For members of the military community it is no exception to spend the holidays away from home. Deployments, training schedules and changing duty stations affect holiday celebrations in many ways.
“My husband and I have had 15 Christmas seasons in our marriage and we have spent four of them apart,” said former Harker Heights resident Karla Sweeney. “I was always more ready for the season to be over because I knew it was so hard for him to be away.”
Therefore, the main priority for military families is usually to be together on Christmas, no matter where in the world.
Sweeney left Fort Hood last summer to move to Wiesbaden, Germany, with her husband and her two boys Michael, 5, and Ryan, 3.
Although the family is further away from relatives than ever before, they are happy to spend the holidays together.
“Every Christmas we get to spend together means so much,” she said. “We are just thankful that we get to be together.”
But celebrating away from loved ones is still hard and can be sad at times.
“I try to remind myself that we are fortunate to have families who do miss us and vice versa and who we actually enjoy spending time with,” she said. “People often take for granted the amount of time they get to spend with their family members.”
According to Sweeney, sticking to holiday traditions that have been in her family for generations helps to enjoy the season and make her feel at home.
One of those is geared toward relatives that can’t be with them on the special day.
“We send out a Christmas card each year and I always include a letter with it that sums up our year,” she said.
Living in a different country also has its perks. Sweeney is able to travel Europe and add a few unique traditions to her family’s celebrations.
“I would like to collect a Christmas ornament from each country we visit because that would be a good memory to have after we leave Europe,” she said. “We also started doing an Advent calendar Christmas countdown.”
The tradition of advent calendars reaches back to the 19th century, when German protestants used chalk lines to countdown 24 days before Christmas.
Today, many advent calendars are filled with treats or little gifts to make the anticipation for Christmas easier for children.
One of Sweeney’s close friends, Erica McKeel, is spending her first Christmas in Okinawa, Japan, after leaving Fort Hood this summer with her husband and two daughters.
“My favorite childhood memories of holidays all include family so we try to maximize the family time at the holidays,” she said.
Thanks to modern technology, the McKeel’s can still celebrate together with their loved ones.
“We make the girls wait to open their gifts until they are video chatting with the person who sent the gifts so that they can still see the excitement and appreciation the girls have,” she said.
Although Christmas is known in Japan as a time to spread kindness, it is considered a romantic holiday similar to the American Valentine’s Day.
“Fried chicken is very popular for dinner on the 25th of December,” she said. “KFC and local chicken chains start taking orders in early November. I am planning on ordering us some fried chicken to add to our Christmas meal.”
In addition to the new dish on their dinner table, McKeel also incorporates old traditions.
“We will also have the last batch of my grandmother’s cranberry sauce,” she said. “She passed away last summer. Thankfully she had canned some from previous years so we still have one more jar to enjoy this Christmas.”
Growing up, celebrating Christmas was a “huge deal.” Besides participating in her church’s Christmas pageant, McKeel’s family always had two Christmas trees.
“We always agonized over picking out two perfect trees which we would remove with the roots so it could be replanted after Christmas,” she said.
While her mother decorated one tree with fancy ornaments listening to classic Christmas music, McKeel was in charge of trimming the other tree.
“Mine had colorful lights, homemade ornaments and I listened to all the gimmicky Christmas songs while decorating,” she said. “My favorite to listen to was and still is dog barking ‘Jingle Bells.’ Makes me laugh every time.”
Although McKeel still prefers to have a real tree, living in Japan has made this impossible.
But many moves and the multicultural military community created a truly international Christmas for her family.
“For our own children, we have added a few traditions from the places we have lived, traditions from my husband’s family as well as fun things other families share,” she said.