Christmas in a stranger’s home.

‘There are no strangers, only friends we haven’t yet met.’ I can’t remember who said that, but it is certainly true, and particularly so in the case of the children who come into our homes. It is even more relevant at Christmas; a time that usually means family, thoughtful gifts and a loving environment.

Foster carers are all too aware of this when a child comes to them in December, and although it’s hard to believe, the period just before Christmas is one of the busiest of the year for social services. It might be the stress, the lack of money, or the lack of support from absent partners. Whatever the reason, anxiety rises, and everything that’s difficult seems to become magnified, making it a tough time for both parents and children alike, whatever their individual circumstances.

As regular readers will know, I’m Christmas mad! By the time Bonfire Night has been and gone, I’m itching to get up into my loft and bring down all my trimmings, fairy lights and trees (yes, I usually have three), and I can’t wait to get the house looking like some kind of shrine to Santa Claus. Not forgetting all his elves, of course! By the 1st of December I’m  usually done. All lit up and always the tackiest house in the street – though my neighbours are all used to us by now. And it’s a bit of a Marmite situation really; either the foster children love it, or they hate it. We’ve experienced both.

For those that get as excited as me, it’s a great experience for them. Regardless of what might be happening behind the scenes in their lives, for them, Christmas is Christmas and should be enjoyed no matter what. It means lots of presents, lots of great food, and usually the treat of some late nights thrown in. These tend to be the kids that still have regular contact and phone calls with their parents and families and, generally, they respond well to the celebrations. Yes, they still have their family problems, but, for those few days it’s win, win – extra presents! –  and we like to indulge that feeling for them.

For others however, it’s not so straightforward. Contact is sparse or not at all, and because of that contrast, they can naturally resent our family harmony. They get depressed and withdrawn as the season approaches and try to make life as difficult as possible. In some cases it’s as if they become Jekyll and Hyde – being horrible to us while stipulating exactly which gifts must be bought for them;   but it’s nothing to be taken personally – it’s just another way they express their hurt and pain. In other cases they don’t even have the  emotional energy to think about what they’d like and simply shrug and say ‘nothing’. Both cases are really sad for us and it’s always difficult to know how to make things better.

There’s been the odd occasion where we’ve had to play the whole celebration down, and just have a quiet dinner and exchange of gifts; gifts that sometimes aren’t appreciated or asked for. As a foster family, my own children (grown up now, of course) have had to accept this, and even my grandchildren have had to spend one Christmas day without Nan and Granddad. It’s not nice, but it’s part of fostering – and it’s necessary at times. When a child feels abandoned, betrayed and unwanted they don’t want to be an outsider in a picture perfect family Christmas.  It’s too hurtful. In that situation, we try to make it all about them, rather than shoving the holiday down their throats. We ignore any negativity and concentrate on showing them a good time, taking our cues from their moods. The key thing is to try and make them feel they can at least get something out of it, even if it’s just material at first – these children often have so little to call their own.

We’ve always managed to squeeze some happiness into the big day itself, often by getting a child to recall their favourite Christmases, and by pointing out that things could get back to that again. Or we’ve helped them to write loving letters to their siblings or parents  (if allowed) and encouraged them to buy and send small gifts. If all else fails, Mike, my husband, always falls back onto his party piece. He does this thing where he wears a Santa hat, drags out the toadstool – um, yes, I also have a Christmas toadstool – and then sits cross legged on it while impersonating various celebrities, and we have to guess who they are. To be perfectly honest, I just think he looks daft, and never sounds like anyone other than himself, but it never fails to get the kids laughing their heads off. Mike insists that they laugh because of his abilities as a stand up comedian, but I’m sure it’s because they can’t really believe what they’re seeing!

I’m going to finish off by sharing with you a small part of a letter that Justin, our first foster child, recently sent us. (He’s all grown up now, by the way, and is doing well.) We still see him regularly, and he still spends most Christmas Days with us. This letter was sent last year, to thank us.

….it was a really brilliant day and I was thinking back to our first Christmas. I was so horrible to you and Mike, wasn’t I? You must have been really upset to have a little brat like me ruining the day, but you still did everything you could to make me happy. I’m sorry about that day, Casey, but I’ve never forgotten it, and I never will. Thank you for making me feel special.

And you know, that’s the thing isn’t it?  That’s why we foster. Although I’ve always thought that that day was awful for Justin, it still had a lasting impact on him. And that’s all I could wish for really.