… and to All a Good Night!
By Jeff Salter
As this is posted, we have three days before Christmas.
Perhaps my most vivid Christmas memories from childhood were consecutive years when I was in Elementary School. For probably three or four years, my family drove to Mandeville [La.] to tour the wards of the Southeast Louisiana [Mental] Hospital and sing Christmas carols to the patients. On Christmas Eve.
I should explain. My Dad was Protestant Chaplain at SoLoHo and he organized the hospital staff and their families to do this for their patients. He’d mimeographed selected carols into slender song books and my recollection is that almost all the staff (not on duty) – from the top administrators to the housekeeping teams – participated eagerly.
After congregating somewhere in the facility, we all toured every ward (except, probably, the most dangerous) and sang a few carols in each. Some of the patients joined in. But some just sat or stood … and watched. Whether they participated or merely listened, I believe even the most medicated patients knew what was going on … and likely appreciated it.
Remember, the late 1950s was well before the massive deinstitutionalization of mental patients — some of those individuals may have been hospitalized for many years. It’s possible some of them had never experienced a ‘regular’ Christmas with a ‘typical’ family.
I no longer recall how many other children were caroling with us – my younger sister and older brother and me – but I’m sure there were several because I remember some of the ‘staff children’ in other contexts.
Some time prior to one of these caroling episodes, we learned that my Dad’s keester had been kicked by a patient. It was not completely uncommon for hospital staff to be accosted by some of the more agitated patients … though most were reasonably behaved when we were present. However, that business of being kicked-in-the-keester rose alarms with my older brother and me. At his suggestion – and with my full concurrence – as we caroled in each ward that evening, my brother and I kept our backs glued to the walls. Nobody was going to sneak up behind us!
At the end of at least one of these caroling episodes on the wards, we also went from house to house – on the hospital’s fenced and gated grounds – to several small brick cottages where certain staff lived with their families. At some of these, we were invited in for refreshments. [I assume, now, that this was pre-arranged … but at the time it always surprised me.]
The Remains of the Eve
I don’t remember the ‘clock’ aspects of this experience. It was always dark when we got home, but I’m not sure when we started. Many of the patients were in robes and what looked like PJs, so it may have been evening when we got there. Or, perhaps those patients wore robes and PJs most of the time. Not sure.
Anyway, once we got home from caroling each Christmas Eve night, my Mom made hot cocoa. Not poured from an envelope into boiling water. This was the good stuff: whole milk warmed in a sauce-pan on the stove … with rich, powdered Hershey’s cocoa mixed in. And I think she added sugar, since the Hershey’s was for baking. However she prepared it, that cocoa is still the best-tasting hot chocolate I can remember over a span of six decades so far.
After hot cocoa was served, we gathered around our family tree in the living room and opened our Christmas presents.
Meant quite a lot
As I said, these caroling ventures at the mental hospital were undertaken “for the patients” … but I firmly believe it meant quite a lot to the staff and their families. As I phrased it in my 1983 account of those childhood years: “… the experience was as warming to our hearts as the cocoa was to our tummies when we got home.”
I hope I never forget that warm feeling … or the true reason for this season. Merry Christmas to everyone … and May God Bless You!
Sweet story Jeff. For the past 20 years my family hosts a Christmas eve party for people without family or close family to enjoy the night with. Everyone gets a goodie bag and for some this is the only gift they’ll have. It’s grown by a few people each year as guests ask me if one more person might along. I’m expecting 41 people this time around. It’s a fun and exhausting evening. Happy holidays to you and yours.
That party you host for all those folks is surely a wonderful gift to many.
I don’t think I’d have the constitution to have 41 guests, and I’m sure it IS exhausting.
Bless you for doing this.
What a fine story, Jeff…thanks for taking us back with you .Interesting that you said how much you got from it all…two quotes come to mind
[One]:”It is in giving that we receive” and as for the patients getting something out of the caroling,I am sure that most did.Many who were there would be with families these days and after all,
“Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.”
Have you made cocoa with REAL cocoa Jeff? I started doing it for myself once in a while about 10 yeras ago when I got stuck with a great deal of cocoa after I closed the bakery.It is worth the try, believe me. As I learned from my mother,(mine made it that way, too): first use a little boiling water to remove all the lumps and make a paste of the cocoa in your cup, add sugar and then the hot milk…the cocoa will disolve and your drink will be smooth.
Make one for Denise, she needs the comfort ….and attention!
I don’t know if I’d even recognize REAL cocoa, Tonette.
My mom used to buy semi-sweet choc. bars which she used for baking some things.
And she always had a tin of Hershey’s baking choc. powder … which she used for others. I have no idea which was which.
But she always knew if we snuck in and snitched a square of the semi-sweet!
A heartwarming story, Jeff. I might add how fortunate you were to be able to experience as a child such a meaningful gift, the caroling to these patients who, as you said, may have never had a normal Christmas.
Many years later, as an adult in a diff. community, our Sun. Sch. class went to a nursing home and sang carols. Most of those residents really lit up while we were there … and I could tell some were hungry for visitors of any kind. Made me rather sad … though still very glad that we could participate in that brief positive experience.
