Find new ways to connect with far-away family during the holidays
Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Joyous Kwanzaa.
No matter how you celebrate the season, it is tougher on families separated by many miles. Even with today’s technology—Skype, Facetime and no-cost voice communications—a remote connection cannot always fill the sense of separation.
“One of the key ways to help overcome these emotions is to look at how you define this holiday season,” says Perry W. Buffington, an educator, author and licensed psychologist who holds a doctorate in counseling psychology. “Don’t let a period on the calendar dictate how your family celebrates. Talk it over, and create new ways to span the distance and be vitally connected across the miles.”
Traveling by plane, train and automobile has shrunk the globe, but life’s circumstances still get in the way of in-person family gatherings. Military service, work demands, blended families, aging parents and geographic distance all contribute to less family time and a tendency toward loneliness, depression or added stress during the holidays.
To maintain their ties, some families have created new traditions to bridge the miles. They replicate long-held customs, reach out through technology or tinker a little with the calendar.
For them, the holidays is about more than a specific date. It is a feeling that continues throughout the year.
Pick a Different Date
For Carl and Suzanne Rose, winters in Davenport, Florida, and summers in Denali National Park, Alaska, have become the norm.
Ten years ago, after raising seven children in their blended family in Massachusetts, the couple picked up and moved to the Orlando area.
“I’d always wanted to work for Disney World, and when we had the opportunity, we took it,” Carl says.
He and Suzanne usually arrive in mid-October and stay through early- to mid-April—which cramps a traditional family holiday celebration.
“The key is to celebrate Christmas at a non-holiday time of year,” Carl says. “For the past two years, we’ve gotten together for family weddings, but no matter what, we always plan some real time for our family traditions sometime other than December.”
The Roses still celebrate and remember family during the holiday season.
Suzanne’s home-baked gingerbread cookies are mailed to children and grandchildren each year, along with special Christmas ornaments—origami swans or family photos in clear glass balls, clay angels or wooden eggs—that Carl and Suzanne hand-craft.
The Roses’ adult children in Arizona, Virginia and Alabama have their own Christmas Day traditions, but always reach out to their parents.
“We hear from all of them throughout the day,” Suzanne says. “As soon as their kids wake up, we start getting calls.”
The Roses share dinner at their campground with other friends who are away from home that day. By late afternoon December 25, they head to their jobs at Disney Springs—the retail, dining and entertainment complex—where other families have come from around the world to experience Disney.
“We don’t mind working on Christmas Day,” Carl says. “It’s our way of joining in with other people’s holiday vacations.”
Connecting Despite Service Away From Home
During U.S. Army basic training in 2014 at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, Sammy Gordon barely spoke to his parents. Except for three phone calls, only letters sent through the post office and strictly regulated packages from home were allowed.
His unit posted photos on Facebook each week.
“They told us all we could send during basic was sugar-free menthol cough drops,” says his mom, Angie Gordon, who lives in Fort Meade, Florida. “It’s so hard to go from knowing what’s going on in your kid’s life every day to not knowing anything at all.
“Our letters were the only connection during basic. Sammy kept telling us about other soldiers who never heard from home. We started sending notes for his friends and extra cough drops to share.”
When Sammy joined the Army, thoughts of being away from home during the holidays never occurred to Angie, father Pete or two older siblings. But soon it was clear he would not be home for Thanksgiving because of his next assignment at Fort Lee in Virginia.
“We took a road trip after we left him in Fort Lee because we couldn’t face the thought of going back to an empty home,” Angie says. “We’ve never been without all three of our kids during the holidays.”
The Gordons Skyped Sammy twice Thanksgiving Day 2014 as he and his buddies celebrated with the Army’s version of a traditional Thanksgiving meal.
After basic training, communications regulations relaxed, so the Gordons’ laptop traveled to family meals in Florida for multiple video calls with Sammy.
“It was the first time most of his friends and family had heard from him,” Angie says.
For Christmas, Sammy surprised his family with seven days of leave and returned to Florida, where he immersed himself in family and friends.
“Christmas is a big holiday for our family, with celebrations on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day,” Angie says. “We have between 20 and 30 people at both meals. It was such a blessing.”
In 2015, Sammy received orders for his first duty station, Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, Washington. It was the other side of the world to his family.
Communications continue through Skype, letters, Facebook, phone, texts and emails. Packages from home—always with extra for his barracks-mates—arrive often, for his birthday, holidays and just because.
They are filled with cookies and baked goods, easy-to-prepare meals such as macaroni and cheese (service members can cook for themselves if they choose not to eat in the mess hall), notes, cards from family and friends, and gift cards.
Packages are delivered to a post office box on base.
