December 3, 2016

I’m writing in the house that I grew up in. I’m home for a quick visit, trying to squeeze in as much of the holidays with my family as I can before going back to Hawaii.

Growing up, we always did the same things at Christmas time. We went to NYC to see the tree. We saw the Rockettes at Radio City. My dad hung up the wood decorations he made by hand. We went to the same farm in Connecticut to cut down our Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving, packing up the car with turkey leftovers that we ate cold in the car. My dad and I would go shopping around December 22. It started because we were procrastinators, but now we go just because it’s ridiculous. My mom and I wrap presents while watching Christmas movies. We always baked the same cookies and opened presents in the same place. I loved it all and I still do a lot of those things when my family whenever I’m home.

I still hold onto many of those traditions with my family, but now Nick and I have some of our own special traditions. Even though they are “traditions,” they look so different from year to year.

I used to think that tradition meant doing everything exactly the same every year. When Nick and I got married, our first Christmas in Hawaii was so important to me. I thought that we would always do the same traditions every single year and that we had to establish those traditions during our first Christmas together. But during first married Christmas together, Nick worked – not something I want to repeat evert year. Thanks to military life, we will never do the same exact things every year. And I’ve learned to not only be okay with that, but to love it.

Now we’re on our 4th married Christmas, and every single one has been different. I’ve tried to keep a few traditions the same in whatever form they can take.

Whether we are in Hawaii or Connecticut, we always watch our favorite Christmas movies. That’s easy, all you need is a laptop. We always make tons of fancy food (by we I mean Nick). One year Nick made french macaroons. Last year he made mulled wine. We take silly pictures in Santa hats and mail out Christmas cards and scramble to get all of our military friends’ addresses. We make a special trip to the store together to pick out cards for our families. We wear matching Christmas pajamas from morning to night, pajamas that everyone in my family wears. We make decorating our Christmas tree together a big event with a home cooked dinner. We give each other ornaments, my favorite thing to buy for Nick.

During our first married Christmas, we bought Christmas stockings. We are serious about our stockings, people. Last year when we were PCSing, we didn’t have time to get each other big gifts. So instead, we put our Christmas stockings in our suitcases and filled them up for each other while we were traveling in between duty stations. These stockings have been around the block and every time I look at them now I think about filling Nick’s up while we were in between duty stations.


All of my friends were posting pictures as they cut down their Christmas trees the day after Thanksgiving. They all looked so cozy and happy. I felt a twinge of sadness because this year, Nick and I won’t be able to do that. It’s one of my favorite Christmas traditions, but I can’t let little things like that get me down. So instead, we bought a fake tree. I kind of like the idea that we can bring this tree with us wherever we live. No matter where we live, I’ll always remember going to the Navy Exchange and picking it out in Hawaii.

Our holidays will be spent in different cities, with different people. I’ve spent Thanksgivings with people I’ve met once and then never seen again. Sometimes Nick is there. Sometimes he’s gone. Sometimes he’s working. Sometimes we’re with family. Sometimes we’re not. One year in Hawaii we watched our friends’ dog and had Christmas at their house, opening up presents under their Christmas tree while we looked out at the beach. I don’t think we’ve ever had the same Christmas dinner twice.

I love that our Christmases don’t blend together but that I can remember each one so distinctly because they are all so different.

Nick and I can’t go to the same farm every year to cut down a tree. But we can have a fake tree that we bring all over the world with us. We can collect ornaments from all of the places we live and hang them on that tree. We might not always celebrate Christmas on Christmas but we will always find a day to sit down together, our own version of the holiday.

But because every year is so different, I’ve learned how to truly cherish the season. I don’t take any traditions for granted. I don’t want to just go through the motions and do things because I always do them. Christmas is truly a special time and I do the best I can to be present and enjoy it, to do the things that make me happy. There are so many things to do at Christmas and so many cookies to bake, that I want to try something new every single year. And there is no joy quite like getting off a 10-hour plane ride, home finally for the holidays. It makes that family time even more special.

But if you’re feeling sad because you’re not going to be home for the holidays, or because you can’t do the things you normally do at Christmas, you’re not alone. But don’t sit out on the holiday season just because it doesn’t look the way you think it should look.

Do something you’ve never done before. Put on Christmas pajamas and watch your favorite movies with some hot coco. Bake your favorite cookies. Get some military spouses together and have them do some of your traditions with you and then do the same for them. Go shopping together. Host a cookie swap. Find out what people in your area need and then give to a charity. Check out Chelsea’s December to-do list and check off as many things as you can. Love the ones you’re with. If you’re having a hard Christmas, know that this too shall pass and that every Christmas as a military spouse is different.

What are your favorite Christmas traditions? Which ones have changed?

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21 responses to “Holding onto holiday traditions as a military spouse”

  1. Emma says:

    I adore that you guys wear matching Christmas pajamas from morning all the way to evening, I’m getting in on that action!

    • Carolann says:

      It’s a tradition we started only a few years ago and I highly recommend it! Works well on any day really! Christmas is all about being warm and comfy and cozy.

