Keeping Christmas Sane

A Mom of 18 Tells All

by Mary-Jo Jackson

Here are some ideas from the Jackson household on building traditions while defusing holiday tensions in homes with PI (post-institutionalized) kids. These ideas will work for some families, and not for others. Children severely impaired with PI issues or RAD situations may need even more accommodations. Feel free to use what you like, toss anything you can't use and modify as the spirit moves you! -- Mary-Jo Jackson, mom to 18, Lancaster, PA

For us, Christmas is primarily a religious holiday. Over our 30 years of marriage, and 29 years of child rearing, we have accumulated many traditions and faith-based ideas. Even if your family celebrates Christmas as a secular holiday, you could still incorporate some of these things for their historical significance.

Four Sundays before Christmas we set up the Advent wreath, a green wreath with four candles (three purple, one pink). On the first Sunday, one purple candle is lit, on the second Sunday we move to two candles, on the third Sunday we light two purple and one pink and then on the fourth and final Sunday, all the candles are lit. Purple is the traditional color of penitence. Advent is seen as primarily a spiritual preparation time for Christ's impending birth. The pink candle on week 3 is a "let's start to get excited because we're almost at the feast day!" thing. We light the candles at dinner every night. There is something calming about eating a meal by candlelight that most children appreciate. In our family Mama lights the candles and uses the candle snuffer to extinguish them, so there is no arguing over who gets to blow out which candle on what night. Be sure to buy your candles early, maybe Halloween time, as stores often sell out of these colors by mid-November.

On the first Sunday of Advent we get out the Christmas decorations. These include the Christmas videos and books and music, all of which we have stored away and bring out ONLY for the season. We start setting out decorations and by December 8, everything except the tree is up. December 8 is a big Catholic feast day, the Immaculate Conception, so having a deadline on that date gives us a reason to remember to talk to the kids about the significance of the feast (the belief that Mary was not only born without original sin, but was conceived without it). We try to NOT over-decorate. It can be too stimulating to PI kids (actually to any kids!). We use special Christmas placemats and napkins, only during this season. We have candles in the windows (my own favorite from my childhood) and talk about how the candles remind us of a light set out to guide the Holy Family to Bethlehem.Then we follow up with an explanation of how we should live our lives as lights to show others how God wants us to live. NONE of our explanations on traditions or religious significance are long or pointed; they sort of just happen as we are going about the tasks. A lecture is a surefire way to turn your kids off from listening and gaining the information you want to impart!

We have many homemade decorations that go in the same places year after year and it's fun to talk about who made them. We let the kids hang whatever they want (from a pre-approved group) on their bedroom doors---old Christmas cards, school made decorations, etc. We have four very lovely and elaborate decorations from the Black Forest that former exchange students have given us. We only light the candles on these on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. I'm sure you can see my point here: make the decorations special and don't feel you have to use every kind known to man.

We have two nativity sets. One is the family set and is placed up high where everyone can see it but no one should touch it. The other set is for children and can be moved around and reorganized for the entire season. Right now we have a lovely Fisher-Price set for the children, cute and sturdy. In the past I made a set by using the Fisher Price barn, and selected Fisher Price people and animals. We glued felt on the people to make clothes and angel wings. For any nativity set we use, the Infant Jesus does not appear until Christmas morning. In our house those figures are hidden away and we check the manger on the big morning, where, lo and behold, there's Jesus, put there for us by an obliging Santa Claus! This emphasizes to the children that Christmas is really about the birth of Jesus and that we need to remember that before we hit those gifts.

