“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” so the Andy Williams song goes. Like summer holidays, Christmas is one of those key family times that come with a set of expectations that even the most ordinary families have difficulty living up to. Now, I’m no Scrooge, and if you are brand new adopters, looking forward to your very first Christmas as a family, I have no wish to pour cold egg nog on your excitement and expectations. But I would like to mention a few things, based on my own experience and the mistakes I’ve made, that might help you retain that sparkly-tingly anticipation of Christmas in years to come.Oddly enough, I think we got our first Christmas with our children exactly right – just my husband and I and the children at home for a gentle, low key celebration. We had crackers and paper hats and a tree and a nice roast dinner and some presents. We remembered that the children needed fresh air and exercise, and after a walk in the park, we settled down quietly and played with their new toys. It wasn’t as I imagined Christmas would be, but it was really fine.
The following year, we got it horribly wrong. I come from a big family and every year we gather at my sister’s house for Christmas lunch. It is a large, lively gathering with loads of lovely food and drink, lots of chatter and laughter, beautiful decorations and piles of presents for everyone. Of course I wanted to share this special day with my children, but for them it was just too much. Too much everything. Too much noise, too many people, waaay too many presents, too much rich unfamiliar food, too much needing to be on their best behaviour, too much time spent travelling in the car, too many opportunities to fight with one another. Over-stimulated, with their careful routine totally disrupted, they made the car journeys to and fro absolute nightmares as they screamed and tried to beat the living daylights out of one another. My husband and I were tired, stressed, far too sober, and utterly fed up. I think we did it twice before we realised that we were torturing all of us quite needlessly. I am sure my family didn’t take it personally when we decided not to do it anymore.
Christmas day is now a much quieter affair for us, with maybe three or four extra people and usually spent at our house. We have built up a little set of our own traditions that we all enjoy. On the Sunday before Christmas we throw a really big party to which all our friends and family are invited. It can get pretty wild – especially the upstairs party with the kids running riot. For the past couple of years, we have hired a chaperone for the evening – a responsible 20-something who sits upstairs and keeps an eye on things and makes sure no actual harm occurs. This works brilliantly. I wish I’d thought of it before.
Then we have a bit of a breathing space before our usual low-key Christmas day. We see my family on New Year’s day, and exchange presents then, so everything is spread out a bit and is more manageable and much happier all round.While the big party I mentioned might not be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s something I really enjoy doing and do not find at all stressful. It has built up gradually over the years until it is now quite a big affair, but I am fairly practised at it and anyway only ever invite people I really like and feel absolutely no need to impress. My advice would be that anything that feels like an effort and is going to leave you tired and stressed must be avoided like the plague.
So why is Christmas especially challenging for adopted children?
Christmas is a celebration that is focused on families. It is, strictly speaking, a giant birthday party for a precious, much anticipated baby. Even the most resolutely irreligious see Christmas as a time for families to get together to celebrate in peace and harmony. How can this family focus not trigger all sorts of feelings and thoughts in our adopted children who, no matter their circumstances, have most certainly “lost” at least one family in their lives to date?“But they don’t really remember past Christmases, do they?” is a question you might well be asked, especially if your children have come to you at a young age. True, they may not have conscious memories, but Christmas-time in the UK is a very full-on immersive experience. Every sense is assaulted – the early darkness of winter, the cold weather, the twinkling lights and sparkling decorations, the Christmas music, the sense of anticipation and excitement generated by nursery or school events, the relentless advertising on television are all bound to trigger associations with Christmases past. And while Christmas with birth families might have been a happy time, it is equally possible that late nights, financial stress, excess drinking and intense family time, which are the all too common flip-side of the Christmas coin, caused conflict and extra problems in a situation which necessarily was not ideal anyway.Adopters of very young children might suppose that if their child never spent a Christmas with his or her birth family, they are not going to be affected negatively by Christmas or the things associated with it. That may be the case, but consider this: a pregnant woman who spends the holiday season fighting with the father of her child or getting drunk or feeling overwhelmed by feelings of despair when she sees her life measured up to the Christmas adverts is going to be producing buckets of stress hormones which will flood through the child she is carrying. Current research by people such as Bessel van der Kolk shows how trauma like this can have the effect of actually altering the way the brain is wired. Babies can be born fundamentally and physically changed by trauma experienced in utero. So the argument that the child was taken away at birth and thus never experienced trauma seems to be flawed. I wonder how much more deeply this trauma is written into the brains of babies and toddlers who have experienced terrible Christmases in person?
You might want to read up a bit on this topic if you have a family who is struggling to understand why you and your children need a different sort of Christmas.
Here are my top tips for a happier Christmas:
- Stick to routines as nearly as possible (no midnight mass or unusual bedtimes).
- Think carefully before accepting invitations to parties, outings, the pantomime, etc. Not to say you shouldn’t do these things, but keep it balanced. Scheduling quiet do-nothing days is very important.
- Avoid travelling.
- Not too many presents – I used to let my kids open presents as they received them, even before the actual day, so as to stagger things a bit and not build up too much anticipation and tension.
- Most young children are like puppies – they are a lot happier and better behaved if they get plenty of exercise. Bad weather means wrapping up extra warmly for the walk in the woods, not an excuse to hunker down in front of the TV all day.
- Not too many chocolates or other sweet treats.
- Do what works for you and your children – throw the “rule book” in the fire. The people who love and care for you should understand and accept your decisions.
- Let go of your own expectations – be they based on your childhood experience of Christmas or the Christmas “ideal” that is rammed down our throats by the media – and focus instead on building up a new set of traditions that may work differently, but can be unexpectedly lovely. My sister-in-law lets each person in her family choose a dish for Christmas dinner. The result is quite eccentric (instant macaroni cheese alongside roast potatoes), definitely non-traditional, and absolutely perfect for them. Big smiles all round her Christmas table.
- Don’t be tired, sleep deprived or overworked on Christmas morning. If your response to this advice is, “Ha! How can I possibly not be busy and stressed with so much to do?” My response to you is, “Do less,” even if that means that Christmas dinner is frozen pizzas.
- Remember many toys come disassembled — make sure you open the boxes, remove any tricky packaging and ties, and build them beforehand. Christmas morning is not the time to be trying to concentrate on badly translated instructions while impatient children rampage around you.
- Choose presents carefully — avoid things that will cause fights or can be used as weapons. Easier said than done, I know. I will publish a list of ideas shortly based on things that have been successful for my and my friends’ adopted children.
- Try to carve out a tiny bit of Christmas for yourself – my husband and I exchange presents on Christmas Eve once the kids have gone to bed. We have a quiet drink and remember what it was like when Christmas was “just us”. I do try to make sure that I haven’t got loads of stuff to do on Christmas Eve so that we can get this little moment to ourselves.
Of course, not everyone celebrates Christmas, but most religions and cultures include large family celebrations in their calendar. I imagine the pitfalls I describe regarding Christmas, might well apply to different family celebrations. That combination of high expectations, mixed memories and intense family time is probably universally a volatile one. One thing I am glad of is that I don’t live in North America where they have TWO such celebrations in the space of two months! How they all survive is nothing short of a miracle to me.