By Anna Underwood

I looked at my phone. Ten text messages! It was my family, of course. They were discussing the annual cutting down of the Christmas tree, a family tradition. It is a tradition I keep up even though I live 3,000 miles away. Trekking out the Christmas tree farm, saw in hand, rain, snow or sunshine. No matter what the obstacles, we pile in the van and, at the end of the day, strap the tree to the top. As we drive home, in my heart I know Christmas has officially begun. That night, sipping hot cocoa with the soft glow of Christmas lights in the background, my siblings and I will take turns putting our ornaments on the tree, one by one until it is perfectly decorated. I can still hear my grandmother’s voice echo in my mind saying the words she said every year, “That’s the most beautiful tree I’ve ever seen.”

Traditions are important because they help us feel a sense of belonging. “Keeping traditions for the holidays as well as the ordinary days help teach children the things their family values. These traditions help fill the individual’s need to belong. Being a part of the special things, our family does, helps us to have that sense of belonging,” writes Family Life Educator, Amy Griswold. It doesn’t take an expert to know how strong that need to belong is in children.

This Christmas, as I prepare to cut down my Christmas tree, I want to take a moment and reflect on the children in foster care who might have traditions of their own and on the importance of ensuring that they feel a sense of belonging in the midst of the hustle and bustle of this holiday season. I can’t think of a better gift to give a child this season than love and belonging. At Christmas time, children in foster care and adoptive homes are faced with the challenge of celebrating another holiday without their birth family. Often, this means celebrating Christmas with new or different traditions. For some children, this may be exciting and a chance to try new things, but for others, this could be isolation and incredibly lonely.

This year, as you begin to get in the holiday spirit, find out if there are ways you can create a tradition of love and belonging with the foster youth in your care. This could be as simple as a conversation about what their favorite holiday traditions are and being mindful of introductions when extended family or friends are invited over. Trying a new food for Christmas dinner that supports a child’s culture can help a child feel like they belong at the table. Do the children in your home have a favorite Christmas decoration that you can make together and display around the house? If not, how can you incorporate their beliefs with your own throughout the home?

As I’ve reminisced about my childhood and the traditions that impacted me, I’ve come to realize that these memories of traditions, though based around Christmas trees and ornaments, have more to do with the sense of security, love and acceptance I received from my family as a child. In those moments of hot cocoa and cutting down Christmas trees, I belonged, felt safe and knew I was loved. Isn’t that what Christmas is about? As an adult, if there is one gift I can give this year it’s this: the time and space to be together, to create new and celebrate old traditions and for children in all homes to know that they belong and are deeply loved.

Anna Underwood is a treatment foster care intern. She is currently pursuing her Masters in Social Work at Arizona State University.