Opinion

200,000 people liked a picture of my Christmas tree. It was cool, but brought difficult memories

For many in the care system, Christmas is a lonely time. Decorations can come to take on a symbolic meaning, not least the Christmas tree

Christmas tree being decorated

Sophia's tree received a lot of attention on social media

For those who knew me as a teenager, one of my defining features was that I adored Christmas. 

From the annual Facebook post on 14 September informing everyone there were only ‘100 days until Christmas!!!’ to the endless recommendations for movies, markets and music I would give to my friends, I embodied the festive spirit. 

One of my favourite parts of Christmas has always been the decorations, and living in London I have no shortage of light displays to drag my partner along to on freezing night-time walks. But the holiday decoration I’ve always loved the most is the Christmas tree. 

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To me as a child, having a Christmas tree in your home signified opulence. In every Christmas film I watched, families living in mansions would gather around a lavishly decorated festive fir and open their presents on the floor to a montage of cheerful music. That was the ultimate Christmas. Presents, family and a Christmas tree. 

But for someone who loved Christmas as much as I did, for a long time I had none of those things. 

Having gone into the foster care system as a teenager, Christmas was usually my loneliest day of the year. While my friends were cosied up with their families opening gifts, I was a guest in a stranger’s home. A guest thankful to have a roof over their head.  Despite it being over a decade since I entered the care system, it still makes my stomach sink a little when I think of the number of Christmases I didn’t get a single card, let alone a present. 

I promised myself that once I aged out of the care system I’d buy my own Christmas tree. A proper one like in the movies that was taller than me, and underneath it there’d be presents for everyone I loved. But things didn’t get much better once I left the system. With no foster placement or family to go to, I spent several Christmases alone. With food and living costs to front, I could never afford to add a Christmas tree to my shopping list, so my dreams of owning one were sidelined year after year. 

For a long time, I felt like the only person in the world who knew about the dark side of Christmas, a holiday that puts such a massive emphasis on ‘family’ that those without one feel forgotten. But as I entered my twenties, I met other care-experienced people online who had been through similar, if not much worse, Christmases than me. They understood the heartbreaking juxtaposition between wanting to get into the holiday spirit, while still fearing the workplace water cooler talk of “So, what are you doing for Christmas?”  

Things are somewhat better for young people leaving the system now during the festive season. Lemn
Sissay’s Christmas Dinner Project puts on meals around the country for care leavers aged 18-25 on the big day and some universities, such as York, raise funds to give presents to care-experienced students. But the majority of my friends who have left care have spent at least one Christmas alone, and to be honest, if I wasn’t in a three-year-strong relationship, that would probably be my reality again too. 

It’s been almost five years since I aged out of my social services ‘leaving care team’ and this year was the first time I could afford a tree of my own. The artificial Christmas tree of my dreams now stands proudly in my living room at 7.6ft (two feet taller than me).

After setting up the sizeable spruce last month (pictured below), I took a photo of the tree and posted the image to X (formerly Twitter) sharing the details of my over-a-decade-long dream to own one. The post was ‘liked’ by 200,000 people after it was shared by two accounts with a huge Instagram following, and thousands of strangers began congratulating me on achieving the goal I’d set as a foster kid. 

Getting a Christmas tree hasn’t erased the loneliness I feel during the holidays. I and hundreds of thousands of other care-experienced people will still wake up on Christmas morning to a social media feed full of festive family photos, reminding us of what we don’t have.

But it does bring me closer to the normality that so many with experience of the system long for during the holidays. Every morning when I turn the tree lights on, I’m reminded of how far I’ve come since my time in foster care, and the tree, presents and chosen family I’ve gained since then. 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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