During the holidays, separation from loved ones or missing a favorite seasonal treat from your hometown can leave you searching for ways to find new traditions and avenues of joy. For military families experiencing life abroad, the winter season presents a chance to experience the sights, sounds, and celebration of holidays in a different culture, and the following families have embraced this opportunity wholeheartedly.
Traveling in Korea
Stephanie Hutaff is currently living in Korea with her husband, Major William “Rhett” Hutaff IV, and their daughter Charlotte. She shared that while both Buddhism and Christianity are widely practiced, Christmas is broadly celebrated as a national holiday with the day off — in part because of the long influence of the American military in the region. The decorations feel similar to home, but she admits “the lights here are probably even more spectacular than in the states” and there are distinct celebration differences, such as traditional foods, Santa in blue, a preference for going out with friends to celebrate, and monetary gift giving.
The Hutaffs enjoyed viewing the lights and storefront decorations in Seoul last year, as well as the lights along the Han River. She expressed that spending the holiday overseas allows a unique opportunity “for experiencing familiar things in a new way, like seeing the Garden of Morning Calm lit up in Christmas lights or the Nutcracker performed by the Korean National Ballet.”
The Korean New Year is a significant cultural holiday, and while the dates change based on the lunar calendar, it establishes the longer winter break for school and work, with traditions that focus on family. The Hutaffs were able to see some of these traditions when they were invited to attend a Korean-U.S. Friendship celebration and have been grateful to make both Korean friends while spending time getting to know KATUSAs (Korean Augmentees to the U.S. Army). The family has also learned about their community through their realtor, who brought them a traditional Christmas cake last year. Stephanie shared that unlike realtors in the States, their relationship with clients, especially foreign clients, extends past finding a home, acting as property managers, organizing trips, and helping with translation or cultural questions.
While abroad, the Hutaffs made the commitment to forego holiday gift giving to each other and instead “give each other trips.” Their travels have included Australia, Japan, and Bali, and they want to “continue to use holiday vacation time and funds to explore other parts of the world” making it a part of their family holiday traditions. One of these experiences was the 2018 Winter Olympics, and being at a gathering with so many nations represented, Stephanie observed shared values, “we all appreciate spending time with loved ones, sharing our own stories and traditions with others, and feeling acceptance and kindness from a community, whether the individuals you are surrounded by are family and friends for generations or strangers who don’t speak the same language.”
These observations led her to encourage other military families to focus on “what you do have and where you are” to enjoy the holiday season.
Socializing in Belgium
Carrie Parker, a military spouse of over 20 years, is enjoying living overseas in Belgium, particularly when it comes to holiday fun. The biggest difference she witnessed with how Christmas is celebrated in Europe is the popularity of Christmas Markets, explaining that “all of the streets are loaded with Christmas lights and decorations” and people visit, shop, and eat, enjoying local treats and hot mulled wine to warm up. Families relish in gift giving and treats for children with St. Nicholas Day traditions. She notes that decorations and store displays go up later than in the States, and that there are holiday sales, but they span throughout a month rather than a “panic Black Friday.”
While the country is divided into French-speaking and Dutch-speaking regions, Carrie has found locals who do speak English and an abundance of picture signs helpful for navigating places and expected behavior. At the crowded markets “most people are social and it is quite common to share a table space with complete strangers” helping to develop a holiday spirit of community. She advises that one thing to consider when celebrating holidays abroad is how to behave respectfully in houses of worship. As an example, she learned that during masses there people may not enter or exit once it has begun.
This is not the first station abroad for the Parker family, and Carrie shares that her “favorite part of being overseas is how easy it is to travel” — she loves getting to try the foods and taking part in celebrations in different areas.
For holiday gift giving, she makes an effort to support local artisans, but reminds others that if you want to mail packages back home to loved ones, you must plan ahead as the markets open later in the season, but there is a cutoff date to mail packages from the APO in time for the holidays. Carrie has enjoyed adding to their family traditions as they’ve moved around, including an Advent calendar and gift giving on Christmas Eve. Last year she attended a cookie making event in a local Chateau, learning recipes that “will forever be a part of our cookie routine.”
Military families bring home wherever they are
Melanie and Joe Horst have been stationed in both Germany as newlyweds and Japan as parents of young children. While now stateside, they are grateful for the experiences of traveling and learning to build community with locals and military families.
In Germany, Melanie was an Army musician and Joe worked for AAFES. They spent holidays navigating both living abroad and deployments. Much of the memories she shared are similar to what Stephanie and Carrie are experiencing now, and she loved the markets in Germany and the lights in Japan. However, she posits that the “first major difference in being stationed overseas during the holidays is within the military community itself.” Due to traveling costs, many soldiers choose to stay instead of visiting family, and so “the sense of community is really special” as coworkers and neighbors spend time celebrating together — something that she misses a bit in the states. Military families bring their favorite holiday dinners and traditions to each other’s homes, connecting in a much deeper way than a traditional “office party.”
While now in a different field, Melanie also treasures how being a part of the Army Band allowed for more involvement in holiday celebrations both stateside and abroad with concerts, caroling, and a variety of audiences.
The experiences of all three families highlight how even though military families may face trepidation regarding beloved holidays away from family and comfortable traditions, opening your heart up to the magic of the season regardless of where you are calling home might just enrich your own traditions.Read comments