By Cameron Talbot
Cover Illustration: Robert Sauber
“Traditions provide both stability and belonging to the observers.”
It’s that time of year again—Christmas and New Year’s are happening. Regardless of where you live, odds are there is an atmosphere of excitement and family beginning to build for the holidays in your community.
Never was I made more aware of the familial core of our end-of-the-year celebrations than when I began working in a children’s home. Our kids become acutely aware of what they do not have during “the most wonderful time of the year.” Although they long, spirit and soul, for family connections every day, I have noticed that Christmas becomes a particular source of frustration and sorrow for them.
How do we handle this?
Because celebrating Christmas at an orphanage seems to be emotionally complicated for our kids, there may be a temptation to down-play the festivities. But while we cannot give them what they truly desire (by faith, only for the time being), there are things we can do to have FUN, and remind them that they are truly loved, incredibly blessed, and have an adopted family in our community.
One of the best ways to accomplish this at an orphanage is by creating and maintaining traditions.
Traditions, whether complex or simple, are those long-standing activities or customs that we ritualistically perform every year. It might be a song sung together, or the reading of scripture, or decorating a Christmas tree together. It might have deep, spiritual meaning. It might just be something fun that everyone looks forward to each year. But it is these traditions that shape family history, and keep families united from generation to generation.
Recent research actually demonstrates that families who keep traditions are actually happier! In his article for Scientific American, Matthew Hutson writes, “Those who said they performed collective rituals, compared with those who said they did not, felt closer to their families, which made the holidays more interesting, which in turn made them more enjoyable.” Further, the type of ritual performed appears to have no bearing in the equation, but the mere fact that a family has a ritual to keep together seems to bring joy.
But how will traditions save the spirit of Christmas for our little ones without family?
Allow me to share a specific example of tradition from my own life…
In my family, we make everything a tradition! We watch particular movies on particular nights, have special ornaments saved and hung last, and candles lit to remember the “true meaning of Christmas.” We must have a hundred traditions! And as we go about spending time with one another and having new experiences during the holidays, I think we add 10 more each year! You’ll always hear someone saying, “This was fun! Let’s do it exactly like this next year…”
My favorite, though, touches on the importance of traditions and why they translate so well into the orphanage setting—
Every year on Christmas Eve since I can remember, my mother reads All Is Well, a children’s book by Frank Peretti. In this tale, a struggling, single mom and her daughter barely have enough money to buy food. When little Jenny tries to help her mom by selling everything they own, she stumbles upon a special, old Christmas ornament that inspires hope and faith, and reminds her whole community that All Is Well (even in July!).
When my mom reads this story every year, I am reminded that all is well, myself. Why? Well first, it’s a beautiful story. But it’s also in part because traditions provide both stability and belonging to the observers.
Stability is developed out of the predictable nature of tradition. When a child knows exactly what is going to happen every year, how it will take place, and what their role will be, it removes some of the chaos from their world. They know what to expect and how they feel about it in advance. The foreknowledge brings peace, and empowers children to enjoy an otherwise unpredictable season.
Belonging is developed out of the communal sacredness of tradition. Essentially, traditions are private rituals, and members of the participating group have a particularly special, shared experience from performing the ritual together. Engaging a child in structured tradition gives them a history and bond with one another, and with you. In this way, traditions create a sense of family and belonging.
When All Is Well is read, I know that it comes right before bed, and that my mom will give the characters fun voices, and show the pictures. I also remember years with my family when we struggled just like little Jenny, but that book brought us together at the end of the year. It is stability and belonging.
In Chapala, Mexico, director Anabel Frutos of Love in Action Children’s Home observes specific traditions with her kids. For over a decade, Christmas Eve has been spent around an evening bonfire. Caregivers afford older kids the opportunity to stoke the fire and add wood, while everyone warms themselves by the flames, laughing and sharing stories.
Before the night is done, every child is given a sparkler. Lit together, Christmas night is ushered in with great excitement, as the flash of the tiny fireworks are twirled and spun in the air. Some of the children have been living at Love in Action for many years, and they know exactly what to expect, as the tradition has become an important part of their family identity. For those children who are new, they are welcomed on Christmas night into something truly special and bonding.
This holiday season, watching others gather with their families means that our children are reminded that they are not currently with their families. Each of our children are on their own journey of processing this fact. As caregivers, we know we have to be exceptionally observant and engaged during this time, aware of when a child is exhibiting behavior of sorrow—isolationism, aggression, self-harm, etc.
But as we sense the weight of Christmas on our children, it is redemptive to recognize that the holidays just might present the opportunity to begin anew. Start a new tradition. Break the pattern of familial loss and initiate a family atmosphere for Christmas.
We can remind our children that All Is Well during this time, because they have been placed in a new kind of family—one in which they are loved, they are blessed, and they belong.
To all of you who selflessly give of yourselves as the caregivers, directors and advocates of abandoned children…Merry Christmas!
This might be the perfect year to begin some new traditions in your children’s home. Not sure where to begin? You can find some fun tradition ideas HERE! We love this blog’s unique, creative ideas that will have your kids saying, “That was fun, can we do it again next year?”