by Linda L. Esterson
Home is where the heart is. But it’s not always about geography.
Many people are forced to spend the holidays away from home, thousands of miles and even continents away, on the fields of war, in prison, at a homeless shelter or even in a strange city following a job transfer. For these individuals, mustering up the holiday spirit becomes a challenge, and can elicit a variety of feelings.
“They think about home, the nostalgia of how people are doing, what happened in the past,” said Ray Christner, PsyD, a licensed psychologist and CEO of Cognitive Health Solutions in Hanover. “They idolize past situations.”
Anxiety is the most prominent result from separation from home, as well as a sense of grief over the life change, loss of friends and loss of routine.
Christner suggests keeping familiar keepsakes around, like pictures, favorite ornaments or decorations from the former home that provide special meaning and security. Also suggested is bringing tradition to the new home, if possible, with rituals or favorite activities, like watching the same movie viewed every Christmas or cooking the same traditional food.
“It creates consistency in their environment,” he said. “People are afraid it will make them sad, but to create that anchor is really helpful.”
Also, during the season of giving, reaching out in some way to others, like fellow soldiers or prison inmates, can help build a connection and a warm feeling for those who would otherwise be alone.
“Sometimes even a small gesture can be helpful,” he said. “Many are aware it’s not the same holiday experience, but being able to do something to remind them of family at least helps.”
When duty calls
Major General Walt Lord, military executive with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Reserve Forces Policy Board, spent two tours abroad and missed the Christmas holiday on both occasions. His first deployment, to Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2002, continued for seven months. With security tight, the soldiers were confined to Eagle Base whenever they weren’t “outside the wire.”
Servicemen prepare for being away, Lord says, as they know they won’t be with the family on Christmas morning opening gifts. They ask family members to mail gifts beginning in October, knowing that packages route through New York, then Germany, before being transported by truck to military bases in Europe.
They request comfort items like warm socks and sports apparel items – alcohol is forbidden. Servicemen from all over the country sport their hometown team’s attire around the barracks. Lord’s wife mailed a family scrapbook so he could see the important events that occurred with her and their two sons while he was away.
On Christmas morning, the group of soldiers met in a conference room around a Christmas tree and opened their gifts. They took photos to share with their families back home.
“The five of us were a family and we shared the holiday together,” he said. ”The family (could see) we were with our deployed family and we were not spending Christmas alone.”
Ten years later, he found himself back in Bosnia-Herzegovina for a year, as Brigadier General and Commander of NATO Headquarters in Sarajevo and as NATO’s Senior Military Representative. This time, family members were encouraged to send gifts, but not for the servicemen. Gifts were requested for children and they were personally delivered Christmas Day to children in the hospital, where the servicemen spent hours walking from ward to ward spreading cheer to children of families with little means who likely would not have received any gifts.
The military base is decorated and the mess hall serves a full Christmas dinner. Servicemen also attend a holiday mass on the base.
“It makes you feel like you are still observing the same holiday traditions,” Lord said. “[But] you miss your family. As hard as you try to make it feel like home while deployed and you have a deployed family, you miss your family.”
Today’s deployed soldier, like for Lord in 2012, has the benefit of technology to help with the separation. In 2002, soldiers could call home a few times a week and on holidays through a military line to a U.S. base that was transferred to a civilian line and then to the family. Today, with iPhones and personal Skype accounts, soldiers connect with family daily, including holidays. Lord used Skype to connect with extended family and was able to wish each family member a merry Christmas.
This Christmas, his office desk in Washington, D.C., houses the small artificial Christmas tree sent abroad by his family in 2002. He still has the original shipping carton and the ornaments that his boys, then 8 and 10 years old, made and sent to him.
This year, Lord is away from his sons again, only this time it’s their choice. His oldest is an Army First Lieutenant in Fort Hood, Texas, and the youngest is a senior at the University of Tennessee and awaits his May commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Army.
Holidays in prison
Sometimes, the separation from home is not by choice.
In April, 34-year-old Eric Johnson returned to his family home in Hanover after spending 15 years “in and out of jail.”
Most recently, Johnson served 40 months at the State Correctional Institution – Somerset, after three months of classification time at SCI – Camp Hill. Johnson used drugs and alcohol beginning at 12 years old, had a son at 18 and racked up four DUI charges between 2008 and 2012.
Johnson spent three holiday seasons imprisoned. The first, in 2012, was just weeks after his arrival at Somerset. He remembers being greeted by “pouring snow” and a sinking feeling, being more than three hours away from home. He knew his ties to family would be impacted by the weather and the long commute to Somerset. It was several months before he saw them again.
