I nodded, because it seemed expected of me, but the question irked me. I'm not sure why I've felt especially this year, knowing that I will be surrounded by my own family for Christmas, a keen awareness that there are plenty of people in society who won't. The assumption seems to be that everyone has a family to go home to for Christmas, or that people with family will be looking forward to that Christmas visit home, when that's not always the case.
When Your Family Has Forgotten You - Or Doesn't Even Know You
When intellectually disabled people in Ontario started to be moved out of institutions in the 1970s and 1980s, many of them didn't have any family that they knew about. Doctors had advised families to institutionalize these intellectually disabled men and women as young children and to forget about them. So, as adults that had been raised in institutions, these men and women found themselves without any family that they knew of (although some of them may have certainly had families, perhaps even family members that had never even been told about them) and in towns where support agencies had spots for them, with no connections at all otherwise.
I volunteered at agencies where staff used to invite the people they supported into their homes for holidays, to give them a place to go. It seemed natural to me, as staff were already providing most of the functions that a family would for these people anyway. But when I went away for school to train to work with intellectually disabled people, I was told that this was wrong, and that staff shouldn't be acting as friends. If people were going to go away for Christmas, my instructors said, they should be making friends in the community and visiting their homes - they should have non-staff friends.
I understand now what my instructors were trying to say, but at the time I was angry. "Show me the families that will do this," I said, Sometimes I still say this, when I hear people suggest that the government shouldn't be caring for disabled people, but that volunteers and churches should be doing it - "Show me the families".
"Show me the families that will do this," I said to my professors, "and tell me what's wrong with an agency person opening their home, on their own, unpaid time, to a person that they support, for the holidays,"
This was one of the first of many things on which both faculty and I refused to budge, but the trend has gone in favour of faculty's position that day - and I do understand why. A natural support is always better than a paid one.
But it does leave people alone on Christmas Day.
(If you're at all familiar with the abuse that people suffered in Ontario institutions like Huronia Regional Centre, I think that you'd suspect as I do that Christmas alone is infinitely preferable to never leaving an institution at all. But that's an assumption on my part. I've never asked anyone about this.)
And it's not really the point, anyway.
Christmas Isn't Just for People with Family
My family used to have Ivy over at Christmas (we don't now, for a variety of reasons), but Ivy is my very special friend and we didn't think anything of it. I believe that we were an exception. There's still a perception out there among people that don't have experience with intellectually disabled people that friendships with them are too difficult and too much responsibility, let alone invites home for holidays. This is slowly changing, as society in general starts to have more access to intellectually disabled students through integrated programs in school and in adulthood in workplaces and churches and community activities. After all, Ontario doesn't institutionalize intellectually disabled people anymore.
But in many ways they still walk on the edges of communities. They aren't fully integrated. Friendships with the "normals" don't come as easily.
Like any other demographic in society, some without families are fine with spending Christmas alone. But some aren't.And, of course, this isn't the only group in society with some members that may not have family with which they can spend Christmas, or who just can't, as much as they'd like to, spend Christmas with family. Essential services have to stay running, and people have to work in order to do that. Some people simply live too far away from family to get home every year. Some people have lost family members, or whole families, and are doing everything they can to hang on at Christmas.
If you're spending Christmas with family, I hope that you enjoy it, and I sincerely wish you and all your loved ones all the best in the coming new year. And if you're alone, whether it's by circumstance or choice, merry Christmas and all the best of the new year to you as well...the joy of this season isn't just for those who are surrounded by family, and I hope it finds you well.