“I’ve spent more at the post office in the past year than I ever have,” Angie says. “It’s certainly worth it to let him know how proud we are, how much we love and miss him.
“We’re praying that the Army will allow him leave for Christmas this year, but we’re prepared to ship his presents in plenty of time to get there by Christmas Day.”
Combine Thanksgiving, Christmas Celebrations
Christmas comes early for the Tessier and Van Daalwyk families, who are scattered across North America. Cheryl and Darin Tessier of Madison, Wisconsin, move the calendar ahead a few weeks.
Her parents, Al and Jean Van-Daalwyk, retired 10 years ago in Polk City, Florida. His parents live in Canada. Siblings are scattered in Alaska and other parts of Wisconsin. The older grandchildren are off at college.
It could be a logistical challenge.
“My parents are thrilled to be living in Florida, but at first it was hard because I was so accustomed to living close to them,” says Cheryl, a communications professional in Madison. “My dad doesn’t fly, so my parents always drive up from Florida for Thanksgiving, which we celebrate at my brother and sister-in-law’s home in Milwaukee, about 90 miles from our home in Wisconsin.
“We decided to fit the holiday to our schedules so that we could all be together in the spirit of the season.”
Right after Thanksgiving, Darin’s parents fly from Canada to join the Christmas celebration, which begins two days later at Cheryl and Darin’s home with a decorated tree, holiday baking and festivities.
Cheryl combines the families’ long-standing individual traditions of gift exchanges, special cookies from family recipes and the British custom of Christmas crackers—brightly wrapped paper tubes filled with goodies that pop when pulled opened.
Opening the crackers is part of their sit-down meal. Guests enjoy wearing their tissue-paper crowns and showing off the little gifts from inside the crackers.
Combining their celebrations with both sides of the family and extending the Thanksgiving weekend gives everyone a chance for less hectic time together.
A fringe benefit is they avoid the traffic and airport crowds on the usual travel days around the holidays.
“Because my parents drive, this works out very well,” Cheryl says. “It’s the perfect way for all of us to be together. And generally, the traveling conditions are typically better and safer in November. There’s not much snow and ice here yet.”
Living on the Other Side of the World
Being within driving distance has its advantages, but what about families separated by thousands of miles of ocean?
Delaney Dickson, 26, moved from Orlando to Sydney, Australia, several years ago for a job. Next spring she begins her post-graduate education there.
Her parents, Wanda and Andy Dickson, ensure family Christmas traditions continue.
“Laney’s 24 hours ahead of us, so we always celebrate on Christmas Eve with her if she can’t come home or visit relatives who live in Hawaii,” Wanda says. “We do lots of shipping, usually at least a month ahead of time because it could take that long for packages to arrive. Laney also copes by preparing many of the same foods that she had growing up.”
Australians do not celebrate Thanksgiving, and Christmas is much less commercial.
“The whole season is a very different holiday experience than she had growing up,” Wanda says. “Over there, very few people put up Christmas trees in their homes. She couldn’t find Christmas lights or many decorations, so we shipped some to her to make her holiday more familiar.”
Delaney invites friends who are without their families on Christmas Day for a modified American holiday meal using many of the Southern recipes she enjoyed with her parents.
“There’s never a turkey, so she serves fish or tenderloin, but all the side dishes and desserts are just like home,” Wanda says. “She’s teaching her friends there about the American customs.”
On Christmas Day in Orlando, the Dicksons, their 33-year-old son, Drew, his girlfriend, Ashley Hall, her family and nearby friends gather for a huge meal, and to Skype or call Delaney.
“The time difference is so intense and the travel is very hard, so it is rather difficult,” Wanda says. “We had the best present of all last Christmas when she surprised us and flew home, but we know that’s not possible every year.
“We all do whatever we can to make sure we’re together in some way—even if we’re not in the same time zone or on the same day.”
Tap into Positive Memories
Buffington—known as Dr. Buff with his clients, students and associates—says preparing familiar foods and sharing the holidays with extended family and close friends is a good remedy for the loneliness of being physically away from other family members, no matter when you celebrate.
“The sights, smells, sounds of our positive memories can re-create a sense of well-being,” he says. “In a way, the holiday meal becomes like comfort food and triggers happy thoughts.”
Ingenuity and a willingness to be flexible go a long way toward bridging the miles during the hectic and demanding holiday season.
“It just takes a little imagination to re-create the magic, the spirit, the joy and sense of family when you can’t physically be together,” Buffington says. “Think about the best ways to create the sights, sounds, smells and memories that have made your holidays special over the years.
“But really, why just celebrate these memories once a year? What about finding ways to recognize them all year long?”