Family Christmas dinners, wrapping and unwrapping of presents, laughter, fun and celebration. Gingerbread men with reindeer antlers and santa hats in the bakers. The excitement of the X-Factor final and the competition for the Christmas number 1 slot in the charts. The anticipation of the new John Lewis, Coca-Cola and Irn Bru TV ads. DVD box sets, soap sets, scarves, slippers, fleecy jammies and Christmas jumpers. The last-minute dash to the shops to find the perfect gifts and a box of ferrero rocher for your Gran.
Warm log fires, Christmas trees, candy canes, the aroma of cinnamon and cloves and even a present for your pet. Christmas Carols, school nativity plays, our favourite Christmas movies with Santa Clause, Rudolph and cheerful, smiling people all around. Christmas really can be the perfect time of the year.
But for someone,like me, who would rather forget the memories of the last sixteen Christmas celebrations, what are you supposed to do when the glittery red, silver and gold hype over the 25th is absolutely everywhere?
Most of us are taken into care because our parents are neglectful or abusive. This means that the government has decided that they are going to look after us better. But from as young as 16, celebrating Christmas Day alone in an unfurnished flat, B&B, or homeless accommodation can be a reality for us.
Seeing the constant reminders that the day is coming where everyone is going to be celebrating something you don’t have, can be tiring and depressing. Hearing of people’s family plans and festive cheer can be a bit miserable when you know you won’t be doing the same. Watching films of happy families celebrating the day can reinforce again that you no longer have a mum or dad you can do that with, or makes you worry about your siblings far across the country from you.
Christmas comes with a school holiday, which everyone I know is thrilled about. But for me it means that it’s harder to distract myself from the festive family buzz radiating across the country.
Harder to manage my money and afford to get everyone the presents they deserve. Harder to keep my spirits up when I’m left on my own most days in a stranger’s house when my friends and professionals split away for the fortnight.
Christmas time last year my landlady asked me to find somewhere else to be for the week because she was having her family over for the holiday. This was a reasonable request; my Christmas wasn’t her problem after all. But it did leave me a bit stuck. I had tried the year before going to friends for Christmas, but whilst they did their best to make me feel included, it also left me with a twist in my gut imagining a nice family Christmas like this with my own family. I didn’t really belong. I was trying to force myself to fit into a box that wasn’t meant for me. So I decided I would just use my savings to find a hostel to stay in for the week instead until the family time had passed for another year.
Who Cares? Scotland heard about my plan, and thought it was an absolutely terrible idea.
They invited me to one of their Christmas Dinners held on Christmas Day in both Glasgow and Edinburgh. A Christmas Day that was designed for me, with my Who Cares? Scotland Family Members. With other people who would understand how I was feeling but were also determined to have a great day too, just like everyone else across the country. I wasn’t keen. I wanted to ignore that Christmas was a thing. I wanted to hide in bed with a stack of toast and marmite.
But they kept asking, because they wanted me to have the nice day everyone deserves and so I decided I would give it a go – it was the best decision I made all year.
People were voluntarily coming in at 7am to cook for the Edinburgh Christmas Dinner. There were so many volunteers eager to come in early too for extra decorative purposes in Glasgow – it was so nice to see just how many people who weren’t being paid wanted to make sure that we had a wonderful day too.
We had a table outside by a fire with huge flasks of hot chocolate, marshmallows, maltesers and squirty cream. I pulled crackers with people I knew and people I soon knew sitting around me and laughed with them and joined in the conversation and for the first time, felt like a real part of a family. My friends had tried to empathise with me, worried about what I would be doing on Christmas day. But none of them really understood what it felt like to be remembering the past Christmases with your mum and wondering where she is now. But with our Care Leavers, for once people finally understood. And it’s great. We don’t have to talk about it but its really nice to be reminded that you’re not actually alone and the connection we get instantly makes a family.
We took our plates in to the kitchen where incredible volunteers were busy to pile them up with potatoes and sausages and turkey and gravy and I’m going to say sprouts but as you might expect when feeding 50 teenagers, there were rather a lot left when we tidied up afterwards.
Once the plates were cleared we got to go upstairs and watch a movie and get our present bags. Sorry, present sacks is more accurate. They came up to my waist.
Piled up on beanbags together in a heap on the floor we all dug into our sacks. I was overwhelmed with not only the sheer quantity of donations Who Cares? Scotland had had, but the quality of the stuff people had thought to hand in for us too. I had lovely jewellery and bath sets from lush, expensive shampoo and gift cards. I unwrapped a cute mug set and a thick leather bound diary, nail varnish of every colour of the rainbow. I had more nice soapy stuff and cosy socks and gloves, pens and then my sack was topped up with as much chocolate as possible.
It was definitely not the Christmas I had expected, and it was by far the strangest I’ve ever had. But it was also the best I’ve ever had but I should never have expected anything less of Who Cares? Scotland.
They go out of their way to make sure that we have the nice stuff and experiences everyone deserves, and most other people have. It doesn’t matter who you’re speaking to, what their job title is or what area they work in, they talk to you, they listen to you and want to help. And they don’t let you down like most people.
I now understand what the family part of Christmas is about and why it’s so great. It doesn’t matter that nobody in that barn was related. We had experiences and feelings we could all relate to and being together, surrounded by people who felt the same as me, but were determined to have a good time made the day manageable, rather than something I wanted to hide from under my duvet and utterly refuse to acknowledge.
The volunteers were all there by choice, not half-heartedly for some moral obligation or because they were paid to. They wanted to make sure that we had a day to remember for all the right reasons. Volunteers and young people were all great people who didn’t care where you had come from, what your story was, or why you had nowhere better to go than take a chance on a barn on the outskirts of Glasgow or a little house in the city centre of Edinburgh.
They just wanted everyone to get the sort of day the rest of the country has and have fun together and that made it great. Only a few weeks now until we’ll get to do it all again and this time, I’m looking forward to it.