As the fourth out of five kids, I watched as my older siblings tried out all the scary things first, like getting their driver’s license or going away to college. I greatly benefited from all their advice before my first time at the dentist, taking the ACT and what to wear for my first job interview. I’ve been told by other people that my siblings and I are actually pretty close, which you wouldn’t have known by all the fighting that we did when we were younger. This closeness made it all the more difficult when my oldest sister first said that she would be going overseas full-time.
As each of us siblings started moving away from home and as technology got better, we developed better ways of staying connected. We made a shared Google Doc where we gave long updates about our lives on a regular basis. This eventually gave way to a group chat on Facebook with the added benefit of pictures, videos and GIFs. The best thing we did was set up a scheduled time each week to do a video chat with the whole family. As amazing as technology has gotten, however, this can get a little confusing when you have six or seven different videos at once.
These video hangouts were our saving grace when my sister moved overseas and then again when my second sister and her husband and little ones also lived overseas. It’s hard to feel close to someone when they live on the other side of the world, so to be able to have a conversation where you can hear their voice and see their face makes all the difference.
As much as this helped day to day, it did little to alleviate the distance around the holidays. Growing up we had a lot of traditions, especially for Christmas. Exchanging names for gifts, little boxes of cereal for breakfast and an extra special meal for Christmas Eve. But the biggest tradition for us kids was for all of us to spend Christmas Eve sleeping in one bedroom. (I’m pretty sure this was the older siblings’ way of keeping us younger siblings from getting up too early and opening the presents before everyone else got up.) This tradition has spanned into adulthood, and although it sort of ended as people got married or were gone overseas, the siblings who remained at home attempted to preserve the custom.
One by one it seemed our numbers dwindled until finally one year, I was the only sibling at home for Christmas. I learned a very important lesson that year. I was tempted to be super depressed, because although I love my parents, it’s hard to feel festive with three people when you are used to seven plus surrounding the Christmas tree. But through this time and trying not to whine and complain about the circumstances leading up to December, I made the decision that the holidays are what you make them. They can be depressing because of what you feel you are missing, or they can be special because of what you still have.
That year ended up being extra special as it will always be the year that we had Christmas in April. We couldn’t have a traditional gathering in December and we knew we were going to have about one week the following spring to make it work. My two sisters had just returned for home assignment and our younger brother graduated from military recruit training and had one week before leaving again, so we decided to make that time our Christmas celebration. Our family had grown from seven to eleven (plus one on the way and a new fiancée who couldn’t make it).
Even though our time together was quick, we made each moment special, reveling in the uniqueness of the timing, how long it had been since we’d all been together, and the fact that it snowed in April (we were convinced that it was because of us!).
When you are separated from your family at the holidays it can be hard, whether you are the ones living in a new home, or the ones who stayed put. The distance between you and being unable to celebrate all the ways you have before can make it hard to feel like it is truly the same special holiday when everything is different. Traditions can change, sometimes you have to adapt, and some things may never be the same. But that can be okay too, because special is what you make it. So this holiday season, if your loved ones are home or overseas, take time to make those special moments, planned and unplanned. Take time to revel in what makes this year unique and remember why we are celebrating in the first place.
Have you found ways to adapt traditions while separated from family? Do you have a story of an unplanned holiday celebration that ended up being really special?
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