CASE STUDIES IN ADOPTION

Note: Unless otherwise specified, the photographs below are for illustration purposes only and are not connected to the case studies provided. Examples and links to specific adoption agencies are provided for reference and not as an endorsement or condemnation of any particular agency.

AdoptiveFamilies.com

The concept of adoption has a generally positive aura. Indeed, it’s easy to find articles like Why Adopt? 23 Reasons to Adopt a Child (amerianadoptions.com). But frankly my experience of adoptions via family and friends is a mixed bag. 

The good news for writers: good, bad, or unclear outcome, adoptions are fertile ground for characters and plots.

Case 1: Desire to Adopt a Stepchild

When my husband and I married, he was a widower with a three-year-old daughter. I (foolishly) thought that by that marriage, I became his daughter’s mother. Wrong! To be her legal parent, I had to adopt her. We lived in Upstate New York, and at the time a child with a living biological parent could be adopted only if the biological parent gave up his/her parental rights.  The upshot was that my hubs signed away his parental rights and then we both adopted her!

This was an incredibly successful adoption. I told my parents, my husband’s parents, AND our daughter’s maternal grandmother that any and all of our children had to be treated equally. We subsequently had two more daughters. Words like step-mother, half-sister, etc., never crossed anyone’s lips—and I don’t think crossed anyone’s mind. When her elementary school class made family trees, hers had three branches: her biological mother, her father, and me. 

Writers note: consider such a case that did not go so well.

Case 2 A, B & C: Desire to Help a Friend or Family Member Who Isn’t in a Position to Raise a Child

2A – the biological mother of two children was murdered, and neither of the fathers was known. The maternal grandmother and her husband adopted the grandchildren. Although a financial burden, no one seemed to regret the decision.

2B – the biological parents of the child were drug addicts. The paternal grandmother went to court to get custody and eventually adopted the grandson, who grew up to be an admirable and ambitious young man.

2C – the biological parents were unmarried teenagers, not financially viable, and not psychologically well balanced enough to care for a special needs child. The paternal grandmother first won custody and then adopted her. The adopted daughter struggled through special education classes, therapy, and at age eighteen, vocational training for a sheltered work environment. The child/young adult was a constant and severe stress on the paternal grandmother and her husband’s marriage.

Writers note: consider that a biological father came forward in A; consider how the relationship between the biological parent and the grandparent might evolve in cases B & C.

AFamilyForEveryChild.com

Case 3 A & B: Desire to Give a Child Born in Another Country a Chance to Thrive

3A – the adoptive father had been a U.S. soldier who served in Viet Nam. He and his wife had three children (sons) but wanted to adopt a Vietnamese orphan. In the event, the Vietnamese orphans were so weak and sickly that the international agencies weren’t placing them. They suggested adopting a Korean orphan, and that is what they did. As adults, the children have good relationships. Although differing in political perspectives, the adoptive parents and daughter are emotionally close.

3B – the parents decided to adopt a child from a country where the majority of the population is of a different race, practices a different religion, and speaks a different language. The boy was four years old when he was adopted. The relationship between the parents and the child never settled into a comfortable family pattern. When he turned eighteen, the adopted child returned to the country of his birth and changed his name back to the one he’d had in the orphanage. The parents have not seen him since and have only occasional online contact.

Case 4 A & B: Desire to Choose the Child’s Gender

4A – a Caucasian couple had two sons. Wishing for a daughter, they conceived several times over the years but all of those pregnancies ended in miscarriages. They chose to adopt a mixed race (Irish and African American) baby daughter. The adoption was simply a part of the family structure. The child and her biological mother saw each other occasionally. The birth mother being known, there was quite a bit of info available about health issues, for example. The adoptive parents made a conscious effort to expose their daughter to African American culture and experiences.

Writers note: count the ways this might go awry as the adopted daughter goes through teenage rebellion, or is the only non-white face at family gatherings. What if one or both sons marry women who are more or less racist?

4B – a couple had two daughters. After eight years of repeated pregnancies and miscarriages, the wife had a medically necessary hysterectomy. The husband wanted a son “to carry on the family name.” They didn’t want to wait two years to adopt an infant and so applied to adopt a ten-year-old boy. A month younger than the elder daughter, he was in the same class in school as the younger daughter because his biological parents had never enrolled him in school. There was a “trial year” before the adoption could be finalized. It quickly became apparent that the boy shared no interests with the husband, nor his need for achievement. The wife resented the burden of a third child while her health was so fragile, and was fearful that the boy would replace the daughters in her husband’s affection.  The daughters acted to protect the boy from their mother. The boy’s attitude was “hunker down and get by,” because the home he’d been adopted into was much better than his previous situation. At the end of the year, both the couple and the boy agreed to finalize the adoption. In the meantime, the boy had been in school for a year under his birth name. When the husband asked whether the boy wanted to change his name, the boy said he didn’t care, that he wouldn’t be any more a member of the family one way than the other. His name wasn’t changed.

Writers note: what are the long-term implications???

Case 5 A & B: Due to Infertility or Other Reasons, a Parent Cannot Have a Biological Child

5A – After several years of marriage and extensive fertility treatments, a couple was unable to conceive. They decided to adopt.  The adoption wasn’t easy because of the adoptive parents’ ages. They decided to adopt a brother and a sister together, although they’d been told that the children were developmentally behind their ages. The adoptive mother was a psychologist and attributed that developmental lag to their early lives. As the children grew, the boy appeared to be average or a little below in intelligence. The girl suffered microcephaly. The marriage failed. The children remained with the adoptive mother. As the boy developed, she couldn’t handle him and ended up paying a lot of money to enroll him in a military school. As the girl grew, she became ever more aggressive and defiant and was expelled from school. The mother tried therapy, including residential therapy. The girl was living in a residential facility and was on her way to see a psychiatrist (as she had requested), when she said she didn’t want to go to that hospital, jumped from the back of the van, broke her neck and died immediately. The boy married and had a child and had a relationship better than ever with the adoptive mother.

5B – the adoptive mother was a single woman who wanted a child but had no desire to give birth or to involve an unnecessary man. She adopted an infant from South America and raised the girl to be Catholic, fluent in Spanish, and knowledgeable of her native country’s history and culture, in accordance with the biological mother’s wishes. The girl grew up surrounded and supported by her adopted mother’s parents and siblings. She did well at home and in school until about halfway through high school. Then, she got involved with drugs, was in and out of abusive relationships, had three children by unknown fathers, and is now serving time while her adoptive mother has custody of the children.