An admitted frequent flyer accustomed to prison, Johnson adapted. “Either you get used to jail or it will eat you alive … You have to come to grips with it,” he said. “You’re in that situation and ain’t nothing you can do about it.”
Johnson spent his first Christmas in jail inside of his cell, reading and smoking. Other than for meals and medication, he remained there.
“I got through the holiday by sleeping,” he said.
The prison staff tried to make the facility somewhat festive, decorating windows around the cell blocks with garland, putting up a Christmas tree and providing a turkey or ham Christmas dinner. Inmates also received packages from local churches with homemade cookies, chips, ramen soups and candy. Families were permitted to send one care package each quarter with food. Since Johnson had just arrived, his mom sent a package immediately in the hopes it would arrive by Christmas.
Johnson chose not to call his family on Christmas Day. “I didn’t know if I could take it,” he said. “I didn’t want to bring them down.” He waited until December 26, his father’s birthday, to make contact.
On the subsequent two Christmases he did call, and he had a better outlook as he distributed candy bars he bought with his earnings to other inmates on his block as his way of spreading Christmas cheer.
Last year, he paid $50 to an inmate who is a baker, and gave fudge and cheesecake to his cell block mates.
“I know how I felt,” he says. “Some guys don’t get money, get gift packs in 5, 10, 15, 20 years. It’s the least I could do.”
This Christmas is Johnson’s first at home in many years – and the first sober since he can remember. He anxiously anticipates this Christmas when he gives his son – now 15 – his gifts in person. He’s also looking forward to seeing his father’s handmade ornaments on the Christmas tree and tasting his mom’s cooking. He’s also ready for the simple tasks that mean so much – helping his mom carry heavy decorations, sitting and spending time with his dad and playing in and shoveling snow with his son.
“I’m looking forward to being a part of it all,” he said.
Thirty-six-year-old “Joe” has been in and out of prison and is currently in a state facility awaiting another trial at year’s end. He reflects on the sadness he feels being away from family.
“As a prisoner, we try to forget what the holiday is and move on past it,” he wrote in a letter. “But having a TV would not let you forget because of all of the movies they show. You seem to start to realize we are missing something, and it’s called family.”
Joe acknowledges the prison’s attempt at spreading cheer, with a tree and decorations on the cell block, Christmas gift bags containing rain ponchos, socks, pens, and fudge. Sharing this makes the neighboring inmates become like family. His contact with his actual family is limited to writing letters and mailing Christmas cards, either handmade or those donated by a local church. Inmates send gifts to their children through a state program.
Many facilities adopt similar programs to help make the holiday season as pleasant as possible for inmates. Chaplain Will Olsen, Adams County Adult Correctional Complex clergyman, says his facility tries to provide small gifts to inmates, often in the form of homemade chocolate chip, oatmeal and snickerdoodle cookies provided by local churches, as well as cards for the men and women to send to their families.
“It makes them feel at home,” the chaplain notes about the cookies, which are devoured immediately. “We do it out of love and compassion and knowing how emotionally hard it must be for them being in here.”
Homeless for the holidays
Homeless shelters also do what they can to make the situation festive for those staying there. Carol Hinkle, director of Changing Lives Homeless Shelter in Hanover, leads a team that decorates the facility and provides a served Christmas dinner, making it more special than the normal cafeteria style meals. Although most of the clients do have family who take them for the holidays, about 20 are housed over Christmas each year, she said. Santa Claus is on hand to deliver gifts to the children, who awake Christmas morning to gifts, and outside groups come in to play music and sing for those who find themselves there.
“I cannot imagine not having something for the kids,” Hinkle said.
Clarity Way, a rehabilitation facility for substance abusers in Hanover, also works to make life festive during the holidays. The executive chef prepares a Christmas dinner; clients record music in the music studio, participate in baking programs, create crafty gifts and help to decorate the tree. Executive Director Kristin Wise says there are also trips to nearby outlets in Gettysburg and Lancaster so clients can shop for gifts for family members.
The majority of clients are adults ranging from 21 to 50 years of age who stay an average of 30-90 inpatient days. Most hail from Pennsylvania, but some come from across the country. Depending on their specific issue, clients may be permitted offsite with family. Otherwise, family members visit on weekends and holidays, often joining in on activities, like games or a holiday movie marathon.
Also during the holidays, clients participate in psychological education groups that help them deal with getting through the holidays. They often visit Alcoholics Anonymous speaker sessions that emphasize celebrating the holidays while sober.
“We focus on making it a happy day for them so clients that don’t have family to spend Christmas with keep busy,” Wise says.