Not all of us are lucky enough to spend Christmas with our loved ones, sharing dinner at the holiday table, singing carols together, watching the snow fall on a quiet, moonlit night. For so many families, loved ones are absent from the festivities this year -- whether they're deployed overseas with the military, stuck far away on a business trip, or spending the holiday with their in-laws.
In their absence, Christmas can be a little less joyful -- for you and for them -- especially if this is your first holiday apart.
There are still ways to share Christmas with those distant family members, though. It just takes a bit of creativity and clever timing to surprise them with the gift of your smiling face, the sound of your voice, and perhaps even their favorite Christmas foods.
*Get on Skype
"We had our grandson connect a Webcam and set us up with a Skype account so that we could surprise our granddaughter on Christmas Eve," says retiree Jane Stephens. "We made the Skype request to her on Christmas Eve, her time, overseas in Europe, and she was overjoyed to tears when her iPhone's Skype connected us."
Jane invited the family over extra-early that day so that her granddaughter would feel like she was at their Christmas dinner.
Others who Skype with their faraway loved ones may sing Christmas songs or pray together as a family. Getting to see and hear one another, despite the distance, shrinks the miles between us and lessens the loneliness of the one who's not home for the holidays.
*A Plethora of Christmas Cards
A few weeks before Christmas, let family and friends know that your loved one will be far away during the holiday celebrations. Encourage everyone to send him or her Christmas cards and letters. Provide a mailing address and remind those on your contact list that the mail takes much longer to reach an overseas recipient; encourage them to send by the deadline dates posted at the U.S. Postal Service's website (USPS.gov). If anyone chooses to send a gift, they'll find out parcel rates and deadlines there, as well.
*Record Your Voice
For children or adults who love the tradition, Hallmark's recordable book "The Night Before Christmas" features voice-capture technology allowing you to read each page of the book aloud, recording your voice. You can then send the book to your faraway loved one to keep your family tradition of reading that book together alive, even from a distance. And of course, you can add your own personal message to the last page. Find this recordable book and others at Hallmark.com.
Another way to record your voice and send a Christmas message is through the creation of a Build-a-Bear stuffed animal (BuildABear.com), either in holiday garb or a non-holiday outfit. You record your spoken message into the "voice box" that's embedded in the bear, and then ship it off.
*Christmas in a Box
Assemble the fixings of your family holiday celebration, and place them in a big gift package. You may not be able to send a turkey, but you can send a length of cured turkey sausage. In place of your cherished pumpkin pie, send a package of your pumpkin pie spices and your recipe, with a pie plate. Hot cocoa mix, s'more ingredients or a tin of your holiday chocolates provide that far-off son, daughter or sibling with the flavors of the season.
Add some Christmas decorations, holiday paper plates, cups and napkins, and a fun, themed ornament or one bearing an "across the miles" inscription. Look for inexpensive holiday gift books on the discount racks at the bookstore, and seek out those ever-popular gift cards. And of course, wrapped Christmas presents and cards from family and friends -- particularly from children -- will complete the gift box.
Ace Collins, author of the book "Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas," says, "'White Christmas,' 'I'll Be Home for Christmas' and 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' came out during World War II, when folks were separated by thousands of miles and living in times when they wondered if their families would survive. (They) latched onto them as if they were prayers, voicing their hopes and fears. Thus, the chord they struck pushed them beyond our minds and into our souls, and today they still bring us home when we hear them.
"Christmas songs paint Norman-Rockwell images in our minds," Collins says. "When you hear your special Christmas song, you can picture what your home looks like, where the tree is, the kind of paper your family uses on gifts and even the way things smell in your house."