Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Different perspectives on foster care and Christmas

FosterAbba has a couple of recent posts about being a Jewish foster parent while caring for non-Jewish children. Recently she has been talking about Christmas.

I think she and FosterEema are handling the religious/cultural issues well, and thinking about her posts had let me to some musing of my own:

Our agency has a "clear and flexible" policy about the requirement that foster parents support the child in his or her own cultural identity and practices while at the same time being true to their own beliefs. The religious groups break into: Roman Catholic, Protestant, LDS, with a few Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists. (My liberal protestant congregation does not have vacation bible school. We do have "Peace Camp" which we do in cooperation with the Synagogue, Mosque and a few other progressive protestant congregations.)

Our agency, as you may know, gives more support for dealing with day by day needs of kids than most other agencies do. If they have a child whose religious practices are important to them, they will try to match them with a family with similar beliefs. If they can't do that, they will try to identify and recruit a family who can become the child's "aunt and uncle" and could have the child visit them on the various holidays.

What makes Christmas hard for so many of us, is that most people in America do not practice it as a religious holiday (although it is). The things most children would miss would not have anything to do with the religious celebrations; Christmas trees, presents, and special cookies are not religious. Which of course does not mean that they should be allowed in a Jewish home. For many children, Christmas is not part of their religion, but it is part of their culture.

But I am losing track of what I wanted to say.

I think that FosterAbba may be more have over-estimated the trauma of not celebrating Christmas for most foster kids. It is a mistake to imagine that the kids have come from lives in which Christmas was idyllic. Last year, was it around Easter?, Claudia had a post asking if the holidays really are the hardest, or do they just seem to be the most difficult because our expectations are so high?

I am inclined to think that they are objectively more difficult than most days.

Christmas for most of these kids was not an idyllic stretch of time in which Santa brought them their hearts' desire and Mom baked up a storm of cookies. It wasn't even something that could have appeared in Dickens or even Little House On the Prairie. It was not a we're poor but happy; we have no presents but lots of love.

For some of the kids, it was a time when tensions in the house peaked: when promises and hearts were broken. Christmas is an emotionally charged time, filled with memories.

We celebrate Christmas in a big way in my house. We always go to Christmas Eve services. My mother has sent me so much homemade Christmas stuff that my house, like hers, looks like a Christmas shop has exploded. There is huge, beautiful cross-stitch picture of Santa, an even huger and somewhat tacky quilt hanging with Frosty the Snow Man on another wall. I have a creche from The Congo in which African shepherds stand over the family. There are cloth read and green napkins, kitchen towels, and hand knit stockings with our names on them. They all go up even if not everyone is here: Hubby, Yondalla, Andrew, Brian, Carl, David, and Evan. The entire house is full of that stuff. (Any year now my mother is sure to send me a Santa toilet seat cover.) We do bake cookies. When the kids were younger the boys made gingerbread houses out of graham crackers. The rest of the year I show no evidence of any Betty Crocker or Ladies Home Journal influence, but December rolls around and I go crazy.

And what is the reaction of the kids? Are they thrilled that they get all the trappings? Partly.

But they also have to deal with the bad memories. They look at all my trashy Christmas stuff and feel angry that their parents never did any of this. They have always known that Santa is a lie. If they ever thought he was real they also thought he was a jerk. Why else would he bring such much more to rich kids than poor kids? They try to enjoy they day, if only because they like me and I clearly want them to enjoy it. But they are also relieved that it is over.

So would it be tragic for a non-Jewish child to be placed in a home in which the parents said, "There will be absolutely no Christmas in this house. This house will not be full of reminders of what you did not have and what you did suffer every year. We will have another, simpler celebration though. It is not an emotionally frenzied one. It is quiet. It is not a riot of color and noise and does not come with a lot of annoying, repetitive tacky music. It comes with a few simple decorations and candles. It is a celebration of victory over oppression. It is a celebration of freedom and of peace."

In my mind the reaction of most of the foster children is not, "Oh, how can you deprive me of Christmas?" but rather a sigh of relief. "Oh cool. I was afraid they were going to send me over to Yondalla again this year. You know that woman's insane, right?"


  1. Anonymous10:33 AM

    All I can say was that was beautifully put.

  2. a "nice Jewish girl"10:46 AM

    I am not a weepy person, but when I reached your second to last paragraph, the tears sprung up. Something about having a practicing Christian acknowlege a bunch of the things that this Jew hasn't really been able to put into words.

  3. Sarah9:52 PM

    This is one I struggle with too. And while I think you've hit the nail on the head with part of this, I'm not sure I'm completely convinced. I do realize that Christmas is a cultural rather than religious holiday for most kids. However, the fact is that it is THE holidy for most kids in the US, Christian or not, and most of their friends will be celebrating it.

    I grew up in a secular Jewish family that nonetheless refused to do the "Chanukah Bush"/double holiday thing. Even though I loved our holiday and was proud of being 'different', I was still very much aware of all of the Christmas chaos around me that I wasn't able to partcipate in. As a happy child with a healthy family, I found that relatively easy to deal with. But to a child who has spent much of their life being deprived of things, I could imagine that seeming like just one more thing they couldn't do that their friends could. Being different is probably not as appealing when you're so different in other ways.

    Another key point here is that Christmas and Chanukah are not equivalent holidays. Most non-traditional Jews have given in on the present thing because it's almost impossible not to, but that's has nothing to do with Chanukah. There are some Chanukah songs and food, but nothing like what there is for Christmas, and besides the candles there's not usually much in the way of decorations. Chanukah is actually a fairly minor holiday, and when people try to build it up like Christmas it always seems stretched a little thin. Of course we have other fun holidays at other times of the year, but most kids aren't good at delayed gratification :)

    Anyway, I'm babbling. I think it's a tough topic and I'm interested to hear how others have/are handling it.

  4. very good post.

    nothing in this situation is clear cut but if lead by hearts and heads, things should work out.

    I go overboard on all holidays with our daughter we adopted from foster care but she is more religious than us and at times I wonder if I'm doing a good enough job on that part.


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