What a lovely story. thanks for sharing it with us. As a teenager, I went with a church group to deliver gifts to poor people, an experience that opened my eyes
I’ve spoken with many people who have gone on similar delivery runs. None have ever regretted it and most — like you — felt very enlightened.
Many better realized how fortunate they were.
Beautiful accounting of a special childhood memory, Jeff. It seems it’s exactly those sorts of memories that shape our attitudes as adults, so your father (and your mother!) deserve a hug and round of applause for instilling selflessness. It isn’t easy to organize something like this, and it takes effort and real determination to gather up a group of kids! lol I know your father, like mine, has passed on; but nothing can dispell the warm memories!
Being from frigid Detroit, our father always had us involved with distributing blankets and food baskets. I remember one particular grizzled homeless man in a shelter. Still jolts through me every time I relive a grown man hugging a simple blanket like it was a lifeline or his favorite teddy bear. Grew up that day, I do believe.
Merry Christmas to you and your family! Have a safe and Blessed holiday. (And here’s to MAMA MADE hot chocolate! There’s nothing like it in the whole wide world!)
I love that image of the man hugging his new blanket.
I know a good bit about street people — from personal experience and research — and I know that theft is one of their biggest enemies (after weather and hunger).
Your family was wonderful to distribute those food baskets and warm blankets.
Wow! Just…wow! I often wish I had memories like that. And while I have no doubt that homemade cocoa was indeed delicious, I believe the circumstances surrounding that cocoa make it so sweet in your memory today. I can only hope that my kids will look back on the memories we’re making today with the same kind of fondness you have for yours.
Merry Christmas to the “cute Thursday blog guy!” 🙂
Thanks, Micki, though I ain’t so cute anymore since I’m a year older. Ha.
And you’re prob. right about the contextual experience enriching the memory of the flavor.
Similar thing about favorite songs. I can remember what I was doing when I heard certain songs … or, rather, I assocaite certain circumstances with certain songs.
What a wonderful story, Jeff. Thank you so much for sharing yourself with all of us. You are one lucky guy to have had such great parents who taught you the real meaning of Christmas in the best possible way. Words are one thing, but putting action to your beliefs is ever so much more powerful!
I’m going to try making hot cocoa from scratch tonight with my kids!
I’m sure you already know this, but when you warm milk in a saucepan, it eventually forms a ‘skin’ on the surface. My siblings and I used to think the skin was yucky and did our best to avoid it. Ha.
My mother made REAL hot chocolate, too. Thanks, Jeff, for the trip down memory lane–I just scorched my tongue….
Merry Christmas to you, too, Sandra.
Yeah, it was easy to burn one’s tongue on home-made cocoa … because of the eagerness to taste it.
I am not surprised at your upbringing and that your parents taught you to think of others with kindness as you reflect that today. Your posts from Possom Trot illustrate that you are a very gentle thoughtful man WITH a great sense of humor. As your mom did my mom made hot chocolate from scratch as she made EVERYTHING from scratch. She also cooked three meals a day. I heard my daughter bragging one time that I cooked a meal every night. Well, times have changed!
My favorite Christmas memory is a Christmas where we shared our table and a few gifts with a very poor family whose house had burned to the ground with everything little thing they owned going up with it. Now please understand, my father was a carpenter with a 6th grade education who worked at an Agricultural School with people with not only undergraduate degrees, but advanced degrees also. We had a sturdy roof over our head, clothes on our back, food on the table and paid our bills on time, but there wasn’t much left over after doing all of that. It was a yearly tradition to pick up pecans to sell that help fund our Christmas presents, plus buy our winter school clothes (which were the major part of our Christmas gifts). Daddy’s best friend and fishing partner knew this particular family in need and they worked together on it. I just know that I NEVER felt so rich as I did that Christmas that we shared with a family that was needier than us.
Merry Christmas Jeff to you and your wonderful family!
Sug, I love your recollection of hosting that destitute family. I’m sure it was a sacrifice for your Dad & Mom, yet they obviously saw the value of their action — both for that family, for themselves, and for the impression it made on you and your brother.
Merry Christmas to you, also.
If only we could go back to the simplicity of such Christmas memories as this. It seems with enlightenment comes ever more commercialism.I have fond memories of visiting nursing homes with my high school choir group up in the Detroit suburb where I grew up. Great memories here – thanks for sharing. May the holiday bring you and yours many blessings.
Glad to see you here, Kay. And thanks for the plug from your site!
I know those visits you and your H.S. choir made near Detroit were very meaningful to those residents. I wonder how much of that kind of community outreach still goes on today. Hopefully it’s still plenty and often. The nursing home residents seem to be so appreciative of such efforts.
Many blessings on you and yours, too.
My season has been a bit of a rush this year (ugh!) so stories like yours keep me grounded in the reason we do this all. Thanks, Jeff. And a very merry Christmas to your and your family!
You’re very welcome, Laurie.
Each year, the holiday season seems more pressured and stressed — for many folks, for many reasons. And I also love seeing / hearing uplifting stories of people reaching out to others. Like those un-connected individuals who’ve gone to large retail stores and paid-off the layaways for people who appeared to be needy.
