Columns 2003

Holiday often brings no joy to troubled children

As best we can, those of us who work with troubled and abused kids try to get them as close to home as possible for the holiday season.  It just seems wrong to leave a kid in detention over Christmas if it can be avoided.

Often, we can’t actually let the kid go home for a variety of reasons – some related to the child and some related to the conditions in the parental home.  But we try to find someplace close by where they can feel it’s at least a little bit like Christmas.

Working with village kids makes this even more critical because Christmas in the Bush isn’t like Christmas in urban or suburban areas.  On the North Slope, most of Christmas Day is spent at church at a church feast.  Everyone brings some of the bounty of the year’s subsistence hunt and you feast on duck soup and whale, maktak and caribou.  And just to be sure no one is hungry at the end of the day, there is usually a turkey roasting in the oven at home while the feast is going on.

No group home or foster home that isn’t actually located in a village can simulate that atmosphere of fellowship and camaraderie.  Just like for most of us, Christmas will forever be defined by the foods and activities our parents created for us, these village feasts define Christmas for most of the kids I work with.

In my childhood, Christmas meant getting to wear the new dress, coat, shoes, gloves and hat that had been sitting in my closet tantalizing me for the better part of a month.  Christmas meant getting in the car to drive to Philly to spend the day with all my relatives.  It meant going over the Tacony-Palmyra bridge and getting a candy cane from the man in the booth as he waved us through for free. It meant begging mom for permission to eat the candy cane before we hit Aunt Ida’s and had to have dinner.

After we got to Philly, we made the rounds of aunts and uncles who would not be joining us at the table because they would be with other family. This was the time for all cousins to inspect each other’s haul and see who won. It was also the time to stuff down as many Christmas cookies as we possibly could before mom caught us and gave us a lecture about ruining our appetites for the dinner Aunt Ida had been slaving over for two days.

Once at Aunt Ida’s, the big debate began about who was going to pick up Uncle Henry from the home and who was going to go get Aunt Adeline who, as usual, was saying she didn’t feel like going out and just wanted to spend Christmas alone and quiet.  Like she had a chance in hell of her family letting that happen.

Once we all gathered, the food came out. And it came out.  And it came out.  Course after course after course.  Antipasto followed by Christmas soup followed by pasta followed by a roast followed by desert, followed by hot chestnuts, Christmas cookies, nut, figs and espresso coffee that could keep your eyeballs at full salute for 72 hours. 

Not that we kids ever got that far. Between the excitement of getting up early to open presents, the visiting with all the Philly cousins, the snatched cookies and candy canes and the smell of my Uncle Paul’s homemade wine, anyone under 12 was usually snoring at the table by the time the antipasto hit.  We would be carried to the living room, deposited on couches and chairs and then the adults would return to a peaceful, quiet dinner.

Like the turnkeys my Inupiat friends have roasting in their ovens for when they return from the church feast, we had sandwiches packed to travel when we headed back out for Atlantic City so we wouldn’t starve during the 90-minute journey. You got these sandwiches whether you had finished dinner three hours or three minutes before your departure.

That was Christmas for me and I can’t imagine how I would have survived it being any other way.  So I can’t imagine how the kids who can’t go home manage to keep a smile on their face through Christmas day when nothing is as it should be, nothing really means Christmas and home to them because they aren’t home.

If I had one wish for Christmas, it would be this. That all the kids in this state who are in group homes, foster homes and detention facilities could, for one magical day, be home with their families and communities enjoying the Christmas they remember.

And for those children whose parents have given them no good memories beyond drunken parties and holiday violence, I wish that they find a way to make peace in their lives with the pain they’ve been dealt so that someday they can give their own children wonderful Christmas memories.