A school bus pulls into the circle drive at the Christos House domestic violence shelter in rural Howell County. The exact location is kept secret to protect the people staying here. Two kids leap off the bus. They’re greeted by the shelter supervisor and a friendly black dog.
Kelli Neel, the supervisor, says the shelter has several traditions to help the residents weather the holidays.
“Because when you come into shelter, your whole life is disrupted. So you don’t get to participate in traditions that you’ve already established,” she said.
There’s an adopt-a-family program, where community members or businesses can buy gifts or needed items for someone staying at the shelter.
“And then, the rural fire department does a Santa. And they bring Santa over to see the kids every year,” Neel said, referring to the Eleven Point Volunteer Fire Department based in Willow Springs, Missouri.
Churches bring the traditional food items, which are cooked here.
“A lot of times, we’re dealing with depression, anxiety. Holidays, for most families that are subject to abuse, there’s a lot of anxiety. Because often holidays aren’t happy,” Neel said.
That’s because the added stress of the holidays—financial, travel, busy schedules, relatives visiting—is often enough to push vulnerable families into crisis territory.
“Often times shelters fill up during this time of year. Because the fights start, the money’s tight. All of those things. And other people’s mental health affects the holidays,” Neel said.
And when their situations become dangerous or unbearable, they flee here, often escaping with the help of loved ones.
Neel says that traditions act as an anchor for people whose lives are in crisis. So she encourages residents to keep doing here the traditions they did at home, to the best of their abilities.
“And if it doesn’t incorporate well as a group, then we encourage them to do their own thing in their own space. And some don’t celebrate Christmas. I mean, we’ve had all walks of life come through these doors. And some years, we have a greater population that doesn’t even celebrate Christmas because of their religious orientation or personal preference,” Neel said.
One woman staying here is a young mother we’ll call “Sarah,” to protect her identity. She didn’t feel safe giving her name on the radio. She’s hiding from her romantic partner, she says, because he’s been stalking her and attacked her in front of their child.
Before she fled to this shelter, her tradition was to bake cookies with her 7-year-old daughter on Christmas Eve.
“We would watch a favorite movie of hers because she usually opens her stocking on Christmas Eve,” Sarah said.
“And then we will talk about how many cookies we want to eat and how many we want to save for Santa. So it’s usually just, like, one cookie we save for Santa—because she usually eats the rest of them,” Sarah said.
There’s really only one thing she hopes to provide her daughter this year.
“Normal. My daughter wants normal. She was pretty scared when she got here, and so I want to keep everything just like we’ve always done it, because that will make her feel more at home for the holidays,” Sarah said.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “tradition” as: the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction.
And while these women are trying to cling to the positive traditions, the shelter is actually trying to help them break a different tradition: a mindset that often accompanies victims of domestic abuse. That, too, has often been passed down by example through the generations.
Sarah is aware of that now, she says.
"My father was very controlling toward my mom," she said. "I do see those same patterns with myself."
She says she is going to take advantage of the counseling the shelter offers on healthy relationships.
Another resident, Amanda, is here with her two youngest children: a one-year-old and a two-month-old baby. She only felt safe giving her first name to use on the radio. She’s already set a resolution for the new year.
“Being able to be on my own two feet where I don’t have to depend on whoever I’m with, because that’s the way it’s been. I’ll get with someone, start living with them, and then I’m dependent on them. And them I’m stuck. Because I’ve been in three abusive relationships now,” Amanda said.
The juxtaposition of the dark times they’re going through with the joyous traditions of the holidays is a weird thing to balance, she says.
“Growing up, me and my mom and my sister, we would go to the attic and bring down, like, all of the Christmas stuff. Get the tree up, decorate it all together,” Amanda said.
She’d help her mother bake cookies for teachers, neighbors, and the mail carrier. She says she’s grateful to the Christos House staff and the local community for making traditions in the shelter a priority.
“I think it’s very important. I think we’re all grateful for it. Because, just to have that normalcy for everybody, and for the kids,” Amanda said.
It’s clearly hard for her to talk about. Amanda says she doesn’t know the specifics of what she wants to do with the rest of her life: right now, all she can think about is getting a restraining order and gearing up for a custody battle with her former partner.
But she knows when she’s back on her own two feet, she wants to start a few traditions of her own, like driving around with her kids looking at holiday lights.
According to the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and the Missouri State Highway Patrol, law enforcement reported over 44,000 incidents of domestic violence last year in Missouri.
Also according to the coalition, Missouri shelters like Christos House answered over 96,000 domestic and sexual violence hotline calls in 2016.