Writers note: where/how might these events have developed differently?

HowtoAdopt.org

Case 6 A & B: The Couple “Just Wants To”

These two will be treated together because they are related. The women are sisters, the twelfth and thirteenth children in the family. They were exceptionally close growing up. For unknown reasons, neither had a child and they and their husbands each adopted a son. The older sister’s adoption was a great success. The son thrived, both academically and professionally, married and had a daughter they named after his adoptive mother. The younger sister’s adopted son was a ne’er-do-well. He was sporadically employed, had many brushes with the law, driver’s license revoked, time in jail, drank heavily, tapped his mother for financial support, and in the view of the extended family, exploited her financially to her detriment. She never rejected him. And that was a source of tension and distance between the formerly close sisters.

Writers note: fertile ground here! Throw in Parkinson’s or some equally debilitating disease? Why not have children of their own, when all their older sisters had done so?

AdoptConnect.com

Adoption Process

The actual process of adoption varies widely among agencies and countries. However, there are some fairly consistent requirements:

  • The adoptive parent(s) must demonstrate financial stability, a permanent home, psychological maturity, etc.
  • If the adopting parents are married, there is usually a minimum amount of time they must have been married before being allowed to adopt.
  • If there are other children in the home, there is sometimes a requirement that a minimum number of years separate the biological children from the adopted children.
    • Many adoption agencies recommend not adopting a child who is older than the oldest biological child so that birth order is not disrupted.
    • The youngest child in the home is often required to be at least two or three years old before the adopted child will be placed.
  • Parent(s) must be at least eighteen years older than the adopted child.
  • Most adoption agencies perform home visits and individual interviews with each member of the family. Some require character references from friends or employers.
  • Because of the different needs of adopted children, especially older adopted children, many agencies require prospective adoptive families to attend training seminars.
  • Guides for raising adopted children and helping them adjust can be also be found online.

Summary: in my experience, adoption typically isn’t about helping a mother who (for whatever reason) must give up a child. Nor is it about giving a loving home to a child (stranger) who needs it. As a writer, consider the motives of the the adult(s) seeking to adopt. And consider all the ways those motives might be frustrated.

GOOD FEET, BAD FEET

Red feet, Blue feet!

How much thought have you given to your characters’ feet? And shoes? Feet and shoes tend to go together, and both can be valuable as character details, plot devices, and sources of conflict. But let’s start with the basics. Are bare feet good or bad? Yes!

Health Concerns

The Upside of Bare Feet: 

  • Uninhibited flexibility, greater strength, and mobility of the foot.
  • Some research suggests that walking and running barefoot results in a more natural gait, allowing for a more rocking motion of the foot, eliminating hard heel strikes, generating less collision force in the foot and lower leg.
  • Many sports require going barefoot: gymnastics, martial arts, beach volleyball, and tug of war.  Rugby in South Africa is always played barefoot at the primary school level. Other sports have barefoot versions: running, hiking, and water skiing.
  • People who don’t wear shoes have a more natural toe position, not squished together.

The Downside of Bare Feet:

Hallux valgus, bunion
  • Losing protection from cuts, abrasions, bruises, hard surfaces, and extremes of heat or cold.
  • Constantly being barefoot increases likelihood of flat feet, bunions, and hammer toe.
  • Because feet are so sensitive, toe locks and striking the bottoms of the feet are often used as punishment.

Climate and Weather:

  • With no environmental need for shoes, Egyptians, Hindus, Greeks, and various African nations have historically gone barefoot.
  • Even when it isn’t necessary, people in such climates often wear ornamental footwear for special occasions.

General Symbolism

  • Baring one’s feet shows humility and subjugation.
  • Going barefoot symbolizes innocence, childhood, and freedom from constraints .
  • Bare feet are often a sign of poverty.
    • The assumption of ignorance and poor hygiene often accompanies the poverty of bare feet.
  • From Roman times on, footwear signaled wealth, power and status in most of Europe and North Africa.Shoes that are impractical or inhibit movement often signal enhanced status, such as Italian chopines, Chinese “Golden Lotus” bound feet, armored German sabatons, Polish crakows, and everything worn by Victoria Beckham.
  • Forbidding shoes marks the barefoot person as a slave or prisoner under the control of others.  Keeping prisoners barefoot is common in China, Zimbabwe, Thailand, Uganda, Iran, Pakistan, India, Congo, Malawi, Rwanda, Ivory Coast, and North Korea.

Cultural Aspects

Religion:

  • Some religious sects take a vow of poverty, including obligatory bare feet.
  • Many Buddhists go barefoot as a reminder to be concerned for Mother Nature, to lead people in the path of virtue, and to develop the Buddhist spirit.
  • Roman Catholics show respect and humility before the Pope by kissing his feet. 
  • In Judaism and some Christian denominations it is customary to go barefoot while mourning.
  • Anyone entering a mosque or a Hindu temple is expected to remove his or her shoes. Stealing shoes from such a place is often considered a desecration.
    • Hindus show love and respect to a guru by touching his bare feet. 
    • Lord Vishnu’s feet are believed to contain symbols such as conch, fish, and disc.
  • In many spiritual traditions, body and soul are connected by the soles of the feet.

Europe:

  • Wearing shoes indoors is often considered rude or unhygienic in Austria, UK, Ireland, Netherlands, and Belgium.
  • In Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal, wearing shoes indoors is expected.

Asian Countries:

  • Showing the soles of the feet is seen as an insult because the feet are seen as unclean (“You are lower than the soles of my feet”).
  • Shoes are seen as dirty and so are removed before entering a mosque, temple, or house.

China:

  • Take your shoes off when entering a house.
  • The practice of foot-binding began in the 10th century as a sign of wealth and beauty. It was outlawed by Empress Dowager Cixi in 1902 (though this was largely ignored) and successfully outlawed by Sun Yat-Sen in 1912.

Japan:

  • Never cross your feet in Japan.
  • Students take off their street shoes when entering school and wear uwabaki, soft-soled clean shoes, to the classroom. Street shoes are stored in special lockers by the school entrance.

