By Lizann Lightfoot

My military children have celebrated Christmas in different houses and different countries, sometimes without their dad. Deployment holidays are hard because of the lonely ache that overshadows the festivities. One way to cope is with familiar traditions, like putting up decorations, making cookies and hot chocolate, and reading holiday bedtime stories. You can help your children create and treasure unique holiday traditions for deployment.

Make a care package for the deployed parent

Christy Faulkner from Flickr via Wylio
© 2012 Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs Office, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

When Dad is deployed, my kids still want to include him in the festivities. The whole family enjoys making him fun care packages. The kids draw pictures, make cards, and use their allowance to buy treats or small gifts. We all feel better knowing we can make him smile no matter where he is.

Take a family photo

10 sweet holiday traditions for your kids during deploymentPhoto: Lizann Lightfoot

Military kids can connect with grandparents and friends in different time zones by sending cards with a family photo. If you didn’t take a picture before deployment, get creative! The deployed parent can send a picture from their location. The rest of the family can take a picture at home and put both photos side by side. Try having each parent stand near the edge of their picture, so they appear to be holding hands. If the deployed parent holds a sign that says “Merry,”the rest of the family can hold a sign reading “Christmas.” Ask your kids their ideas for a unique deployment family photo and help them take ownership.

Go to the unit Christmas party

During deployment, social events are challenging. I become a solo-parent, and my four young children are with me every moment. Crowded public events like parades and festivals are overwhelming, but my kids always look forward to the unit Christmas party. They know they can eat food, play games, and get a gift. I know it will be child-friendly and filled with other single parents going through deployment.

Visit Santa… or Gunny Claus

Photo: Lizann Lightfoot

Military kids enjoy unique Santa Claus traditions. In North Carolina, we enjoyed visiting Gunny Claus, a retired Marine Gunny who appears at base events in his special red uniform. In Spain, Santa arrived by helicopter. Service members dressed as elves would fast-rope out of the helicopter to secure a perimeter! During deployments, we attended even without Dad because my kids look forward to these annual traditions.

Join other deployed families for a potluck party

When we can’t celebrate with family during deployment holidays, we celebrate with our military family. We join other deployed families for a potluck celebration. The kids love playing with other military children who know how it feels to miss their parent. The adults love the convenience of only preparing one dish and having extra hands to clean up. Spending time with others takes away the loneliness of a deployment holiday.

Collect donations for local charities

Toy for a Tot from Flickr via Wylio
© 2012 Marines, Flickr | GOV | via Wylio

The best way for military kids to get out of the holiday blues is by helping others who are less fortunate. My children are too young to help at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter right now, but they can give toys to needy children through Toys for Tots. Their school visits a nursing home, where the children sing carols. The older kids collect toiletries for a children’s shelter. We always clean out our clothes and toys to donate to the base thrift store. They might miss Dad, but giving back is a good reminder that they have everything else they need.

Hang patriotic ornaments

Photo: Lizann Lightfoot

No matter where we are stationed, my kids always decorate the Christmas tree. They love asking where each ornament is from. Over the years, we have collected military ornaments that have become family favorites; some even celebrate different bases or units. Several honor my husband’s Purple Heart. Grandma sent a new ornament after each of his promotions. Hanging these ornaments keeps my deployed spouse present throughout the season.

Open presents over Skype

The kids can share the excitement of Christmas morning with their deployed parent over Skype or Facetime. Even if it is evening for the service member and morning for the kids, it is a great way to include the deployed parent in the family celebration. If the deployed spouse doesn’t have Internet, take a Facebook Live video that they will be able to view the next time they are online.

Remind everyone that holiday dates are flexible

Military kids know that Christmas doesn’t always fall on December 25. One year, we celebrated in February, when Dad returned from deployment. Another year, we opened presents on January 6, because we were stationed in Spain and that is the local tradition. Deployments cause us to celebrate some holidays early and some late, but the date is never important. What’s important is that kids know their parents love them and that our family is stronger than any deployment.