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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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Re-thinking Christmas

Kelly Shaw

How does a residential treatment centre incorporate traditional or non-traditional religious holidays like Christmas into its program? What is Christmas? What should Christmas in care look like? Should staff give gifts to youth? If so, what kind?

Christmas: the word conjures up memories and visions for most people – some fond, some less so. For all of us Christmas brings complications and numerous details to which we must attend: where to spend Christmas day; what to give as gifts. For those of us working in residential care it becomes even more complicated as the issues of who will work and where will the young people spend the holiday are included in the equation. This is the story of how one team answered some of these questions.

The team leaders had worked out holiday staffing for the program in early November. The youth and family workers had diligently ensured that each youth had a place, other than the centre, to spend at least part of the holiday. We thought that all the concerns facing our program had been alleviated. But had they?

Glancing at a team meeting agenda in early December, I was surprised to see Christmas listed as one of the items to be discussed. Curiosity, concern, and confusion quickly followed. Had we not addressed all the necessary business? Perhaps. But we soon realized that as a team we had not dealt with how we were going to incorporate the observance of this occasion into our program. What was Christmas going to look like in the centre?

Before we could decide exactly what we were going to do, we needed to examine what we individually and collectively believed about this holiday. Philosophically, we had to explore the religious and social standards associated with Christmas, and the meaning we gave or were going to give to this event in the context of group care. Trees, turkeys, gifts, Santa, the birth of Christ: which of these were we willing to embrace and why? Already, for example, the youth living in our program had begun to talk about the gifts they wished to receive from us. For many of them, the expectation that we would be giving them gifts was based on their previous experiences in care. Were we going to buy gifts as requested for these young people? Trying to be true to our philosophy and use every moment as an opportunity for learning, we questioned ourselves about what this would teach the youth. Would we be reinforcing the idea that caring means giving? Would we be playing a parental role? Would it make any difference what we did?

And we had other questions. What has Christmas meant for these teens in the past? Was it filled with happiness? Confusion? Anger? Was there any way we could even attempt to create a holiday experience that touched on all we wanted, as well as being therapeutic and festive?

As the team brainstormed Christmas memories, the idea of a turkey dinner seemed to be a consistently good one, so we decided to follow along with this tradition. We assumed that since our staff team had memories of traditional Christmas dinners, the young people who were living in our program would also have this type of memory or should be exposed to it. During our discussion, we thought about what the young people were planning in respect to gift exchanges with each other. During group meeting time, the youth had decided to do "secret Santa" gift-giving and had set up their own guidelines for this.

It was decided that we would have a Christmas dinner with all the fixings, and staff chose a day that all youth and most staff could attend. Staff and youth alone would attend this meal without parents, families, or friends, partly because of time restrictions: coordinating all these people in time to have a festive dinner was a task we didn't feel capable of undertaking. We also wanted to use this occasion to acknowledge the relationships among the individual youth and between the youth group and the staff. As well, we felt that we were being respectful of the hectic holiday schedule most people contend with.
And a tree was voted in, a big beautiful evergreen, chosen and decorated by the staff and residents. With these two details and many others hammered out, that left the big one – gifts. We finally decided that we would give gifts to the youth, but we still needed to decide what we would give and how we would give.

Within our program we have a policy that states that youth and family workers will neither give presents to, nor receive presents from, the youth or families they work with. Hmm, this created a problem; or did it? What if Santa came and distributed the gifts and they were from him and not from the key workers. Santa? We wondered how many of our teenaged residents believed in him, and how the jolly old soul would be received. We also questioned perpetuating the ever-increasing commercialization of this important Christian holiday. We decided against having Santa involved in our Christmas experience because we were attempting to incorporate unique experiences with traditional ones, and we weren't sure how Santa would be received.

We finally decided that each primary counsellor would review their youth's individual intervention plan, and come up with a present that was metaphorically representative of the goals that the youth was working toward. For example, a young woman who was working on redefining and reorganizing relationships within her family might be given an agenda book in which to keep the rest of her life organized. Another young person who was struggling to find direction in her life might be given a wrist compass, to remind her of her struggle to help find a direction. Faced with examining individual treatment programs and attempting to metaphorically represent goals sparked interesting discussions outside of the team meeting and provided a great opportunity for growth and learning.

This decision to give "metaphorical" gifts to the young people was reached by reflecting on the importance of metaphors in the examination of life events and their use as interventions in youth care. Metaphors sometimes allow paradigm shifts that are difficult without the metaphorical comparison. The decision to give this type of gift, rather than just what the young people wanted, was part of our attempt to continue a therapeutic focus to this holiday experience. This would allow them a different context in which to reflect on the goals from their individual intervention plan, and ultimately contribute to them redefining what Christmas can mean.

When we shared memories of our own previous Christmases, we remembered reflecting on years gone by and planning for the year to come. Should we attempt to mirror this in some way during our Christmas experience with the youth? We decided that during Christmas dinner the conversation would be steered to a reflective discussion of Christmases past.

At our Christmas dinner, one staff member started the reflecting. Once we began, everyone shared a fond memory and some even shared small anecdotal stories. The youth and family workers also shared memories of the past year living with the teens: the changes we had noticed, the milestones and goals that had been met. Dinner in our program was usually a rather chaotic time but this time it was relaxed, and everyone lingered long after the food was eaten, reflecting over candlelight.

The turkey eaten, the pumpkin pie gone, and the piles of dirty dishes left for later, the group moved into the living room and sat around the tree. Somehow during dinner someone had placed gifts under the tree. The surprise was almost tangible. A worker crawled under the tree, and began to call out the names on the gift tags. Even though primary workers had done the actual purchasing of the gifts, no individual was identified as the "giver" of each present. Staff did not receive gifts at this time, and the youth were not exchanging their gifts for each other: this was saved for individual Christmas parties of youth or staff. It was our intention to diminish as much as possible the distractions that would shift the focus from the importance of the metaphorical gifts, and the experience of giving and receiving them.

To say that the residents were overjoyed by their presents would be an exaggeration – after all, an agenda is not the same as the newest compact disc by your favourite group. For the most part, however, their reactions seemed to indicate an understanding of the meaningfulness of the gifts, not just as a present, but as a thought about the person and their struggles, personalized in the gift itself.

* * *

What did these youth learn from this Christmas experience? Who is to say if they learned anything immediately? Hopefully, over time, as they grow and experience more, they will synthesize this holiday time into their memories and further understand that we were offering them an opportunity to open their minds to new things, to rethink Christmas, and to not be set in routines. Perhaps, on some level, the stereotypical meaning of gift-giving was challenged. What did we learn from this holiday experience? I learned that challenging the status quo, changing the pattern of what we had done in years past for Christmas, was a wonderful learning experience both in the conceptual phase and in the actualization. The discussions evoked in the planning stages challenged us as individuals and as a team. We were faced with examining our personal belief system and how it may have been impacting on us professionally. We were forced to look at the meaning of Christmas in care and the importance, once again, of examining what we do and why we do it. We re-thought Christmas.  

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