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karen vanderven — from the soapbox

Santa, Scrooge or Sage? Reframing holiday celebrations in the long run

Special holiday commentary

Imagine the following three scenarios, with the main dramatis personae children and youth in residential, group care....

(1). A clue that holiday time is coming ! Staff are bringing out the artificial tree from its storage place and to go with it, the commercial, store bought decorations for the tree and for the offices and wall of any public or administrative area. They are arranging the lights and sodden tinsel on the tree, hanging up gaudy ornaments and taping up the printed Santa Clauses, joyous snow-filled holiday scenes of trotting horses and sleighs.

(2) An afternoon of holiday festivity kindly delivered by a local organization as part of its responsive holiday giving program - for all of the residents, be it a large institution, a smaller treatment center, a group home. The residents are brought by the child and youth workers into the pre-decorated gymnasium, auditorium or multi-purpose cafeteria. Once everyone is seated, the show begins. A skit is given, complete with Santa Claus, reindeer and the North Pole. A group carol sing is led. Then it’s time for each child to file by Santa for a prettily wrapped present, and refreshments of Christmas sugar cookies and holiday punch. This then done, the kindly visitors and thanked and the staff take the kids back to their quarters.

(3). An intimate Christmas day visit into the warm bosom of the caring family of a staff member including.... festive holiday decorations all over the house...present unwrapping with a special present just for the guest child... a holiday dinner with all the trimmings and all you can eat.... perhaps some carol singing along to records or a piano....and finally, back into the car for a return to the residence.

Wouldn’t one think these things would make a beneficial holiday season for children and youth in care ? Let’s think again, and hear, as the famous American radio commentator Paul Harvey would say, "the rest of the story" (and, of course, some "soapbox" commentary).

Scenario One.
What’s of concern with this one - the staff decorating the premises? The staff are doing something that would be, in my "soapbox" position, far better done by the kids themselves. Wouldn’t it be better to assemble an array of makings for holiday decorations and set aside some times for the staff to lead the kids in deciding what appropriate and needed decorations would be and where they might go ? Wouldn’t it be better for them to plan together, work together and decorate together ?

Why would this be worth the effort ? Several reasons: It enables the children and youth to be productive and to have their efforts publically viewed and acknowledged. I like to think of walking into an institution and not only seeing truly "homemade" decorations, but also seeing staff and children together putting them up. All of this enables them to be the "do-ers" and in some cases, even the teachers as they may show others how to make their "favorite" decoration. Too they can show and discuss culturally related differences in holiday decorations and celebrations. And, it increases their sense of ownership and even pride, in the place they are living. I still say that the more responsibility kids have in caring for their living space, the less destruction and indifference to their surroundings will occur.

Scenario 2
Who wouldn’t like to be "thrown" a holiday party ? From my years of working in direct care in institutional settings, however, I continually made a puzzling observation that I now call "Post-Bounty Depression". This phenomenon was continually observed. The staff would make a special effort to provide what we would think was a treat - a trip off grounds, an evening of movies. When it was over, did we hear grateful voices of thanks for our "generosity" ? No. Rather it was , " It’s so boring around here." I hate it here . "I can’t wait to go home". Let me stress that this in no way means that staff should not offer these experiences. Not so — having them is important learning for the children and youth — including recognizing the underyling dynamics of their response. But in the case of the "outside group giving those needy children a party", this, as with the staff decorating, put the children and youth in the position of being passive recipients of "noblesse oblige", no matter how well intended, and somehow left feeling compromised.

So, what to do when these generous offers come in ? I’d suggest two approaches.

One would be to sincerely thank the organization for its interest and generous intent. and have at the ready a ‘wish list’ for activity material that could be used throughout the coming year. I’d say that if the organization would instead supply, for example, an advanced level Lego set, some new ceramic or carpentry equipment for the craftshop, or new basketballs and nets, that many children and youth could enjoy and benefit from them, with some gratefulness to the contributors, all year long !

The other would be to again plan ahead and have the children and youth themselves organize and deliver a holiday performance and reception for the public ! With the staff’s leadership, they can develop a skit or a play. They can plan, shop for, and prepare refreshments — perhaps involve the food service staff in this aspect. (It was always my experience that the dining room staff, the maintenance staff, the housekeeping staff, even the locksmith, were incredibly committed to the well being of the children and would directly help in any way.) This would enable the kids to be activated, in the true meaning of activity, and, again, to feel productive and competent.

Scenario 3
When the child psychiatrist who supervised me in my work as a program supervisor and activities worker in one setting in which I once worked, "nixed" individual staff offers to take a favorite child home for Christmas Day, even I couldn’t believe it. Why deprive the selected children the opportunity to leave the setting and spend the day with a real family ? Later I came to understand. Would not the un-invited children feel even more rejected and unhappy when another was able to leave with a staff member who chose him or her ? But this was not all. If one child went to one home, and then returned, it would heighten sharply the contrast between the hosting family and the child’s own either non-existent or not always well-functioning family and the circumstances that had put the child in a residential facility. It could encourage a fantasy that perhaps the child would now be taken into this host family and that the staff members’ children would now be their friends — a reality, which, of course, was not possible.

Lest one think the psychiatrist simply left it that every child who could not go to his or her "own" family would just stay at the residence — that was not the case at all. She came up with an ingenious solution that was actually implemented happily for all concerned. Here’s how it worked: A staff member indeed could offer his or her home as host site — the difference would be that several children and more than one staff member would go along. Thus, it would be more like a group outing. The children would get the basic pleasures of a holiday trip "off campus", but would avoid being moved into the delicate dynamics of relationship between child, institution and family that become more acute at holiday time. Children and staff could plan together to take a "bread and butter" present to their host.

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So, at this holiday time, we child and youth workers can consider our plans and ask: What shall we be ? Santa , all–giving; Scrooge, ungiving, or (in the knowing sense of the word, Sage, enabling activation, productivity, and two-way giving and receiving ? Seems some of our favorite customs can be mainained in a way that ensures both immediate pleasure and long term benefits as well.