Thailand:

  • A prisoner must be barefoot in court during penal proceedings.
  • Because the feet are the lowest part of the body, they are considered filthy.
    • Showing the soles of your feet is extremely rude, a big taboo at any time.
  • Remove your shoes before entering a school, temple, or home.
  • In some houses or schools, inside slippers (never worn outside) are allowed.

India:

  • Shoes are considered impure, so it is customary to remove footwear when entering a home or a temple.
  • Charanasparsha is a very common gesture of respect and subservience made by bowing and touching the feet of the (always superior in age and position) person being honored.

Australia:

  • It’s common for people, particularly young people, to go barefoot in public. In some regions, students attend school barefoot.

New Zealand:

  • Many people, of all races and cases, conduct daily business barefoot.
  • Barefoot is more common in rural areas and some seasons.

South Africa:

  • Walking barefoot in public is common among all ethnic groups, in rural and urban areas.
  • The National Guidelines on School Uniform lists shoes as an optional item.
  • Barefoot people are common in public, shopping malls, stores, and events.

Canada:

I assume everyone in Canada wears these all the time.
  • Take off shoes when entering a home.
  • Elementary schools require students to have indoor shoes and provide a place to store outdoor footwear. Outdoor shoes are worn in high schools.
  • Some medical facilities require patients to remove shoes for reasons of cleanliness.
  • Office workers usually wear indoor shoes in winter, outdoor shoes in summer.

United Kingdom:

  • Mostly in rural areas, children and teenagers are accepted.
  • Some schools encourage barefoot participation in indoor and outdoor physical education.
  • The National Health Service encourages people to go barefoot or wear open-toed sandals in hot weather to avoid sweaty, smelly feet.

United States:

  • Many children in rural areas, and/or those in poverty go barefoot.
  • More commonly, people wear shoes both outdoors and indoors.
  • Businesses that don’t prepare or serve food can determine dress codes that prohibit or allow bare feet.

Miscellaneous:

  • Fairies and magical creatures in several cultures leave no footprints. Checking for footprints is a common method of identifying supernatural creatures and avoiding mischief.
  • Before a baby learns to walk, stroking the bottom of their foot will cause their toes to curl up. After the baby learns to walk (and for the rest of their pedestrian life), stroking the bottom of their foot will cause their toes to curl down.
  • Ancient Egyptian believed that stepping forward with the left foot trod out evil so the heart could proceed.
  • The foot chakra is one of the most important, as it helps pass the Divine Energy to Mother Earth, making powerful grounding .
  • Having a foot fetish or kink means being sexually aroused by feet or certain parts thereof, such as toes, arches, ankles, etc.

Bottom line for writers: What are your characters’ attitudes and behaviors regarding feet and shoes? And why?

HERE’S TO HELLEBORES!

“Why hellebores?” Well might you ask. Because they are my favorite! And because they can be useful for your characters and plots.

When we moved to Ashland, Virginia, we bought an 1858 Greek Revival house on a double lot with old trees and daffodils and not much else. I searched for shade-loving, blooming, evergreen, low-maintenance plants. Voila! Hellebores. They are all of that plus, as a bonus, the blooming happens in winter and early spring.

Behold Hellebore niger, aka Christmas rose, a welcome sight come December. It’s pretty and reliable! The opening picture is from this year, New Year’s Eve. The picture just above is from 12/21/18.  Hellebore niger is the earliest blooming hellebore I’ve found.

Close on the heels of the Christmas rose is the Lenten rose (aka Hellebore orientalis) and its various hybrids. Please note: despite being called Christmas rose and Lenten rose, hellebores are only distantly related to the rose family. This picture of purple and double white hellebores is from March 3, 2019.

Although the flowers and foliage of most hellebores are similar, the Stinking hellebore (Hellebore foetidae) is distinctively different. Its leaves are narrow and knife-like, and cluster at the ends of stalks. The flowers are smaller and droopy, and mostly a pale green.

Hellebores bloom throughout the spring, in a riot of colors. They bloom until the heat of June or July do them in. At that point they drop seeds, and where they are happy, they spread into lovely clumps.

Although they need water during droughts, they are low maintenance. Prune browned-off leaves and dry flowers at will. There are supposed to be a couple of insects and a fungus or so that can attack them, but I’ve never had either. Animals—deer, rabbits, etc.—usually don’t chomp on hellebores because of the (dis)taste of the leaves.

So no wonder I (as well as real gardeners) love hellebores!  But why would a writer care?

All parts of all hellebores are toxic! 

Smart rabbits eat only non-toxic plants in your garden!

Somehow, this did not come to my attention when I wrote My Poison Garden last fall. (How could that have happened?)

Although poisoning is rare, it does occur through ingestion of large quantities, and it can be fatal.

  • Symptoms can include any of the following 
    • Burning of the mouth and throat
    • Excess salivation
    • Vomiting
    • Abdominal cramping
    • Diarrhea
    • Nerve system dysfunction
    • Possibly even depression!
  • The roots contain cardiac glycosides.
  • Leaves and sap contain high levels of ranunculin and protoanemonin.

How might a character be induced to ingest large quantities of a foul tasting plant? 

All you can eat ranunculin and protoanemonin!

Dermatitis is fairly common, caused by handling the plants without protection.  Contact with leaves, stems, flowers, and sap can cause irritation and burning on the skin. Minimal exposure should cause a mild, short-lived irritation and can be treated by washing with soap and water. How might a scene be affected by a character suffering contact dermatitis?

This is a hellebore that is black, not a Black hellebore.

Although hybrids that look nearly black have been developed, historically Black hellebore is another name for Hellebore niger, the white blooming Christmas rose. Black hellebore was used by the the ancient Greeks and Romans to treat paralysis, gout, insanity, and other diseases.  Beware: it can also cause tinnitus, vertigo, stupor, thirst, difficulty breathing, vomiting, catharsis, slowing of the heart rate, including collapse and death from cardiac arrest. Not quite so serious: can cause burning of the eyes, mouth, and throat; or oral ulceration, gastroenteritis, a hematemesis. Could the toxicity of hellebores create an illusion of a chronic disease or disorder of unknown origin?

Folklore and legend vary from the sacred to the dark arts. Could your plot take elements from these?