On December 1 we all get an individual Advent calendar. This way there is, again, no worry about who gets to open which door or who may open more doors than another sibling. We have used purchased calendars (most religious bookstores sell them at a very reasonable price). These are used and then tossed. We have some family favorites that appear from our holiday boxes every year. One is of felt and has Velcro ornaments to put on a tree. And we have made our own. You can use 25 mini cupcake paper liners and a large sheet of stiff paper to make a nifty triangle shaped Christmas tree. Glue 6 liners to the paper as the bottom of the tree, followed by a top row of 5 liners, then a row of 4, a row of 3 and row of 2 and up to one on top. This should give you the triangle shape that even your toddler will recognize as a tree! Use the remaining 4 liners to make the "trunk" of the tree. Number the liners and go find 25 Christmas stickers. Put the stickers into a plastic bag and STAPLE the bag to the paper.This is important or one morning (usually the busiest one) you'll find yourself unable to locate those stickers and your 3 year old will be very unhappy! Every morning put a sticker in that day's cupcake liner. On Christmas you'll have a nicely decorated tree. You can use regular sized cupcake liners, but then you'll need a really big piece of poster board. An artsy 9 year old could make her own Advent calendar by putting 25 stickers on a piece of paper, then drawing a scene of some sort on another piece of paper with 25 tiny doors corresponding to the stickers. Cut 3 sides of each door and number them randomly. Glue the edges of both papers together. Each day open one door to reveal the sticker. This is a good project for an older child to do and give to a younger sibling as it helps reinforce that holiday giving spirit.

When Michael and I were first married I made us each a red felt stocking for Christmas. Each year I have made a similar stocking as a new child appears. The stockings are all the same size and color, have a name on top and also certain decorations for boys, and others for girls. We hang all the stockings on the mantle on the second Sunday of Advent. Hanging all the stockings early gets the children accustomed to seeing this very exciting sign of impending gifts! It also eliminates confusion with hanging stockings on Christmas Eve.

The trip to see Santa can become a nightmare for many PI kids. In the past we have opted not to see Santa in person, but just to write him a letter that we leave in our stockings for him to read on his visit. Recently Michael's company began hosting a "Breakfast with Santa" in early November. This is a great event because we sit and eat and Santa does the circulating (no lines, on mall noises, no screams). Our Santa always says maybe he'll bring a surprise, a nice out from promising the moon to a child. If your PI child has come to you past the magic believing age we have found that one way to build a bond is by telling your child how YOU felt about Santa and other traditions when you were little. Our PI kids absolutely love to hear stories about times when Michael and I were children.

Every year we send a Christmas newletter and family picture. After so many years of marriage, so many exchange students, and so many moves, we have friends and family all over the world. I start the letter at Thanksgiving, solicit information from kids on what they want included and send out the whole shabang the first week in December. We take a family picture in October (at home, not professionally) and now can save money by putting all this on our website for people to see and read. I strongly encourage you to make use of any technological devises you can to save energy for this task! People will love to hear about your adoption and the growth of your kids. You can check out ours at

There are several saints' days in December that can be incorporated into holiday celebrations. St.Nicholas' Day is December 6. On the night of December 5 everyone leaves one of their shoes on the stairs. In the morning St.Nicholas will have left a book and a tiny candy cane in or near the shoe. It's always the same every year. The candy cane is eaten for afternoon snack. We do not send candy to school and any candy received at school must be brought home and not eaten there. Each year I put in my plea to the teachers to NOT give out all that sugar, but people rarely listen. (Then teachers complain about the high activity levels -- but that's another article!) The children really enjoy the book gift; plus this eliminates searching for a smallish present every year where no one will feel slighted by a siblings gift.

The feast of St.Lucy is December 13. This is the feast where Scandinavian girls dress in white with candle wreaths on their heads and serve their mothers breakfast in bed. I haven't managed to incorporate THAT yet, but as St.Lucy is the patron saint of eyes we try to set up our Christmas tree near this date (a feast for our eyes!). That gives enough time for the tree to be up and everyone to be excited about it, but still be comfortable and familiar enough with it for Christmas day. Again, we have many hand made ornaments and even 2 plastic doves from our wedding cake that sit in the tree every year. For kids without families and traditions these cherished ornaments can be very comforting. On the other hand, some PI kids could become upset, belligerent or rude about the traditions. We have not had that happen, but I know of families who have gone through it. My advice would be to try to remember that your child is angry and lashing out at life's unfairness, not at you personally. (Easy to say, very hard to remember in the heat of verbal abuse from a PI child.)

