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A bit of home for the holidays

Blending adopted child's cultural heritage into family traditions.

The Rupertus family in Mount Airy — (from left) dad Chris, Mihretu, Lucy, mom Kate, Annie, and Abel — share an Ethiopian meal to honor the adopted boys’ culture. (Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer)
The Rupertus family in Mount Airy — (from left) dad Chris, Mihretu, Lucy, mom Kate, Annie, and Abel — share an Ethiopian meal to honor the adopted boys’ culture. (Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer)Read more

Heather Johnson grew up in New Hampshire with two Swedish parents. Christmastime, as she remembers it, was always white. Santa, the snow, the angels, everything. Before she had children, re-creating those white Christmases seemed like a natural thing to do.

Not anymore.

Johnson and her husband, Braydon Johnson-McCormick, adopted infant twin boys from Haiti seven years ago. These days, when Christmas rolls around, the Johnson-McCormick home in Bucks County looks a lot more colorful. "We have books with black Santas and black angels, multicultural nativity scenes, and Haitian ornaments hang from the tree," Johnson said. "I have to go a little bit overboard because, outside the home, the boys are just bombarded by whiteness during Christmas."

Johnson and her husband have also started a new tradition in honor of their sons. They host a large party for the many adoptive families with Haitian children in Pennsylvania. "I wanted there to be a big celebration with Haiti and Haitian adoption at the center of it during the holiday season," Johnson explained, noting that not only do her sons enjoy the "Haiti party," but the couple's 3-year-old biological daughter is also richer for the experience. "She's benefiting from everything we do in a big way," Johnson said.

Kelli Myers-Gottemoller, coordinator of the International Adoption program at Lutheran Children and Family Service in Philadelphia, applauds the Johnson-McCormick family's approach. An almost-20-year veteran in the adoption field and the mother of a daughter adopted from Cambodia, Myers-Gottemoller stresses the importance of incorporating the cultural heritage of the adopted child into family traditions. Especially during the holidays.

"It celebrates the child and enriches the entire family," Myers-Gottemoller said. "And it sends a strong message to the child that 'we honor who you are.' " How Myers-Gottemoller honors her daughter's culture of origin: When it's time to bake Christmas cookies, the family also whips up a batch of traditional Cambodian sweet rice. "Parents shouldn't feel pressured to celebrate their child's heritage in only one way," she counseled. "They should feel a sense of freedom to celebrate how they want to."

Jenny Hammond, 42, an adult adoptee and adoption educator of mixed Japanese and Caucasian heritage, offers some perspective. "My family brought me up in their Norwegian tradition, and I appreciated it," she said, adding that it wasn't until college that she wanted to investigate her Japanese background. "Some kids want to connect with their heritage earlier in life, and some want it later. The key is to take your cues from your child."

For Chris and Kate Rupertus of Mount Airy, adoption has meant extending their holiday calendar. In addition to Christmas, the couple and their four young children observe Timkat, the Ethiopian celebration of the Epiphany on Jan. 19, in honor of their two kids adopted from Ethiopia.

"Christmas isn't such a big deal in Ethiopia," said Kate Rupertus, "but the Epiphany is huge, so we do our best to honor that tradition." In Ethiopia, Timkat is celebrated with processions in the street, three days off work, religious observances, and much feasting. Since they can't exactly host a parade, the Rupertus family generally dress in their traditional Ethiopian attire and head to one of their favorite Ethiopian restaurants in West Philadelphia, either Gojjo or Kaffa Crossing. Even though Timkat isn't really a big gift-giving holiday, after dinner, the parents give each child a small gift from Ethiopia. "We recognize we are limited in what we can do, but whatever we do, we make the most of it," said Chris Rupertus.

"And we have a lot of fun doing it," Kate added.

For some families with adopted children, however, incorporating their child's heritage into holiday traditions is more of a challenge.

Liz Meyer is the mother of two 'tween daughters adopted from Sierra Leone. As a white mother to two African girls, Meyer is vigilant about making sure she has plenty of positive images of black and African people in the girls' lives. When it comes to finding holiday traditions, decorations, or even children's literature from Sierra Leone, it's tricky.

Meyer explained that this is "partly because of the war, and because there's not a big export business." Still, she won't give up trying. "This is my children's life. And their life didn't just begin when they came to Philadelphia," she said. "I want them to be proud of where they came from."

So it comes back to the food. Especially for children adopted past infancy, a taste of home can bring the comfort of the familiar.

Right before Christmas, Meyer makes a ritual out of traveling with her girls from their home in Germantown to Le Mandingue in Southwest Philadelphia. A West African restaurant owned by Liberians, Le Mandingue always has a few dishes from Sierra Leone on the menu. "We stock up on the food the girls love," Meyer said, "so the house is filled with it during the holidays."

For all of these families, the cultural sharing doesn't stop when the holidays are over. "We do this stuff all year long," said Heather Johnson. "This time of the year just ups the ante a bit."