  2. My family was big on traditions growing up, so this Christmas we are trying to integrate some of those, while creating our own. The Christmas season is one of my favorite times of year, so it is fun to be able to share that with the people I love, especially my husband.

    • Carolann says:

      I loved taking my husband’s traditions, my traditions, and putting them together and then also making some of our own. It makes married Christmas even better. The traditions seem to change a bit as the years go on, but this is one of my favorite times of year too, so I don’t really care much what we do as long as it involves Christmas cookies!

  3. Audrey says:

    This is a great message, Carolann! Sometimes we get so hung up on traditions that it spoils the holidays. I absolutely love your perspective! K isn’t big into holiday craziness so I know we don’t have as many traditions as other people… And so many of my Christmas traditions have to do with my brother- who now lives 2 hours away… But all that is ok because we’re still doing things and making memories each year, just a little differently 🙂

    • Carolann says:

      It took me a few years to be okay with not sharing all of my favorite holiday traditions with my brother since he was my #1 Christmas buddy for so long. We live so far apart now. But when I went home, we went to see the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center which was amazing and so fun! Life changes but even with my life changing all the time it’s still hard. But,I love the Christmas traditions I’ve made with Nick. He wasn’t always super into it, but over the years I’ve found parts about Christmas that he loves, like baking and cooking all day.

  4. A 1000 times yes! I love that you mentioned that you might not be doing the exact same things every year, but that you keep the idea of your traditions going, even if you don’t do them at the exact same time or the exact same way every year. I have to admit, one of my favorite Christmas traditions is getting to decorate the tree because now our tree has all of these special Christmas ornaments from everywhere that we’ve traveled together as a couple. I love being reminded of our adventures!

    • Carolann says:

      I love decorating the tree!! With all the craziness of Nick’s work we’ve only had 1 Christmas tree together in 9 years. But we love ornaments! We collect them when we go away, and we give each other ornaments for Christmas every year. So we have a lot of beautiful ornaments and honestly I can’t even remember all of them. We’re going to put up a tree together this year though, and I can’t wait to decorate it and give each other new ornaments. It’s one of my favorite parts about Christmas.

  5. Susannah says:

    I’m sure it’s hard not knowing what each year is going to look like but I love hearing about how you make the most of it and still try to keep some traditions! <3

  6. Sarah says:

    I love your attitude to making new traditions. I love, love, love my family’s holiday traditions, but as all the kids are growing up and getting their own little families, everything’s changing. I really missed Thanksgiving as I wasn’t able to go home for it – but I realized that after only 2 years in the UK I’ve already built up some mini Thanksgiving traditions. Same with Christmas – the British markets, mulled wine, house meals with christmas crackers and parsnips. It’s funny how things change! I’m definitely going to savor my time at home, though. Merry December/holiday season to you!!

    • Carolann says:

      Thank you!! I loved that we were able to have stockings last year even though we were moving. I think that having a different kind of Christmas every year has been good for me in a way. It helps me not to get too rigid and helps me remember the true meaning of the season!

  7. You’re right about traditions; we always did the same thing every Christmas growing up and there was a lot of comfort in that, and I was always disappointed when S and I didn’t establish lifelong traditions the second we got married. But that’s not the way it has to be, and we have a long time together (God willing!) so why not let the traditions come with time? Also I reckon they’ll feel a bit more authentic that way. Anyway, thanks for this thoughtful piece once again!

    • Carolann says:

      There is a lot of comfort in those family traditions that you do every year. I crave my dad’s pecan pie which he always makes for Christmas. It took me a few years to realize that the best traditions just come to you organically. Forcing them isn’t going to make them fun or special. I felt a lot of pressure during our first year of marriage (from myself, no one else) to have this perfect Christmas that we could replicate every year. When it wasn’t perfect and he ended up working, I decided we would not do the exact same things every year!! I hope you have a great holiday season and that you develop some new traditions this year!!

  8. Carly says:

    I remember having a really hard time the first year I didn’t spend Christmas with my family (I literally cried, haha). My husband’s family just did things sooo differently and I felt like I was missing out on all of the things I loved and looked forward to growing up. I’ve since adjusted my expectations and we have our own traditions now that I love just as much. I love your idea of exchanging ornaments, and the reminder that there is always a way to make the holiday season special.

    • Carolann says:

      That must have been so hard!! I had these romanticized high hopes for our first married Christmas and it just wasn’t what I wanted or expected. But it just takes time to adjust to new families/marriage/new traditions. I hope your Christmas this year is great!

  9. Jen says:

    Finding traditions to make your own is so important!! Kyle and I have little things that we do together and now that we have E we will be creating many more traditions. 🙂 I love the idea of exchanging ornaments.

  10. Your childhood traditions sound so sweet – I especially love that your Dad used to make wooden ornaments by hand, that’s so sweet 🙂 But it’s really interesting to see how you’ve learn to come and love the new kind of traditions and variety that Christmases as a military spouse give you and the way you’e celebrated it in different climates with different people whilst still keeping a little pocket of magic for just the two of you. It seems you’ve found a great way to blend the old with the new 🙂

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