Feliz Navidad is more than just a song, it means “Merry Christmas” in Spanish. Adopting or fostering a child is a great responsibility but doing so from another culture is an even greater responsibility. Even if you adopt from a European country overseas, just because you are Caucasian and they are Caucasian means very little. Yes, you may be of the same race, but you have different nationalities, ethnicities, and cultures.

WHAT IS CULTURE?

Have you ever traveled to a different part of the country and felt like you stepped onto another planet? If you live in a rural area and travel to a big city, you feel out of place. Even if you travel from one city to another, you feel the difference. Why? That’s because of differences in culture. Northeastern urban culture (where I come from) is very fast-paced, place a high value on college education, diversity, sports, and entertainment. That’s why New York City is called, “The City That Never Sleeps”; you can get a slice of pizza at almost any time of day! But in small Southwestern cities like Phoenix, Arizona, people are more laid-back, more friendly and the streets are deserted at about 9:00 p.m.

What is culture? Culture is a common set of values, traditions, and principles set down and followed by a common group of people. This can include food, language, religion, dress, and holidays. Culture may vary from continent to continent or from one side of the town to the other. European culture may differ greatly from Asian culture or from American culture, at large. For example, many Asian cultures may place a great value on family, education, and community, whereas, Americans are viewed by outsiders as placing a high value on entertainment and comfort. Many Americans take value in the separation of church and state, whereas, many Middle Eastern cultures view politics, culture, and religion as one and the same.

But it is very important to understand that it is dangerous to generalize racial culture in general. For example, if you are Caucasian, just because you are adopting from a European nation, doesn’t mean you fully understand that child’s culture. You and your child may both be considered “white,” but, in reality, you may be worlds apart when it comes to culture. Similarly, it is not enough to know that you are adopting a black child; you must consider that child’s nationality, ethnicity, and culture. For example, adopting a child from Haiti is much different from adopting a child from Ghana.

Why the difference? It’s simply a matter of culture. Imagine what a child feels when you remove him from the only place he’s ever known into a culture that is vastly different! If it is hard for adults to adjust to a different culture, how much more a young child!

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO CELEBRATE YOUR CHILD’S CULTURE?

– Connections. Remember growing up, the first time you went to sleepaway camp? Or the first time you spent an entire week or summer away from your mom and dad at Grandma’s house or at a cousin’s house? Even though it was fun, you still missed home and the culture of your immediate family. A letter or photo or call from home worked wonders. It let you know that you weren’t abandoned; that your folks still remembered and loved you. That was just the connection you needed.

Think of it this way for foster children: they are taken from their homes and family at a moment’s notice, asked to trust a stranger who transports them to another stranger’s house and are unable to take anything with them. He cannot take his toys, his favorite TV shows, his books, his clothes, or his pets. He cannot bring his parents. The only thing he can take is his culture. It’s up to the foster parents to make that happen.

– Culture shock. Non-relative adoptions are hard enough for adopted children. If you are adopting from overseas, they may have endured war, poverty, or the death of a parent. Even if they have been adopted here in the states, they may have endured abuse, neglect, or abandonment. Even if you adopt an infant from birth, they are enduring the separation from their birth mother. Any way you slice it, there will be trauma. Add to that, the culture shock of moving from one culture to another, from one family to another, from one home to another, is another type of trauma. That type of transition can be tough. One thing that can mitigate the trauma is keeping that child connected to their culture.

HOW DO I KEEP MY CHILD CONNECTED TO HIS CULTURE?

Short of open adoptions, there are many ways to keep a child connected with his culture, especially if you adopt across cultures. Doing so is a delicate balance of assimilation on both sides. You must realize that the child will not take on your culture entirely, nor will you take on his culture. Rather, it is transcultural.

HOLIDAYS

Holidays in a new home may be awkward, confusing, and frightening if it is new to the foster or adopted child. It is important to remember that if they do not want to celebrate a certain holiday your way, they should not be forced to. The converse is also true. If you are not used to celebrating a certain holiday, but your child is, you will need to be flexible and adjust your preconceived notions in order to keep that child connected to their culture.

Holidays (lit. “Holy Days”) differ from culture to culture; so, ask your child, “How did you celebrate this holiday in your home? Take a little from his culture and a little from yours, and it should be a memorable holiday.

Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday that is not practiced in other countries, except Canada. It is held on the third Thursday of each November and was officially instituted an American holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 after the Battle of Gettysburg. In America, Thanksgiving is celebrated with family and friends and is signified by a large dinner which usually consists of turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, corn, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, apple cider, and other foods. Different families have different traditions concerning Thanksgiving which may include watching the Macy’s Day Parade on TV, American football, putting up the Christmas Tree, travel, and prayer among other things.

Thanksgiving has two parts: 1) it is the celebration of a specific point in time when a group of people, most of whom were Pilgrims, immigrated to the New World from England to escape religious persecution. The celebrations point to the year 1621 when the survivors of the trip from England and survivors of the first year in brutal winter conditions came together to celebrate their first harvest in America. Thanksgiving is an inclusive and diverse holiday where Native Americans shared and taught the settlers how to plant and live off of the land. Thanksgiving is an example of a point in time when there was peace and harmony in the New World. 2) Thanksgiving is a time when we express our gratitude for the things that we have. Either thanking loved ones or God Himself is a large part of Thanksgiving.

