for the reasons my parents may have wanted or needed to do something differently from year to year. 

When my husband and I were first married as little baby college students in our early twenties, we agreed to switch off Christmases between our respective families.

On my first Christmas morning without my parents, I found myself near tears: thinking of the familiar ornaments on the Christmas tree near the piano, the Chinese pork and seeds my mom puts out on the counter every Christmas morning, the big dinner with my dad’s parents and all my cousins. My in-laws’ holiday celebrations were lovely and welcoming, but it didn’t feel like home. I had FOMO seeing my siblings’ social media posts about their celebrations with my parents.

That first Christmas away from my family was hard, but after ten years of marriage, nearly five of which have been spent as an active duty military family, my rigid expectations for the traditions of my childhood have passed.

From postpartum Christmases to working as a floor nurse on Christmas day; from living on the west coast to the east coast; from a holiday spent on a cruise ship to a holiday spent under pandemic precautions. The holidays spent celebrating the way I’d always done it has gone by the wayside and opened up new opportunities for my husband and me to create our own family traditions.

Sometimes it takes creativity and adjustment, and sometimes our kids echo the same disappointment my sister and I did decades ago when our parents decided to change things up. But with the flexibility the military life is constantly teaching us, we’ve learned to roll with our circumstances and balance treasured traditions with new ways to celebrate. As you evaluate your own expectations and hopes during what I must imagine will go down in history as the “year of the unprecedented,” you can craft a holiday that is meaningful and nostalgic. 

Christmas and New Year celebration traditions, festive sweets, family culinary. Traditional gingerbread. Friends decorating freshly baked cookies with icing and mastic

What can travel with you?

If you are traveling to be with family for the holidays, you may not be able to bring your beloved nativity figurines or set the table with your vintage Christmas place settings. If you aren’t traveling to be with family, you may be in a new place without access to special foods or experiences you have loved in the past. I mourn the days when Trader Joe’s was across the street and I could stock up on Advent calendars and holiday treats to my heart’s delight!

Look at what you value that can travel with you. Are there stories you can tell or books you can read that are part of your traditions? Is there a holiday music album or candle scent that you need to really feel like it’s that time of year? Pay attention to the small things that you can bring anywhere. 

What traditions have you always wanted to try? 

As an adolescent, I was obsessed with mistletoe (most likely prompted by too many viewings of While You Were Sleeping). I thought nothing could be more romantic than getting caught under a sprig of greenery and being taunted into an awkward, socially pressured kiss.

I mentioned this fantasy to my husband when we were “just friends” and he bought mistletoe, taped it to the door jamb, and texted me to come outside. Cue the most adorable, cheesy first kiss ever. Mistletoe wasn’t part of my family of origin’s traditions, but my husband and I hang it in our home every year (we haven’t ever forced anyone to awkwardly kiss each other beneath it against their will, however).

If there are traditions you think are charming or that you’d like to try, go for it! Make those cookies your neighbors dropped off last year instead of the ones you’ve always baked but don’t actually love. Go out for pizza on Christmas Eve instead of spending the day preparing a feast. Let the artificial tree stay in the garage for one year and cut down a spruce tree at the Christmas tree farm. If you love it, it can become a new tradition. If you hate it, you never have to do it again. 

How can you blend your traditions with your partner’s? 

In my family, we always sang Christmas songs at the piano together on Christmas Eve. My husband’s family hid a pickle ornament on their tree and whichever child found it received an extra gift. We both enjoy these traditions, so we’ve kept both of them. His family has certain dishes they prepare for holidays that I try to incorporate when we aren’t with them, and sometimes I make something I love that wouldn’t usually be on their menu (a la Sarah Jessica Parker in The Family Stone).  

We gauge what is important to each person. He doesn’t really care for ham, so I don’t feel the need to bake one on Christmas Eve, even though my parents always did. I love a fresh, living Christmas tree, but recognize that the work mostly falls on my husband to do it (and I’m not willing to do it myself), so I give in and accept the pre-lit artificial tree he can assemble in a matter of minutes. 

What is unique to your circumstances this year?

What can you do this year that you may not get to do again?

Are you stationed overseas? Find something unique to your area.

Do you usually see family but are stuck at home this year? Consider telling Santa to get your kids a large gift that doesn’t travel well, since it won’t be an issue this year.

If you have close friends that are PCSing soon, be with them.

If you’re a westerner transplanted into the deep South, check out a drive-through nativity play (last year, we went to three of them).

Find what is unique about where you’re living and what you’re doing and embrace it. You may only get to do it one time, but it will still create a vivid and lasting memory for you and your family. 

How are you celebrating this year? What traditions will you continue? What new things will you try? 

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