  • According to legend, a young girl who had no gift to give the Christ child in Bethlehem wept, and her tears falling into the snow sprouted the Christmas rose.
  • Witches are reputed to use hellebores in summoning demons.
  • Heracles/ Hercules killed his children in a fit of madness but was cured by using hellebore.
  • Greek besiegers of Kirrha (585 BC) used hellebore to poison the city’s water supply, overcoming the defenders weakened by diarrhea.

Bottom line for gardeners and writers: get thee hellebores!

Poisonous flowers make lovely Christmas cards!

THE ORIGINAL TWO-FACE

painting by Tommy Grist

No news here: January is named for the ancient Roman deity Janus

Although the date on which the new year “begins” has bounced around a bit (including Christmas, March 1, March 25, and Easter in the Christian calendar) the month of January has always been associated with Janus, the personification of transition and reflection.

The Janus Gates in Rome were traditionally opened in times of war and closed in times of peace.

In Ancient Rome, Janus was associated with doorways, gates, arches, and temporal transitions. Two faces on a single neck, facing opposite directions, represent his ability to see both past and future. His double face has also been seen as representing the end and the beginning of the year.

Another symbol of the new year from Roman and Greek mythology is the image of Jupiter/ Zeus slaying his father Saturn/ Kronos with a scythe. In doing so, according to legend, he freed his siblings and allowed a new generation of gods to assume control.

In short, there is a long tradition of the transition to a new year being an occasion to review the year(s) past and contemplate the year ahead. 

Writers: consider the character who mourns the loss of the year past, who dreads the year ahead—or both. By its very nature, a transition involves uncertainty, vulnerability, and promise.

Improve your ability to break out of jail, just like the comic book Janus!

Recently, my youngest daughter texted, “I’m not a big fan of resolutions. (In my mind they always seem to a passive aggressive indictment of who you are—you should be better!) But I do like to look back on the past year and set goals for the next. I guess it’s semantics, really.” Semantics or not, I think it says a lot about how one approaches the new year: a time to fix, repair, improve or as an opportunity to accomplish something(s).

And that brings me to the Sankofa bird. (There is a second symbol of Sankofa, a stylized heart, but here I will focus on the bird because of its parallels with Janus.) Sankofa is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates loosely as “Go back and get it.” The basic elements of the Sankofa bird symbol are a plump bird whose body and feet face forward, long swan-like neck burns the head backwards, and an egg either on the bird’s back or in its mouth.

Even the loose translation from Twi can be interpreted several ways:

  • Go back and get it
  • Look, see, and take
  • Learn from the past
  • Looking back to look forward
  • Recognizing the knowledge and experiences of those who helped you achieve what you have
  • It is not an abomination to return and take what you forgot
  • All of these have basically the same meaning: gather good lessons from the past and use them to achieve future goals.
The Sankofa African Dance and Drum Ensemble

Bottom line for writers: Possible transitions for your characters are infinite: new job, relationship, location, loss of a loved one, landmark birthday, etc. Most years are a mix of good and bad: which weighs more heavily in your character’s review? Is s/he approaching the new year (or the time ahead) with hope and energy? Is s/he learning from the past or stymied by it?

2020 seems a perfect time to bring Janus and Sankofa into your characters’ lives!

GREETINGS!

The first known pre-printed Christmas card was published in London in 1843, for Sir Henry Cole to send to family and friends.

We in the U.S. are highly aware of greeting cards at this time of year—both the receiving and the sending. Dunbar and Hill (2003) conducted a study on social networks by studying Christmas card lists. They found that each household receives about 150 Christmas Cards, and sends an average of about 68 cards. Clearly, people are receiving more than they give! (Don’t ask me to explain how those numbers work.) The study did not include cards for Hanukkah, Solstice, Yule, Kwanzaa, and New Years, but all of these together make for a very busy Postal Service throughout December.

Since holiday-specific greeting cards are so widespread in the US at the moment, it’s worth taking a moment to think of how they might feature in your writing. If you’re already sick of holiday cheer, just wait for St. Valentine’s Day to be shoved down your throat!

Motivation Behind Christmas Cards  

According to my reading, Sir Henry Cole (see above) resorted to creating Christmas Cards because he had too many friends to write individual notes. I venture to assert that the time crunch is still a major factor in sending a greeting card rather than a letter. But that leaves open the question of who gets on someone’s card list in the first place. I seem to recall that once upon a time, cards were for people seldom seen—and thus unavailable to greet personally. Today?

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Neighbors
  • Work colleagues
  • Clients
  • Church family
  • Teachers
  • Students
  • Doctors/ nurses
  • Residents of nursing homes or hospitals
  • Active military
  • Members of social groups
  • Those who sent cards last year
  • That one person you don’t really like but gets a card just so you can use up the last of the 12-pack of cards you bought

This increasingly vague list leaves plenty of room for confusion and accidentally hurt feelings. Consider someone who sends a card but doesn’t receive one in return. Consider a child arguing with a parent over whether online cards are a suitable replacement for paper cards. If you really want to jerk some tears, consider an elderly character sending out cards to peers and seeing the list shrink a little more every year.

What Type of Card?

There is a huge variety of cards available, and the type of card sent could reveal as much about a character as the people they send those cards to. Religious ones, humorous ones, nature scenes, musical ones, pop-up ones. The first personalized Christmas card was sent in 1891 by Annie Oakley. She was doing sharp-shooter exhibitions in Scotland and sent cards back to friends and family in the U.S. featuring her picture—wearing tartan!

Should a character send a generic card with vaguely wintry scenes and vague wishes for general well-being? What about a character sending explicitly religious cards to recipients of a different faith or no faith at all? Why would a character choose to make dozens of cards by hand rather than grabbing a box off the drugstore shelf? Some families include newsletters with the card, letting friends and families know what they’ve been doing since last year’s holiday card. Why would a character send newsletters or photo collage cards?

Meaning of Holiday Cards for the Recipient 

When I was growing up, my mother, aunts, etc., knew exactly how many cards they received and how many they sent—sort of like being able to cite how many trick-or-treaters came by on Halloween. Christmas cards were typically displayed on stair banisters, windowsills, archways, mantels, etc. 

Could receiving holiday cards be a bad or unpleasant experience? What about a character receiving a card from someone they dislike? How about siblings or friends who see messages of boasting and rivalry in personalized cards? What might a character think after sending out dozens of cards and receiving none in return? How would someone who hates the entire holiday season react to all those reminders in the mail?

