Christmas 1997

As a child Christmas was always a time of inner turmoil, growing up in Foster Care I quickly learned that Christmas in real life, was far different from the idea of the day that had been sold to me in psychedelic children’s cartoons. The holiday season always seemed to be a time of heightened emotions and increased alcohol influence. When you live with volatile people who are prone to sudden, violent explosions of emotion, instead of being a time to cherish being around people, it becomes a time to watch even more closely for the signs of imminent danger and hysteria.

My first memory of Christmas goes back to when I was about four years old. I was living in an awful foster home in the Northern suburbs of Melbourne, the family had been given on and off care of me ever since I was an infant but I had never been accepted as part of the family, I was always the resented ‘other’.  I awoke, put on my fluffy robe and slippers and padded over to the loungeroom where the rest of my foster family had already gathered, there was my foster mother and father, their poisonous brother, my foster uncle, and their two biological children, one boy and one girl.

I scanned the room delighted to see piles and piles of brightly coloured presents all around, my foster siblings ripping right into them with huge smiles plastered across their faces. I sat on the floor by the door and watched, waiting to be invited into the action, knowing not to overstep and intrude just in case I was banished from the room in annoyance as was usual. My stomach felt like oil and water, on one hand I was delighted to witness such a beautiful Christmas day but on the other hand, I missed my mum and wanted to be part of the day, not just an unwanted observer to someone else’s joy.

After everyone else had opened their mountains of gifts, all eyes turned to me, my foster mother handed me a brightly wrapped package and I almost squealed in glee. I carefully peeled back the tape that bound the package together, wanting to make the moment last as long as possible. I was never given gifts so I could hardly believe my luck. As I peeled off the last piece of tape and began to pull off the remaining paper, a kilogram bag of homebrand salt was revealed, I didn’t understand. What was I supposed to do with all this salt? I looked up at my foster parents, searching their faces for some kind of explanation, trying to be thankful for having received anything at all. My foster mother sneered, a cruel icy expression creeping into her eyes as she snarled in my direction “naughty children get salt”.

The floor dropped out from underneath me, I tumbled into the roiling pit of my stomach, my head spinning and trying to make sense of what was happening. I must have done something bad, I was a naughty child, how could I even think that I deserved a present? I tried and failed to stop the tears falling from my eyes, I was spinning inside my body as I sat cross-legged on the floor. My foster brother who was a few years older than me and usually prone to overt resentment, came over to me and handed me his 200 gram salt shaker and said he would swap it for my kilogram of salt because he was bigger. An attempt to calm the situation and blunt the sharpened, predatory air that had developed as a result of my tears. From that moment, presents became dangerous objects to be rejected or opened in the safety of isolation.

Even today, two decades later, when I receive a wrapped present, that small four year old child inside of me recoils in panic for a split second. It takes a moment before I can remind myself that I am no longer back in my childhood, that the people I have chosen to surround myself with are safe, loving and kind people who wouldn’t subject me to that kind of treachery. It has taken work to rethink the idea of Christmas, not as a time of danger and threatening parcels, but as a time when I can retreat into the forest to spend time with the ferns and the birds, gifted brief encounters with the creatures of the forest who have no pretence about them.