Christmas traditions aren't always picture perfect. For families of foster care or adoption, these memories can mean even more...

Our First Christmas as a Family

Let me start by saying I was never as nervous or excited about Christmas day as I was that year. My husband and I had been married 14 years at the time and had spent holidays anywhere from big family gatherings to (my personal favorite) at home reading a mountain of books and cuddling. This was our first year as parents—well, as foster parents. But, we ended up adopting those kids so it turns out all those memories I was trying to make just in case they leave got to be our first memories of Christmas together. What’s funny is that the things I planned to be the yearly traditions: making salt dough ornaments, decorating cookies, and making crafts ended up being eclipsed entirely by other organic events. 

My boys were 8 and 9 and my daughter was 4 months old. I was determined to give them “The Best Christmas EVERtm.” Please be aware this means that I was an absolute psycho—not towards the kids, but to everyone who was not them. We made a big point of taking the kids to church, involving them in the Christmas parties they were invited to, and decorating the Christmas tree with excitement that rivaled Santa Clause’s elves. 

Finally, the big day came. The kids had never had a Christmas before. Their biological parents couldn’t provide all the things they needed, and that included Christmas presents (at least, this is what my boys told me. I could have been played. Who knows). My oldest walked out of the hall and, in the most dramatic way possible, gasped and pretended to faint at the sight of all the gifts under the tree. We ate homemade cinnamon rolls (now a tradition that is sacred around here that I only thought about at the last minute), drank hot cocoa (also part of the tradition now too), and my husband read the Christmas story in Luke. Then, the kids tore into their gifts. It was chaotic and delightful. Their excitement was palpable and genuine. They were giddy and thankful. We have had many lovely Christmas days since then, but this one makes them all seem to pale in comparison. The utter joy on their faces when they presented the gifts they helped my husband pick out in secret was delightful. 

Now, as amazing as the day was, the night was something else entirely. We have an (admittedly stupid) tradition of going to a Chinese restaurant (ala A Christmas Story) for Christmas dinner. It is a tradition that has lasted longer than our marriage has. It started when we were engaged. Anyway, my kids are not adventurous eaters. To be fair, their exposure to any food was relatively limited when we met them (they were the size of toddlers at 8 and 9 years old. It was a problem). Thinking we would just (foolishly) insert them into our normal Christmas tradition was not our best move. Our oldest boy does not like seafood at all. My husband’s favorite food is seafood. So, at the Chinese buffet, my husband predictably filled a plate with shrimp. My oldest boy began to make gagging noises and would not stop. 

Now, we did several things very wrong. We over-sugared the kids all day long. We allowed them to wake up earlier than usual, and we kept them out past bedtime. We didn’t warn them about the food choices at the buffet. And, well, it was their first Christmas away from biological parents, so it was pretty different and upsetting for them. It was unfair to just assume they’d want to do our stuff like it was no big deal that they were spending a major holiday away from familiar people. So, what came next was predictable in hindsight, but it was also upsetting at the time. 

Having grown very tired of hearing our oldest make gagging sounds, I dressed him down about appropriate behavior and how it was rude to act out when we had spent the whole day trying to make him happy. Couldn’t he just stop being rude for a minute? I am ashamed of the whisper shout across the table that I spewed—exhausted and overwhelmed before I stormed off to the bathroom. 

I took a few minutes to calm down, went back out, apologized, and finished my meal. Our boy didn’t really talk the rest of the night. I am so ashamed of how hard I was on him. It was not his fault. He was a child and I was an adult with expectations set way too high. I’ve learned since then, but man, I wish I got a redo on that evening. 

The rest of the night progressed normally. Bedtime went fine. It wouldn’t be for another few days before I sat down and cried over what was actually wrong. I had daydreamed about that day for so long that anything that didn’t fit in my picture-perfect daydream made it “wrong.” I knew better. I know better. But that didn’t keep me from mourning my perfect first Christmas as a mom. I have been indescribably blessed to get to try again year after year to make good memories with my kids this time of year. I’m coming to realize how limited the number of those is getting. They used to seem infinite. My older boys are teens now and I get only three or four more years before they will be off at college and doing their own thing or bringing a friend or significant other along. I wonder what they’ll remember and what they will feel is essential to make Christmas feel Christmasy. I hope, that above all else, they want to be with family. That they want to read the story of Jesus, sing Christmas carols, drink hot cocoa, and eat cinnamon rolls. I hope they remember their first Christmas with fondness as the years fuzz the edges of the memory. I hope they understand just how much they mean to me. I, for one, am so grateful for every Christmas we get to have as a family.

Christina Gochnauer

Christina Gochnauer is a foster and adoptive mom of 5. She has a bachelor's degree of Psychology from Letourneau University. She currently resides in Texas with husband of 16 years, her children ages 3, 3.5, 4.5, 11, and 12, and her three dogs. She is passionate about using her voice to speak out for children from "hard places" in her church and community.