According to anthropologists, the number of holiday cards you receive reflects how many people care about you. That’s the premise of a 2003 study of social network size carried out by evolutionary anthropologists Robin Hill of the University of Durham and Robin Dunbar of Oxford and published in the journal Human Nature.  “In Western societies…the exchange of Christmas cards represents the one time of year when individuals make an effort to contact all those individuals within their social network whose relationships they value.”

Maybe I’m just being defensive, but I refuse to measure my circle of caring family and friends by the handful of seasonal greetings I receive. Just saying.

Holiday Cards are Big Business

Getting a definite count is tricky, depending on the year and what cards are included in the count. For example, one study asserted that 6.5 billion greeting cards are bought each year, at a total cost of more than U.S. $7 billion.  On the other hand, sales of holiday cards in the U.S. dropped from 1.8 billion in 2009 to 1.5 billion in 2011. Christmas Cards account for 61% of seasonal greeting card sales, followed by St. Valentine’s Day at a distant second of 25%.

And that doesn’t even include the USPS revenue! Imagine what a postal worker, especially a letter carrier, thinks about all that extra volume moving around the country. Both of the holidays most frequently celebrated with extra paper and postage happen during some of the most unpleasant weather. Do the holiday bonuses outweigh the extra weight in the satchel?

2019 UNICEF cards

And FYI: only 15% of cards are bought by men. Millions of dollars are raised for charities by Christmas Cards each year. For example, UNICEF launched their charity Christmas card program in 1949. Schools, research institutions, hospitals, food banks, and lots of other community organizations raise funds by selling holiday cards.

Some organizations also send cards to donors to encourage continued support the following year. Does it really count as a holiday greeting if it’s a reminder to send a check?

Well, I seem to have been caught up in a seasonal issue.  But bottom line for writers: what are your character’s attitudes and behaviors regarding holiday greeting cards?  Any phenomenon as ubiquitous as this can contribute to your characters and/or plots.

It’s the 5th night of Hanukkah!

Christmas Eve Then and Now

A previous version of this blog was posted on December 24th, 2015.

Alan Partridge in a Pear Tree

For centuries, the Christian holiday of Christmas was celebrated as a season rather than a single day. Beginning at sunset on Christmas Eve and continuing through the Eve of the Epiphany, the Twelve Days of Christmas were a time of parties, feasts, and gifts of milkmaids and birds.

Midnight Mass led by Pope Francis in Rome can now be watched online via traditional livestreaming services, as Catholics have done for centuries.

In predominantly Catholic countries (e.g., Spain, Mexico, Poland, and Italy), Midnight Mass is the most important service in the Christmas season. To celebrate the end of the Advent Season and its vigilant fasting, families often share a large Christmas dinner after the Midnight Mass Service. In other countries (e.g., Belgium, Finland, Lithuania, and Denmark), the meal is eaten before the Midnight Service.  

Tradition carried over from pagan days dictated that greenery such as holly, ivy, and mistletoe should only be brought into the house on Christmas Eve. Burning a Yule log, kissing under mistletoe, and guarding the house from evil spirits with holly are all pagan customs that have become entwined with Christmas.

In some European countries (e.g. Serbia and Slovakia), the Christmas tree is brought into the house and decorated on Christmas Eve, as well.  In Norway, the decorating of the tree is traditionally done by the parents behind closed doors while the children wait outside. “Circling the tree” follows, where everyone joins hands to form a ring around the tree and they walk around it singing carols. Gifts are distributed afterwards.  

In Germany, the Tannenbaum (Christmas tree) was traditionally decorated by the mother, in secret, with lights, tinsel, and ornaments. It was lit and revealed on Christmas Eve with cookies, nuts, and gifts under it.  

In the United States, the decorating of trees, houses, lawns, and people begins weeks before Christmas.

It is also common to go caroling on Christmas Eve. (Click here to read about the evolution of Christmas carols.) In the UK, if not caroling, perhaps wassailing or mumming.  

Another wide-spread custom is the hanging of Christmas stockings, preferably on the fireplace, since that’s where Santa Claus is supposed to enter. Traditionally, Christmas stockings are filled on Christmas eve.  

They’re cute, but I reeeeally hope I don’t find one in my stocking!
Saint Nicholas, as depicted in an Orthodox icon

Even the Smithsonian can’t trace the origins of hanging stockings, but clearly it was well-established by the time Clement Clarke Moore wrote “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known as “The Night Before Christmas”). In Tuesday’s blog, I mentioned the legend that St. Nicholas provided dowries for three pious but impoverished sisters. One version of that legend has St. Nicholas coming down the chimney at night and putting a gold ball in the toe of each girl’s stocking, recently laundered and hung by the fire to dry.  

Of course families have their own traditions of activities, food, and decoration passed on from generation to generation. But one that is nearly universal is that the bringer of gifts now does so on Christmas Eve.  

Tovlis Babua (Grandfather Snow) distributes gifts and spreads Christmas cheer in many areas of the Caucasus. He is shown here working together with Santa Claus to form an unstoppable force of merriment.

P.S. I have focused on Christmas Eve from the Western Christian perspective. I urge you to explore more broadly, including Eastern celebrations and Jewish Christmas traditions!  

Darwin’s Christmas series

Christmas Trees and Greenery Putting Christmas into Carols How St. Nicholas Became Santa Claus

I want to go to Santa School!

GIVING

My last several blogs have focused on some pretty negative topics, from disposing of bodies to cannibalism to Friday the 13th. So it’s time for something a little more upbeat. A week ago was Giving Tuesday. And of course, December is a season of giving. So let’s consider gifts.

Ideally, a gift has no strings attached: there is no expectation of payment or anything in return—with the exception of thank-you notes. But we all know that ideal doesn’t always apply. For one thing, there is often an expectation of reciprocity. In addition, there are numerous customary “gift giving occasions” when the expectation of a gift makes it awkward or rude not to give something.  The list of such occasions seems to grow yearly.  Gift giving is a great plot/character device—the feelings of the giver and receiver, the gift chosen, the circumstances.  What follows is an exemplary, not exhaustive list.

