California natives Becky and Steven Griffin never put up their Christmas tree until the day after Thanksgiving.
“We put up the tree and decorate, then we pull out all the leftovers from Thanksgiving and eat leftovers while watching ‘A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,’” says Becky, a fifth-grade teacher at Village Christian Academy. “We also use our grandmothers’ china to serve holiday meals even if it is just the four of us.”
The Griffins have two sons, Nathan, 18, and Noah, 13. Steven is in the Army.
“On Christmas Day, we always FaceTime our family back home while we open gifts,” Becky says in an email.
After the Christmas service at church, the family grabs hot cocoa from Starbucks and drives around looking at Christmas lights, she says.
The holidays are similar for many military families, who are often separated by deployments and other assignments even at times when loved ones are traditionally together. For those who are stationed far away from their hometowns and unable to gather with their relatives in person, celebrating traditions that spark memories helps keep them connected.
“Since we have become a family, we always buy an ornament from every duty station we have been to,” Becky Griffin says. “And also, whenever we travel, we pick up an ornament from the places we visit. We have a special tree in our home that we call our ‘Army tree,’ and it has ornaments that we have collected over the years.
“We also have another tree that just has special family ornaments that were from mine and Steven’s childhood that are special to us. It is just a small way we stay connected with our family back home when we are missing them,” she says.
“Being so far away from family during the holidays is hard, but having some traditions that stay the same brings some comfort to our family.”
Chinese food, finding a tree
Karen and Jason McAmis hale from the Black Hills of South Dakota, where their families are close friends. Karen heads the children’s ministry at Snyder Memorial Baptist Church, and Jason is a command sergeant major at Fort Bragg.
Among the traditions they brought from home is eating at an Asian restaurant after Christmas Day church services. No, they are not mimicking the Chinese dinner scene in the movie “A Christmas Story.” They came by that tradition honestly.
Karen’s father was a pastor in South Dakota. After the Christmas service, the only restaurant open locally on Christmas Day was a Chinese restaurant, Karen says.
“We kept the tradition when we got married,” she says. “We still take the boys out after Christmas service.”
The McAmises have three sons: Collin, 13; Langdon, 11; and Wilson, 8. When their mother asks each to name their favorite part of Christmas, Collin and Wilson say, without hesitation, eating Chinese food.
Langdon likes driving around looking at Christmas lights. The Lakewood neighborhood, Arnette Park and Segra Stadium are a must-see adventure for the family.
Even during deployments, Jason has been able to join his family for a Christmas meal together. Karen and the boys are on one end of a live-stream, and Jason, with his military-supplied meal, at the other end.
The McAmises love cutting their own Christmas trees, so trips to B&D Tree Farm on Elliot Bridge Road or Doby Tree Farm in Cameron are part of their holiday preparations. It’s a tradition they brought from home: Christmas trees abound in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Of late, they too have celebrated in matching Christmas pajamas — if only, Karen and Jason emphasize, because they are annual gifts from his mother.
“We always look for new things,” Jason says. “The only thing we miss is the snow.”
Family photos, ‘awesome’ trees
Army Chaplain Michael Belifield and his wife, Rachel, enjoy taking a family photograph in front of the Christmas tree every year. The Belifields have four children: Samual is 7, Malakai is 5, and Iliza is 2. The youngest, Naomi, arrived in early November.
Belifield is assigned to the 3rd Brigade of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment. While in Washington state, the family enjoyed cutting their own Christmas trees.
“Washington has some amazing trees,” Belifield says.
In the woodlands near Vass, Samual says, every Charlie Brown tree they’ve ever cut down looks “awesome.”
Mama’s recipes and matching pajamas
Jazmyne and Devon Haley met in high school in Greensboro and were married soon after graduation.
Jazmyne is a physical therapy assistant; Devin is assigned to an aviation combat unit at Fort Bragg.
The Haleys have endured some rough Christmas holidays, including several when Devin was deployed. They have two daughters: Laiyah, who is 6, and Lyia, who is 4.
When he was assigned to Fort Hood, Texas, the couple were waiting for their household possessions to arrive as the holiday approached.
Jazmyne vividly recalls the empty apartment, except for the smallest Christmas tree that was left on the store shelf. After basic training and deployment, it was their first Christmas together as a family.
Jazmyne loves to cook, and food is an important part of her family’s Christmas observance. She prepares creamed corn and pot roast using recipes handed down from her mother.
Another tradition is wearing matching Christmas pajamas. Jazmyne’s not sure how the trend started.
“We became ‘that’ family, and I don’t know how we became ‘that’ family,” Jazmyne says with a chuckle. “(Matching pajamas) just kind of happened.”
They have also observed a “one gift” Christmas Eve rule: Each family member gets to open one gift. Of course, Lyia and Laiyah are under the constant watch of the Elf on the Shelf, who makes sure the girls behave.
Christmas and Hanukkah too
Sgt. Ryan Grosin’s family celebrates diverse holidays. Ryan is from the Bronx, New York; his wife, Olivia, is from California. They have three children, the youngest born in early November.
Ryan is a Messianic Jew, a sect of the Jewish faith that believes in Jesus Christ as the Messiah. The Grosin family celebrates both Hanukkah and Christmas, a tradition Ryan refers to as “dual action.”
For Hanukkah, the Grosins light the menorah and 4-year-old Evaliesse and 2-year-old Lory get chocolates — a treat that newborn Elora misses out on, at least for now.
For Christmas, the family exchanges stockings filled with an array of gifts. Ryan says the stockings are “super unique” and are presented to each other, not left hanging over the fireplace.
“They enjoy themselves when the holidays come around,” he says of his children.