The only Christmas advert I can remember from my early days is the Coca-Cola Christmas truck advert as it barrelled across snowy America with Santa at the wheel and, later on, humming Magic Moments from a chocolate box advert.
Nowadays the Christmas advert has become a ‘thing’ with companies and brands competing for the slushiest, most heart rending advert designed to reduce a cynical nation to tears. We’ve had bouncing boxers (John Lewis), an octogenarian learning Polish (Allegro), WWI soldiers sharing chocolate (Sainsbury’s) as well as a lonely man on the moon and the bear and the hare, amongst others. Now it’s the turn of John Lewis’s Moz the Monster to try and jerk a few tears from our eyes.
Christmas TV adverts are a signal to the nation that Christmas is coming and to loosen our hold on the purse strings as well as the waist band. However, it is also a signal to me, as a foster carer, that the emotional overload is not too far away.
All children get over hyped at Christmas and there probably isn’t a parent, grandparent, or carer out there who, in moments of high stress, hasn’t threatened to cancel the impending visit of Father Christmas to bring an arguing pair of siblings into line.
I find the picture-perfect family values sloshed around on the TV difficult to overlay on to what I’ve seen as a foster carer, and the reality of some of the children who have lived with us is far from the idyllic picture portrayed on the screen.
One of the saddest moments of my time as a foster carer involved a Christmas TV advert and I’m very wary of them now.
A young teenager in my care saw the infamous chicken restaurant’s ‘Families’ advert for the first time and she couldn’t hold in her contempt for the story played out on the screen.
Shelley hadn’t been with us long and, although she had been a Looked After Child for a while, and been in several different foster care placements, she was in a battle with the system along with her grandparents to be returned home.
I took her to the cinema and she sat next to me with a bag of popcorn, talking to me for almost the first time about her new school, when the advert came on. I hadn’t seen it before and I was horrified as the scene played out; a scared foster child being brought into the bosom of the family home, bonding, accepting and being accepted then fast forward 20+ years to him settling in another lost soul into the family home.
Shelley stiffened beside me, stopped talking and eating and sat there watching the screen. I tried to distract her, but she shut down before my eyes and the cinema trip ended with me searching for an angry and hurt child in a crowded dark and cold car park.
Every time that advert came on, Shelley would sneer at the TV or roll her eyes, mutter under her breath or leave the room but it always shut down any communication for days afterwards. We stopped watching commercial TV and became hyper vigilant with the remote control. No Christmas TV ad has had quite the same extreme reaction from a foster child in my care, although M hates them and everything they represent.
The Christmas TV adverts try to be representative of cultural changes in the UK, along with changes in family structure. Families are complicated and as J pointed out to me only this week, there are only two children in his form at his new school who live with their birth mum and birth dad and full siblings. Every other child has a step dad or mum, a single mum or dad, a half or step sibling or lives with a grandparent or relative. There is an adopted boy in J’s class and he and J have become firm friends, which surprised me at first.
Looked After Children feel different, especially as they live in a world of officialdom and form filling. Every school trip is a reminder to J that he needs a signature from a social worker. A doctor or dentist visit is a mine field and up until 2 years ago, I needed permission to have his hair cut.
Christmas is a time for families to be together, to mend fences and bring peace and goodwill to your fellow man, that is unless your being dragged through a court battle, your family don’t turn up to contact, and you receive no card or Christmas present from them.
I downloaded John Lewis’s Moz the Monster advert a day before it was released to the nation to check how much affect it might have on J or M and was relieved to see it was centred around the relationship with Moz and the child and less on the family.
Luckily this year M&S have gone for the Paddington theme, and Waitrose have focused on community, so although I can’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet, I don’t have to master the 2 second channel switch with the remote control.
In my next Christmas blog, I’ll be talking about coping strategies that have worked in our household to help manage Christmas stress.