  • Birthday
  • Potlatch (Pacific Northwest tribes)
  • Feast of St. Nicholas
  • Easter
  • Feast of St. Basil (Greek Orthodox Christians)
  • Eid al-Fitr (Muslims)
  • Hanukkah (American Jews)
  • Diwali and Pongal (Hinus)
  • Vesak (Buddhists)
  • Kwanzaa (African Americans)
  • Weddings
  • Wedding anniversaries
  • Funerals
  • Births
  • Adoptions
  • Baptisms and Christenings
  • Graduation or passing an examination
  • Father’s Day
  • Mother’s Day
  • Siblings Day
  • Gift exchange between host and guest
  • Retirement
  • Congratulations
  • Engagements
  • Housewarming
  • Baby showers
  • St. Valentine’s Day
  • And, of course, Christmas

If the above list doesn’t meet your gift-giving inclinations, you can always observe any number of National [Insert Holiday Here] Day dates throughout the year.

  • National Be Kind to Lawyers Day (2nd Tuesday in April)
  • World Veterinary Day (last Saturday in April)
  • Teacher’s Day (May 6)
  • Grandparent’s Day (first Sunday after Labor Day)
  • Mother-in-Law Day (October 26)
  • Halloween
  • 4th of July
  • Administrative Professionals Day (last week in April)
  • National Video Game Day (September 12th)
  • International Nurses’ Day (May 12th)
  • National Siblings Day (April 10th)
  • Cousins’ Day (July 24th)

Although in the U.S. we think of gifts as coming packaged, with a ribbon, and probably a card, consider alternatives. Can a phone call be a gift? How about a service, such as weeding the flower bed? Transportation to an appointment? Offering to edit a colleague’s document?  What constitutes a gift of the heart?

Promotional gifts are given to customers, clients, or employees. Mostly they serve provide advertising and/or goodwill purposes. AND they are tax deductible as business expenses. 

Writers, consider dangerous gifts

Are there legal issues for gifts?  Of course there are. Legally, a gift must be given as a gift (no expectation of reciprocation) and delivered to the recipient. In the U.S. (along with some other countries) gifts beyond a certain monetary amount are subject to a gift tax. In the U.S., that monetary value is $15,000 from one person to one person in a given year. Anything above that value means that tax issues must be considered, if only in terms of paperwork.

There is no limit on number of such gift can be given per year. But there is a lifetime exclusion (meaning all gifts to all people) of $11.58 million as of 2020. If this matters to you, “Congratulations!”

 But, writers, consider your characters!

And consider when a gift can be considered a bribe. If there is an explicit or implicit understanding between the giver and the recipient that the recipient will do something—often illegal or against company guidelines—because of the “gift,” we’re talking bribery, even if it isn’t actionable. Government agencies and some businesses have strict rules concerning gift giving/receiving. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of avoiding the appearance of impropriety.

Unwanted gifts can occur in any category, for any occasion. Such gifts are often regifted, donated to charity, or thrown away. An unwanted gift that is a burden to the recipient in terms of care, maintenance, storage, or disposal costs is a a white elephant. 

Sometimes unwanted gifts are returned or exchanged. The day after Christmas is the busiest day for this. And estimated $3.4 billion was spent on unwanted Christmas gifts in the United States in 2017.  Surprisingly, the value of unused gift cards purchased in the U.S. each year is estimated to total about a billion dollars.  Why?  How could a gift card be unwanted? 

Writers: what about your plot or your character would lead to unused gift cards? Could it be a clue? A character note?

As the biggest gift-giving occasion of the year, Christmas gives us (and us writers) the opportunity to consider myriad possibilities for the POV character, whether giver or recipient.

BRACE YOURSELF! IT’S FRIDAY THE 13TH!!

Every year has at least one Friday the 13th, but more often two or three. The longest possible interval between Friday the 13ths is fourteen months, the shortest is one month. Today is the second in 2019. Interestingly, the 13th of any month is slightly more likely to fall on a Friday than on other days of the week.

Superstitions about Fridays and 13s emerged centuries ago, certainly by the Middle Ages, maybe even in Biblical times. The Biblical connection is the belief that there were 13 people present at the Last Supper. According to the Hebrew calendar Passover began on the 14 of the month of Nisan that year, meaning the seder (the Last Supper in Christianity) was held on the 13 of Nisan; Jesus was crucified the next day, which was a Friday. Since then, bad things that happen on Friday the 13th have garnered particular attention.

Friday the 13th is widely considered bad luck in Western superstition. According to The Sun, UK Edition

  • 55% of Brits consider themselves superstitious. 
  • 1 in 6 believe those days pose the greatest risk of bad luck striking.
  • 22% worry what might befall them on these days.
  • In the U.S., 25% are superstitious, with younger people being more so than older people.
  • According to the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, NC, 17 to 21 million people in the. U.S fear this day.

The Finnish Ministry of Social Affairs and Health has held kansallinen tapaturmapäivä (Accident Awareness Day) on Friday the 13th every year since 1995. Public awareness campaigns encourage people to pay more attention to their surroundings and fix potential hazards around the home, workplace, and on the road.

The fear of Friday the 13th is paraskevidekatriaphobia. The word was coined by Dr. Donald Dossey who told his patients that “when you learn to pronounce it, you’re cured!” Of course, people are superstitious about many things. Suffice it to say, any of the bad happenings are worse on Friday the 13th.

  • Walking under a ladder
  • Breaking a mirror
  • Having a black cat cross your path
  • Spilling salt
  • Opening an umbrella inside the house
  • Stepping on cracks
  • Lighting three cigarettes with one match
  • Leaving a white tablecloth on a table overnight

Superstitions about Fridays and about the number 13 long preceded the connection of the two, which dates from about 1869.  Fear of the number 13 is “triskaidekaphobia.”  The ancient Code of Hammurabi omitted a 13th law from its list of legal rules. Many hotels have no floor labeled 13, ditto seat rows in airplanes.

In Hispanic and Greek cultures, the bad luck day is Tuesday the 13th. On the other hand, in Italy the bad luck day is Friday the 17th.

My relatives sometimes said, “If I didn’t have bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all!” Not that that’s particularly relevant, but it’s been running through my thoughts as I wrote this blog.

Bottom line for writers: create your own Friday the 13th disaster, or a character who is irrationally fearful of Fridays, 13s, and Friday the 13ths.

VEGETARIAN, PESCATARIAN… HUMANITARIAN?

Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, teacher, writer, editor, favorite auntie, and frequent consumer of baby noses, bellies, fingers, and toes.

Amid the recent discussions on this blog of ways to dispose of a human corpse, both legal and not-quite-so-legal, one rather significant possibility has been left out: chow down! The technical term for eating humans is anthropophagy. I’ve heard that livers, in particular, are quite tasty when served with some fava beans and a nice chianti.

Warning: The images originally associated with this blog were disturbingly graphic and so have been replaced with pictures of babies eating toes and eating baby toes. Mostly.

Warning: The embedded links provided in this article may include details that will turn you vegetarian. Follow links at your own discretion.

Don’t Do It!

Cannibalism would fall under the category of illegal methods of body disposal. Even when eating someone doesn’t require killing them first, the act itself is usually covered under laws against corpse desecration or disturbing the dead. Multiple justice systems have recently had cause to issue rulings on the subject.

  • German courts declared that Armin Meiwes was guilty of manslaughter for killing and eating Bernd Jürgen Armando Brandes in 2001. Because of video evidence that Brandes had volunteered and willingly consented, Meiwes was sentenced to only eight years in prison.
    • Public outcry and a legal appeal caused the court to retry Meiwes in 2006, at which time he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
    • Armin Meiwes is now a vegetarian.
  • Detlev Guenzel was convicted of a very similar crime in 2015, also in Germany. He met Wojciech Stempniewicz in a cannibal chatroom, they discovered their shared interest, and Stempniewicz met Guenzel in Hartmannsdorf-Reichenau for the express purpose of being killed and eaten.
  • Arif Ali and Farman Ali were arrested in 2011 for eating a human corpse dug up from a nearby graveyard in Pakistan. Shortly after being released from prison in 2014, the two were arrested again for digging up a corpse and making curry.
  • During the Holodomor Famine in Ukraine in 1931-1932 and the Siege of Leningrad of 1941-944, many people were reported to have turned to cannibalism of the dead in the face of mass starvation. Some are even reported to have cut off and eaten parts of their own bodies to survive. Survivors were afterward charged as criminals and executed or sent to gulags.

In addition to being illegal, eating humans is not actually very healthy. Humans can have all sorts of nasty, wiggly things crawling around in our flesh. Hepatitis, HIV, and The most well-known is the kuru virus, which is found in the human brain and transmitted through consumption.

Human flesh is also comparatively lacking in nutritional value, having far fewer calories per pound of meat than boars or bison. The effort required to subdue and dismember another person for food is enough to make all but the most avid anthropophagist give up and go for the supermarket. Eating already dead corpses carries the risk of catching whatever disease killed them.

If you want to be absolutely sure the meat is safe and no one will object, you could always try munching on yourself (except in Idaho, where consuming human flesh of any kind is illegal). Autocannibalism requires chopping off bits of yourself or possibly sucking out bits off yourself.

Does this count as autocannibalism?
  • Make sausages with your own blood.
  • Fry meatballs in your liposuctioned fat.
  • Pair up with a buddy to fry and eat each other on live television.
  • Boil and eat fingers severed in a vehicle accident.
  • Invite friends over for tacos made from your own foot.
    • If you want to know what people taste like without chopping off your own foot, the taco chef has provided a detailed description.

Everyone Else Does It!

According to anthropologist (not to be confused with anthropophagist) William Arens, rumors of culturally sanctioned cannibalism have been greatly exaggerated. In 1979, he published The Man-Eating Myth, arguing that culturally accepted cannibalism is not nearly as wide-spread now or in history as people assume.

Evidence of whole societies of people eating each other relies heavily on statements from one group telling researchers that those weirdos next door will gnaw your face off. The next-door neighbors killed children and ate them, so they must be invaded. Their armies devoured fallen enemies, so be sure not to lose in battle. With the exception of funerary rituals, documented cases of socially accepted cannibalism are few and far between.

Even the word “cannibal” was created as a form of linguistic propaganda. It comes from Columbus’s misunderstanding of the Carib people’s name for themselves. Columbus reported that the Canibales were rumored to eat human flesh, and the name stuck. When Queen Isabella declared in 1503 that non-cannibalistic tribes could not be enslaved, all those reports of “those guys over the hill who have Soylent Green picnics” became very useful. Suddenly, just about any indigenous population of an area Europeans wanted to colonize was absolutely guaranteed to be cannibals.

Eating the bodies of criminals during a famine is just good resource management.
Engraving by Theodor de Bry

The fact that Europeans, up through the early 20th Century, practiced medicinal cannibalism adds a gruesomely hypocritical twist to this bit of etymology. Powdered skulls in your beer cured headaches. Drinking blood would balance your humors. Rubbing human fat on a wound might speed the healing. If you wanted to get fancy, you could even try bloody marmalade made by Franciscan friars. None of this was considered cannibalism, of course. Only uncultured savages and starving people were cannibals. Taking pulverized mummy pills with your morning tea is just following doctors’ orders.

A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

If you want to write about cannibals, make sure you check the facts first. Archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians argue amongst themselves about how common it is or ever was. Hic Dragones, a press and organizer of conferences on “the weird, the dark, and the strange” held a Cannibals Conference Programme in 2015, with presentations from religious scholars, historical dietitians, pathologists, and psychologists. There are a lot of facts, many of them contradicting each other, but cannibals make an excellent addition to murder or horror stories. No holiday is complete without cannibals!

Cannibal Claus is a real movie. This picture was not photoshopped or altered in any way.

WHOSE BODY?

Recent blogs have discussed ways to legally or illegally dispose of a body but overlooked one important point: who has the legal right to dispose of a dead body? Who owns your body when you die?

According to Barker Evans Private Client Law, the answer is no one. It is not possible to legally “own” a body, but certain people have authority to dispose of it—although not necessarily the people you might think. The deceased’s “personal representatives” have the right to dispose of the body. If there is a Will, that would be the executor(s) of the Will

When my mother died, my sister and I were co-executors of her will and we, along with our brother, planned her funeral—and it went very smoothly. But what if we had disagreed about the disposal of her body?

“Virginia law determines who can make decisions about funerals and body disposition — that is, burial or cremation — after someone dies. This right and responsibility goes either to a person you name in a signed, notarized document or your next of kin.” (Virginia Code § § 54.1-2825 and 54.1-2807(B).)