Food is another big part of the holiday season. If you can double any special recipes and then freeze half, you'll be ahead of the game. That no longer works for us, as most of the time I am tripling recipes just for a regular meal. I do try to bake a special goodie every day, and then freeze 5 or 6 pieces. On December 24 we take out all the frozen goodies and start celebrating! Again, try to keep your kids on as regular a meal schedule as possible. (Makes everyone happier!) Sweets and goodies get eaten at our house only for dessert, and then only one portion. I don't leave food out, especially sweets, as some of our children are still not good at self-regulating (read this to mean they will gorge themselves). It's easier on everyone at this point if parents just routinely monitor the food. And don't worry if your Martha Stewart ideas of family baking time crumble faster than the burned cookies! Lower your expectations, particularly if your children are hyper, very young, or newly adopted. Perhaps you could bake the cookies alone, and then let the kids decorate them. You can set a time limit ("We'll decorate until the clock chimes") to put some parameters on the activity. If you try this be sure you are super-organized with all the ingredients set out before hand, and enough frosting, aprons, etc. for everyone.

Because there are so many siblings in our family we have gone to a special system for family presents. Each child (and now spouses and a grandchild!) submits their name on a piece of paper. The names are put into a hat and everyone draws one name. That name is the only sibling for whom you will buy/make a present. We draw these names on Thanksgiving. Anyone far away who can't make it for the actual drawing relies on Mama to choose a name and pass it on. Also Mama is the only person who knows who has chosen whom -- it's all a big secret until lunchtime on December 24 when we gather round and exchange these gifts. The children ALL enjoy this -- the special gift from a sibling, the secrecy, the whole nine yards.

During the holiday season we also hit home with the idea that there are others less fortunate than us. We choose one, but only one, charity as a family. Sometimes we take a name off our angel tree at church and purchase gifts, sometimes we send money to a special group, sometimes it's a school sponsored charity. Whatever we try, we talk about it as a family and make a decision that way.

On December 24 we try to keep things very, very calm and really relax our expectations. The adults try to spend a lot of time with the kids to prevent explosions (which means we need to have all of our jobs done...). After breakfast we open presents from away grandparents. In our family these are usually checks and maybe a small toy for little people, so it's not too overwhelming and is a nice beginning to the present giving. At lunch we do the family gifts. We eat a very small lunch and then have an easy to clean up dinner at 3:30. After that it's time to get ready for church (family Mass is 6 PM in our parish). If you are preparing to go to church or to parties and require special clothes be sure you get those clothes organized early, such as mid-November. Check that the good shoes still fit, the tights have no runs, etc. Set the clothes out in a safe place so at the last minute you are not hunting for that missing shoe! Be sure you build enough time into your schedule to account for traffic and extra high church turnouts. This year we were at church 45 minutes before Mass and got the last full pew. We brought special new toys with us just for church (no noise, no mess, no tiny pieces -- we had angel stickers, colored pencils and activity books).

After Mass it was home for a tiny snack, the off to baths and beds, just like every other night. Again, the routine is so important to PI kids. We have a special plate that we use every year to set out cookies for Santa, who very thoughtfully leaves a thank you note and a few crumbs in the morning. Just before bed we set out our luminarios. These are only lit on Christmas Eve and Christmas night. They are easy to make and spectacular to see. Take brown or white paper lunch bags. Fill them a third full of cat litter, stick a little tea light candle in the litter, and set the whole deal outside, perhaps along the driveway. Then light the candles and admire your work! We try for 10 to 20 lights each night. The tea lights burn for two hours, just long enough. Again, be sure you have the makings for the luminarios well before time, and put them together the morning before you need them.

