“Christmas comes but once a year… bringing lots of joy and cheer,” so sing the unfortunate orphans in the eponymous 1936 animated film produced by Fleischer Studios. But whilst sleigh bells and merriment might ring true for most, there are a sizeable number of care experienced people who don’t celebrate Christmas at all, and others who have no-one to celebrate with.
Through no fault of their own, many spend Christmas in their own tenancies, B&Bs, homeless accommodation, and student halls. There is a myriad of other obstacles to be faced, such as balancing everyday needs like bills, food, clothing and other essentials, using and affording public transport or owning a car, with buying presents and reaching out to make a human connection left at the bottom of the pile.
It’s a cruel situation to be in - watching your housemates, course mates and pals heading back home to be with their families and loved ones, whilst the best you can hope for is a pity invite. I know because I’ve been there. As members of the care experienced family, we run the daily risk of being a walking cliché. Yet another Tracey Beaker. A character in a Charles Dickens novel. Stigma shadows us like the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. And it’s up to us to confound expectation at every turn.
For most families, it’s quite a natural thing to come together at Christmas. For care experienced people, it’s quite often the case that when we are in care, contact has to be planned and approved in advance. “Contact”…eugh, even the word itself is unnatural, as if we’re organising some sort of expedition to meet an alien species. For some, this means broken promises, being told that we would be seeing our brothers and sisters on the 25th of December, but waking up that morning to find out that it wouldn’t be happening for one reason or another.
Another natural by-product of the care system is that it temporarily grinds to a halt over the festive period, so professionals and volunteers can (understandably) spend time with their own families. However, from the closing hours of Halloween until the first few days of the New Year, we are served constant reminders of the importance of family and togetherness, whether that be through radio ads and glossy TV commercials, or catchy Christmas tunes (Whamageddon, anyone?). It can be hard to escape at times.
As you’ll read elsewhere in this issue of REACH, stigma takes many forms. The word derives from the Latin ‘stigmata’ and is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as being “A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” It is absolutely no disgrace to be a care experienced person, although for many years I was made to feel like it was. Prejudice, discrimination, damaging stereotypes and misguided beliefs - ‘them’ versus ‘us’. In life we are all guilty at times of judging and “othering” people into pigeon-holes which conveniently fit our biases.
However, it’s also important to highlight that there are organisations and individuals out there who go out of their way each year to ensure that care experienced people enjoy a stigma-free festive period.
Since 2014, Who Cares? Scotland (WC?S) has mobilised an army of volunteers to put together annual Family Christmas events in both Glasgow and Edinburgh. These are open to the extended WC?S family and community under the tagline “No one should feel alone this Christmas”. Last year’s events involved all the expected trappings that we take for granted, including a muckle dinner, films, presents, and copious amounts of chocolate and sweeties. Over 100 people are expected to attend this year. WC?S also sends over 2,000 Christmas cards to care experienced members in the run up to the big day, many of whom won’t receive any other card in the post.
Another shining example is the care experienced poet Lemn Sissay MBE, Chancellor of the University of Manchester, who while promoting his recent Channel 4 documentary Superkids: Breaking Away From Care, asked the British public “Why does society hate young people in care?” It’s definitely worth a watch.
Lemn was born in 1967 to a young Ethiopian woman who discovered she was pregnant soon after arriving in England. She asked for him to be fostered while she finished her studies. Instead, the arrangement continued until Lemn was 12, at which point his foster family gave him up, and he was sent to a children’s home. From there, he was moved from one home to another.
In 2013 Lemn founded the Christmas Dinner, which promises a fabulous day to about 300 young care leavers aged 18 to 25 in five cities: London, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and Oxford.
Family means something different to everyone and often stretches beyond basic biology. As we say in Hawick, “It’s something in the heart abiding.” This year’s WC?S Christmas card was designed by 14-year-old Owen Hughes, and the words he picked to adorn its front are sage indeed: “The true spirit of Xmas is love”. So, on behalf of the Stigma Work Group, whatever you’re up to, we hope you have a fantastic Christmas, and know that together, we can change things for the better.