By Courtney Woodruff

These are 6 ways to have the best military holiday season ever

The chirpy Skype ringtone filled the quiet room as I braced myself for the call. I clicked on the icon, and blurry faces filled the computer screen before familiar features came into view.

“Merry Christmas!” my beaming parents and siblings shouted.

As my sister’s phone was passed from one family member to the next, I did my best to fight off pangs of sadness and jealousy with a smile on my face. My husband’s military service and our purpose for living overseas are so much bigger than ourselves, but it is difficult to remember this truth in moments like these when my rationality is clouded by emotion. I missed my extended family, and I wished I could be celebrating with them.

Military families are no strangers to spending the holiday season away from loved ones. For service members, spouses and children at OCONUS duty stations, the pain of missing extended family members is mixed with the strangeness of spending the holiday season in a different culture surrounded by unfamiliar traditions.

This fall and winter, give your family a holiday season to remember by making the most of living overseas at Thanksgiving and Christmastime.

1. Host a potluck feast

beer and pretzels casserole from Flickr via Wylio
© 2014 Personal Creations, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

The hardest part about celebrating the reason for the season an ocean away from our extended family members is the physical void at our table when it comes time to sit down for traditional holiday meals. Fill the empty seats at your dining room table with friends, co-workers, and members of your church or military unit. If you live off base and have a good relationship with your landlord and neighbors, consider extending an invitation to them, as well. Also, unless you are set on sticking to traditional menu items, think about preparing local, seasonal cuisine or choosing an entirely new menu to keep the waves of homesickness at bay. Whether you are open to trying something new or prefer a conventional feast, ask your guests to join in the fun by contributing a favorite side dish or dessert.

2. Find community at on base events

Mom on a mission from Flickr via Wylio
© 2009 The U.S. Army, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Throughout the holiday season, close-knit groups and organizations on OCONUS military installations come together to serve the single service members and military families who are far from loved ones. Churches often host special services and feasts, as well. Whether you are overseas on unaccompanied orders, a spouse with a deployed service member, new to the area, or homesick for your family and friends back in the States, you don’t have to spend the holidays alone. Reach out, connect and find your place in your local military community.

3. Travel

62-Valdelagrana from Flickr via Wylio
© 2008 Africa Mayi Reyes, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

Escape the holiday blues by taking advantage of the unique opportunity to travel to overseas destinations during the tourist off-season. Celebrate Thanksgiving on a red, double-decker bus in London, spend Christmas Day on a warm Spanish beach, or ring in the New Year in front of Berlin’s world-famous Brandenburg Gate. Thanksgiving, in particular, is a great time to travel outside of the U.S. Since it is an American holiday that is observed during the week, you can expect fewer crowds and better deals almost anywhere you go. It is also the time of year when countless Christmas markets open in countries throughout Europe. The festive, twinkling lights, warm comfort foods and joyful atmosphere truly help make spirits bright.

4. Embrace host nation customs

Frankfurt German Christmas Market Birmingham '14 from Flickr via Wylio
© 2014 Mathew Bedworth, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

One of the best ways to learn about a new culture is to experience its traditions first-hand. Observe the unique ways in which the people of your host nation celebrate in the fall and winter. Research the significance behind unfamiliar customs and festivities, and join in when you can. Taste the seasonal specialties, and find recipes for your favorite dishes; learn phrases and songs; collect local trinkets to carry with you to your next duty station, and find ways to weave your favorite practices into your family’s own holiday traditions.

5. Share your family traditions

Halloween Pomander from Flickr via Wylio
© 2009 Wendy Piersall, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

When I was a little girl, I remember sitting down with my mom to make sweet-smelling pomander balls for our neighbors and friends each holiday season. After piercing the orange skins with cloves, I would help hold the spiky orbs steady while Mom carefully wrapped them with pretty holiday ribbon, so the recipients of our handmade gifts could hang them in their home. The room would fill with the fragrance of citrus and spice, and I remember thinking “this is what Christmas smells like.” When I was missing my parents last December, I decided to enlist the help of my sons to make pomander balls to give to our German neighbors. Sharing a family tradition of my childhood with children of my own meant a lot to me, and I think the kind residents of our street appreciated the gesture, as well.

6. Serve others

26588 Soup Kitchen First Presbyterian Church July 20, 2011 from Flickr via Wylio
© 2011 Bill McChesney, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

One of the best ways to overcome heartache any time of the year is to use your painful experiences for good by turning them around to help those in need. Serve food at a Thanksgiving banquet for soldiers living in the barracks who have nowhere else to go; donate to a favorite charity; purchase gifts to deliver to a local toy drive; help assemble care packages for troops downrange. Find a cause that pulls at your heartstrings, and help by doing your part — no matter how small — to make a difference in the lives of others.

Our first holiday season overseas was a difficult time for our family. This year, we plan to keep things as simple as possible while following the tips I’ve collected from the wise military families who have been at this a little longer than we have. We look forward to spending Thanksgiving with friends, joining in the fun at festivities on base, getting away for a little R&R on a mini-ski vacation in the Bavarian Alps, serving our community, and embracing German holiday traditions while sharing our own with others along the way.

Wishing you frohe Festtage! Happy holidays!

Photo credit: This work, Integrated Task Force hosts holiday party [Image 1 of 6], by LCpl Manuel Benavides, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.

Courtney is a military spouse, mom of 2 boys and part-time writer-editor for a travel & lifestyle magazine serving military families stationed in Europe. She has an MA in Human Services Counseling Military Resilience and hopes to share what little she has learned along the way to help others overcome the unique challenges of military life. You can follow her adventures at her blog, Courtney At Home, or through her social media: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.