Thanksgiving is a time for families, but not everyone gets to celebrate the holiday with their loved ones. Thousands of active duty military members may be forced to celebrate the holidays overseas, and those in the states may not be able to make long-distance trips.

These circumstances haven't stopped them, however, as active duty military members have held Thanksgiving celebrations since the Revolutionary War.

A history of military Thanksgiving

According to the independently owned Military Benefits, servicemembers celebrated days of Thanksgiving during both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Although the holiday as we know it didn't officially come into being until 1863, these celebrations were held in hopes of unifying the U.S. during its most divided times.  

During World War I, independent service providers like the Red Cross and the YMCA began organizing dinners for soldiers, and French families invited servicemembers into their homes after Armistice Day. During World War II, Thanksgiving meals were either shipped to soldiers or sourced locally. 

A pair of servicemembers carving a roast turkey.Servicemembers have celebrated Thanksgiving throughout the nation's history.

Modern military traditions

Today, active duty personnel celebrate Thanksgiving in a number of ways. Junior servicemembers, many of whom are away from home for the first time, generally receive a dinner provided by senior leaders. 

Those stationed in the U.S. mostly spend the holiday on their base. Sometimes they are invited to dinner by local families or houses of worship. Experienced servicemembers who have families nearby may even invite their juniors to dinner.

"Many hold special services or events for veterans and active duty military."

In addition, many local and national organizations hold special services or events for veterans and active duty military. For example, Operation Homefront provides free dinners to military personnel and their families through its Holiday Meals for Military. This tradition began after a soldier, shopping for groceries with his wife and infant, tried to purchase food for their Thanksgiving dinner in 2008. The total exceeded the amount they had on hand, but an executive behind them paid for the groceries in full. Since its inception, Holiday Meals for Military has provided dinners for almost 70,000 such families.

Paradies Lagardere, a travel retailer, also extends holiday services for military members and veterans. The company's Treat Our Troops program routinely offers free meals to servicemembers visiting its airport restaurants.

Meanwhile, servicemembers stationed abroad usually celebrate the holiday on base. According to Task and Purpose, while each branch of the military creates its own Thanksgiving menu, they all choose from a single set of standardized recipes, so an army soldier will have the same style of turkey and gravy as a member of the Coast Guard. In addition, today's servicemembers have the benefits of technology like Skype and Facetime, so they can still see and speak with their loved ones even if they can't visit in person. 

That said, sometimes servicemembers will have a less traditional Thanksgiving and participate in local cultural activities instead. They'll eat a holiday meal with local dishes or participate in other cultural traditions. 

Coping with Thanksgiving deployments

Spending Thanksgiving overseas isn't as bad as it sounds. An article on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs shared first-hand accounts of the experience, and many veterans remembered their holidays positively.

"I spent two Thanksgivings in Fallujah and they weren't bad at all," said Anthony Schmiedeler. "You had your brothers to the left and right which might as well be family. And the leadership did everything they could to give us a proper Thanksgiving meal with all the fixings. I'm grateful."

While Thanksgiving in the military differs from civilian life, the spirit of the holiday remains the same.