We do not have any special Russian, Romanian or Bulgarian Christmas customs. Our children all were in orphanages since infancy and had no memories of any special Christmas activites (though Clare told us this was the only day in the year when each child received a banana). Some PI kids have those special memories and you might want to incorporate them into your family life. Other children may become upset by the mere mention of their former lives. Everyone has to make that call individually.

On Christmas morning NO ONE and I do mean NO ONE comes downstairs until Daddy gives the signal (and is set up with his video camera!) Everyone finds their stocking, which has magically jumped down from the mantle and is now marking the spot on the floor where you will sit. After the stockings are emptied (done all together in a big fun rush!), Daddy starts handing out the gifts. One person gets a gift and the others all watch to see the unwrapping. We start with the youngest and work our way up. And yes, this can work. The parents just have to be calm, in charge and insistent that there is no other way to do this. This year we had 16 children and 2 parents opening gifts and it took 3 hours, but it really was calm and enjoyable.

We spend the day in quiet mode, with everyone relaxing with their new things. We try NOT to travel anywhere this day or have any company that is not close and familiar to us. As for how many gifts we buy, we usually shoot for four to five presents per child, plus the same number of little things in the stocking. We start buying in September and wrap right away, keeping detailed lists of who receives what. This way we can mail everything that needs to be mailed by December 3 or 4. Four or five gifts seems the right number for our crew -- enough to be special, but not enough to be overwhelming. By the way, we've learned to wrap things with the packing removed (ever try to untwist those horrible straps for the wheels of a Tonka truck with a 6 year old chomping at the bit beside you?) and have all the necessary batteries in a bag ready to use. We also have some BIG boxes and bags ready for used wrappings before we start with the gifts.

This has become a very long article, but hey, the Christmas season is the biggest one we experience every year. The most important thing I can tell you is that no matter what you try, what traditions, what foods, what activities, the thing that will make or break the holidays is the parents' attitudes. Try to be calm and not shoot for some Norman Rockwell Christmas that can't be achieved. Keep the routines in place for your PI kids. Go easy on company and parties, two things that can confuse and upset your kids. Prepare as much as you can early (clothes, food, gifts) And then save somethings for after the big day. This is a very important point! After all, the twelfth day of Christmas is January 6, so try to prolong the season. There is usually a looonnngg school holiday involved here and many of our PI kids don't know what to do with their new possessions, so expect the "I'm bored" and "I don't know what to do" whines. We decorate a gingerbread house AFTER Christmas, go to see holiday lights AFTER the day, put a big puzzle together as a family AFTER the holiday, etc. January 6 is the feast of the Epiphany, the day the Magi came to honor Christ. This is the day the Wise Men appear in our nativity sets. And it marks the end of our Christmas season. On January 1 we start to slowly take down the decorations and by the sixth only the nativity scenes are left (as we feel it should be!)

Throughout this entire season, go easy on yourself. You can't do it all, so don't try. Many PI kids are completely upset by this joyous season. It can be a time for them to remember horrible past memories, to question why they had such a rough life, to worry about friends left behind, to worry about the future -- you name it and it can cross their minds at Christmastime! And usually PI kids can't bring themselves to TALK about these worries. Things are too deeply buried in their minds, or it's just too scary to say things out loud. So there can be an upswing in outrageous behaviors. PLEASE try to remember this so you will be prepared for the rudeness, the crying, the non-stop talking, or whatever it is that your child does to self-comfort. Try to give your child words to name his/her feelings. Often PI kids don't understand that they are feeling sad, angry, unhappy or whatever. They are just not in touch with their inner workings. It will be up to you the parent to explain not only the appropriate behaviors but also the possible reasons behind the actions. Our kids didn't realize that feelings, actions and past experiences were all connected and that EVERYONE has different coping skills.

Work towards helping your children see that this special time of the year celebrates the birth of Christ and turns our minds toward helping others. Build on that and you can't go wrong.

Copyright © 2002 by Mary-Jo Jackson

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