Though some Native Americans may enjoy a feast on Thanksgiving, we do need to be sensitive to the many who do not.

Christmas. Christmas is a holiday observed by many Christians that celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. It is celebrated on the 25th day of December every year. The Biblical account of Christmas speaks of Christ’s coming announced by angels and Magi and includes a miraculous virgin birth. American traditions surrounding Christmas may include Santa Claus, Christmas trees, Christmas gifts, Christmas Eve church services, and dinners with family. Here are a few examples of how Christmas is celebrated around the world:

– Mexico. In Mexico, Christmas is celebrated anywhere from December 12th to January 6th (Epiphany). Celebrations may also go as late as February 2nd (Candlemas). Mexican celebrations of Christmas include a Posada, or procession, a game of Pinata, decorations of evergreens or Nativity scenes.

– China. In China, Santa Claus may be called, “Sheng Dan Lao Ren” or “Old Christmas Man.” They celebrate by giving apples and some may give paper flowers and paper lanterns.

Kenya. In Kenya, Santa comes, not by reindeer, but maybe by bike, camel, or even Land Rover! Churches and houses may be decorated with balloons, flowers, ribbons, and green leaves.

Many foster and adopted children may have never celebrated Christmas, never “visited Santa,” never received Christmas gifts, and never had family members to spend time with. Some children may have sensory overload by all the sights, sounds, and smells. It is incumbent upon parents to be sensitive to these things. It is also incumbent upon parents to be sensitive to the different ways different cultures celebrate Christmas.

– Easter. Easter is a Christian holiday that celebrates the miraculous resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It is usually celebrated on a Sunday in March or April and usually coincides with Passover. In America, it is celebrated with Easter baskets, Easter Egg hunts, and trips to church in brand new outfits. In India, believers celebrate Easter by exchanging chocolates, flowers, and colorful lanterns. Some Peruvians celebrate Easter with fireworks, flower-blanketed streets, ritual processions, and Easter Sunday feasts consisting of 12 traditional dishes.

Hanukkah. Hanukkah, also spelled Chanukah, is the Jewish festival of lights and is usually celebrated over eight days, starting on the Jewish 25th day of Kislev, which may occur in November or December. This holiday celebrates the rededication of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, after the Maccabean Revolt, in 165 BC. It involves music, food (latkes, jam-filled donuts, and fritters), playing a game called dreidel, and the daily lighting of the Jewish menorah.

Rosh Hashanah. This is the Jewish New Year and is celebrated on the first day of Tishrei (around September on the Gregorian calendar). It is a time of reflection and repentance and taking stock of our lives. The meals consist of apples dipped in honey (to represent the sweetness of the new year), dates, pomegranates, black-eyed peas, and pastries.

Passover. Passover is a Jewish High Holy Day and is celebrated on the 15th day of Nisan (March or April on the Gregorian calendar). It represents an event when, according to the Torah, God spared the Hebrews from the Angel of Death and “passed over” them and delivered them from slavery. The Passover meal (Seder) can consist of unleavened bread, bitter herbs, fish, lamb, wine, and spring green vegetables. It can also contain hymns, sermons, and traditional questions asked by children of the adults.

RITES OF PASSAGE

A rite of passage is a coming-of-age event that signifies a young person’s transition from youth to adulthood. Some American examples of a rite of passage are “Sweet 16,” getting your driver’s license, graduating high school, and voting for the first time. These events are culturally significant because it is a developmental marker in the life of a young person. Other rites of passage in other cultures are:

Bar Mitzvah. A bar mitzvah (or bat mitzvah for girls) ceremony is a Jewish rite of passage for boys shortly before they turn 13 years of age. “Bar Mitzvah” means “son of the law” (it may also translate to “son of the commandment”) in Hebrew and many boys fast before the ceremony. The ceremony involves the reading of the law, giving of gifts, and the singing of songs.

Quinceañera. The celebration of Quinceañera is celebrated in Mexico and many other Latin American nations. It is a rite of passage for a girl who is coming of age into womanhood, turning from 14 years old to 15 years old. Depending on the country, traditionally, girls who are honored have 15 girls and 15 boys (although the number varies) that walk together. Then at the celebration, there is a party similar to a reception for a wedding, but for a 15-year-old. There is a large cake, decorations, and music, and it is usually held at a large banquet hall.

There are many other holidays, customs and traditions that your child may celebrate such as, Día de los Muertos, Ramadan, St Patrick’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Black History Month, Mardi Gras, and Kwanzaa. Even if they are not aware of such holidays, as a foster or adoptive parent, you should make them aware of it. Even if you live in a community that is not familiar with these holidays, find the items necessary to make the moment memorable. Your child may have a new life, but they come from a culture that has a rich history. Connect them to it. It may be as much an eye-opening experience for you as it is for them.

 

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Derek Williams is an adoption social worker and has been in the field of child welfare and behavioral health since 2006, where he has assisted families in their adoption journey. He and his wife started their adoption journey in 1993 and have eight children, six of whom are adopted. His adopted children are all different ethnicities including East Indian, Jamaican and Native American. He loves traveling with his family, especially to the East Coast and to the West Coast and is an avid NY Mets fan! Foster care and adoption are his passions and callings for Derek, and he is pleased to share his experiences with others who are like-minded.