Writers take note!  The possible ramifications are endless. If there is no Will, whoever is entitled under state intestacy laws to administer the estate would be in charge. Here it’s important to know the laws in the state where the person lived, because according to Nolo (publisher of plain-speak legal guides and online articles):

It’s up to the probate court to appoint an administrator if one is needed. But how does the court, without guidance from a will, choose someone? The answer is found in state law. Every state sets out an order of priority for judges to follow when appointing an administrator. For example, here is the priority list for serving as an administrator in Oklahoma:

1. Surviving spouse or a person the spouse nominates

2. Children

3. Mother or father

4. Brothers or sisters

5. Grandchildren

6. Next of kin entitled to inherit under state law

7. Creditors

8. Any legally competent person

So when an Oklahoma resident dies without naming an executor, the surviving spouse is first in line to be appointed as administrator. If the spouse doesn’t want the job or isn’t able to do it, he or she can nominate someone—in essence, the surviving spouse stands in the place of the deceased person. (58 Okla. Stat. Ann. § 122.)

If the survivor doesn’t name someone, then the court moves on to the children, then the parents, and on down the list. Courts do not, by the way, automatically appoint the oldest sibling as administrator. All children of a deceased person on are an equal footing.

Some states don’t go into nearly so much detail. New Jersey, for example, provides this short list:

1. Spouse or domestic partner

2. Other heir (person entitled to inherit under state law)

3. Any other person

TL;DR – Without a Will, the court decides who can have the body. Laws prioritize survivors differently everywhere.

Suppose some family member/character really wants to be administrator.  What could go wrong? Again, according to Nolo:

Certain people who would otherwise be entitled to serve as personal representative are disqualified under state law. (The same factors apply to persons nominated in a will.) Here are some factors that may or may not serve as reasons for disqualification:

~ Age. No state allows persons under 18 to serve as a personal representative; many set the minimum age at 21.

~ Criminal history. Some states forbid persons convicted of serious crimes from serving. (See, for example, Washington Rev. Stat. § 11.36.010.) Others require only that anyone who has been convicted of a felony inform the probate court. (For example, Oregon follows that rule. Or. Rev. Stat. § 113.092.)

~ Business relationship. In Oklahoma, if the deceased person was a member of a partnership at the time of death, the surviving partner must “in no case” be appointed as administrator.

~ Residence. All states allow persons who don’t live in the state, under certain circumstances, to serve as personal representatives. A few states allow this only if the person is a close relative. Many others require a non-resident to post a bond or appoint an in-state agent for service of process (that is, to receive communications from the court).

~ Citizenship. There isn’t much law on this, but the courts that have considered the question have ruled that noncitizens may serve as executors. Courts are usually more concerned about who’s actually a resident of the state; the court wants to be sure is has jurisdiction over the personal representative. (See, for example, the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in In re Estate of Fernandez, 335. So. 2d 829 (Fla. 1976).)

Apart from such detailed grounds for disqualification, probate court judges commonly have a lot of discretion about whom they issue letters to. In the states that have adopted a set of laws called the Uniform Probate Code, judges can disqualify anyone they find “unsuitable” in a formal proceeding. Usually, a court finds someone unsuitable if there is credible evidence of serious dishonesty, substance abuse, or mental disability.

TL;DR – Some people aren’t allowed to be in charge of making decisions for a dead person. Specific laws are different everywhere.

Writers note: when more than one person is equally eligible, the court may choose only one administrator. Whoever is chosen, the situation is ripe for tension and conflict. But consider other possibilities: would creditors simply take the least expensive option possible?

Duty to Dispose of a Body

A person who is in lawful possession of a body has a right or duty to dispose of it. Who other than executor/administrator?

  • the owner of a building where a person died
  • coroner when an autopsy is required
  • local authority if there is a risk to public health or public decency

Giving Your Body Away

First and foremost, you cannot will your body to a person because it is illegal to own a body.

But not illegal to own a lot of bodies, apparently.

 If you want to donate a body there are three choices: donate to a university, to a state agency or to a non-transplant tissue bank, which includes brokers who sell the bodies.  The brokers make money by providing bodies and dissected parts to companies and institutions that use them for training, education and research.

It is recommended that you not dispose of vital organs while you are alive, unless they are made of rubber and used for EMT training.

As long as you are alive, your body parts are your own. Don’t inadvertently make a tissue donation when you have surgery. If you negotiate the terms with your doctor, hospital, and tissue banking system in advance, you can retain possession of removed body parts, such as tumors. If you do not make a clear contract before your tissue is biopsied or dissected, your ownership of it will be compromised, and it will be at the medical center’s discretion whether you will be able to access it. Recent lawsuits between patients and hospitals over who owns tissue have been ruled in favor of the hospital.  Read the informed consent forms prior to biopsy and surgery extremely carefully and have a lawyer look at it if possible. If there is anything that doesn’t sound right to you, do not hesitate to bring it up with your doctor. (Rebecca Skloot, “Taking the Least of You,” The New York Times Magazine, April 2006.)

Selling Your Body—Say, what?

According to Reuters:

Q: So it’s legal to sell whole bodies and their parts, even heads and limbs?
A: It’s illegal to sell human fetuses. Otherwise, yes: In almost every state, it’s legal to sell the human remains of adults. One misconception promoted by some brokers is that it is illegal to sell body parts and that people who distribute them may only be reimbursed for processing, shipping and other expenses. In most states, such laws only apply to transplant organs, such as hearts and kidneys, and to tissue, such as skin and bone. But in almost every state, these laws do not apply to whole cadavers or to parts, such as torsos, shoulders and heads. Reuters found that some brokers conflate rules for transplant organs with those for non-transplant body parts in order to create the  impression that they do not profit from body donations.

Q: Is it legal to sell your own body to science?
A: Legal experts disagree. Some lawyers contend that it is not possible. That’s  because a person’s property rights to his or her body cease at death. But others note that a person who donates a body to science may receive a free cremation in return, which could be construed as a form of payment. What’s not disputed: Federal law clearly prohibits the sale of one’s own organs and tissue for transplantation.

The Bottom Line here is ironic: you own your own body while you are alive, but you cannot sell parts for transplantation. On the other hand, once you are dead, no one owns your body but your executor/administrator can sell it whole or in parts.

No worries!