Merry Christmas to your household.
What wonderful memories, Jeff. 🙂 Thanks for sharing them with us. We used to do the Christmas caroling with the youth group at our church. Off we’d go through the neighborhoods riding on the back of a trailor filled with hay. So much fun and people even came out of their houses back then to listen. The smiles were priceless. My brother and I still laugh over some of the funny mishaps that seemed to happen each year along the way. LOL
Wishing you a Very Merry Christmas too!
Gosh, Melissa, braving the winter weather in the back of an open hay trailer! That’s a whole lot rougher than I’ve ever tried.
That said, it sounds like a terrific combination of fun, adventure, and reaching-out. I’ll bet the people down the block watched and waited eagerly as your truck/trailer approached their houses.
Thank you for sharing. I don’t always leave a comment but I look forward to your weekly posts.
Wishing you and yours a VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS and may you add to your collection of memories.
Very pleased to have you visit, Lavada, whether or not you have opportunity / inclination to leave comments.
Thank you for your kind wishes … and Merry Christmas to you as well.
Growing up in Brooklyn, our family would do the typical Italian seafood thing the eve before Christmas. No meat, just a ton of different fish dishes. And cannolis for dessert. Mmmmm…Just can’t seem to find a decent cannoli in CA. It’s ok though; I’d rather have the better weather!
Glad you could make it, Tiffany.
Which part of CA are you in? We lived in Sacramento for nearly a year. It was very cold in the winter, very rainy in the spring, and quite warm in the summer. Don’t remember the autumn.
I’m in Southern CA (San Bernardino County), which is warmer than up north. I lived in Santa Cruz for a lot of years and the winters were pretty chilly. I have to say San Diego has the best weather in CA, but my blood’s thinning out, so I’m guessing in 5 years the only place warm enough for me will be Hawaii!
Whenever we’d drive up to San Francisco, the weather was always 15-20 degrees cooler than in Sacramento.
Tiffany, being from the New Orleans area, we followed a local tradition of having seafood gumbo served over rice with traditional N.O. crusty French bread for the Christmas Eve evening meal. And then for Christmas Day, the traditional turkey, sometimes with oyster dressing.
While living in Connecticut for 2 years, our NY Italian neighbors shared cannolis with us but also a home-made Christmas-tree shaped tower of light pastry drizzled with a cooked honey sauce. It has an Italian name our neighbor called it but I don’t remember. But in Germany I think a similar dessert is called a crockenbouche. Does that sound familiar?
Yo,Ted,I think you are talking about what other people call ‘Strufoli’ , but my nonna called ‘(sp?) “Castanioli”. Funny, I was just thinking today about trying my hand at them to surprise my sister for New Year’s Eve!
I hope you have,(had) a great Christmas and a fantastic 2011.
Yep … that’s it. Strufoli. Thanks, T.I.!
What great memories, Jeff! One of my favorite childhood Christmas memories is that of the Christmas Eve candlelight service. Then, more than any other time, I felt the spirit of Christmas. And when my dad had to work at the fire station on Christmas Day, we’d go home after the service and open our presents. That serenity from church enveloped the evening, and it was truly magical. Of course, I was an only child. Now, with six children of my own, the holiday is anything but serene. :c)
Merry Christmas, everyone!
In the immortal words of George Constanza’s dad [in the Seinfeld series]: SERENITY NOW!
I did not realize you were raised as an only child, Sarah.
My Mom was and my bro-in-law was.
Amen…and to you, Jeff!
Thank you, Tess.
Glad to see you here again!
Jeff, thanks for sharing your story and memories. Everyone has fond memories of the season as you should, those are the ones that we keep near and dear to our hearts. My favorites consist of being a small child and waking up to see the family all together , christmas tree and all.
Yes, Denise … those earliest years hold all the magic and anticipation. I loved those also.
Merry Christmas Jeff!!! Hope you have a wonderful holiday!
Thanks, Lisa. The best Seasons Greetings to you, also.
My buddy Jeff, former residents of the same hometown and same high school class alumni, asked me to post a remembrance. This is just one of many growing up in Covington, La. Is there something about Walker Percy’s adopted hometown that makes people want to write? I dunno. But here’s my offering with Merry Christmas wishes to all and a bit of Spanish moss gracing the Christmas tree.
Until I was about ten or eleven, Santa always arrived overnight Christmas Eve and we had the traditional bedlam of opening packages and enjoying Christmas gifts on Christmas morning. About the time my younger sister was three, my parents started a new tradition. It hearkened to the New Orleans, Olde-World, German immigrant roots of my mother’s grandparents in that we would celebrate the exchanging of gifts on Christmas Eve rather than on Christmas morning. I suspect there was also an element of ‘getting it over with’ that my parents may have wanted to do so that Christmas Day could be devoted specifically to preparing the large and wonderful holiday meal (we were from south Louisiana, after all, and holiday food was as much a centerpiece as the tree in the living room). Yet perhaps the most important reason for this change in tradition was that my precocious younger sister may have been ‘coming of age’ a bit early and was beginning to doubt the existence of Santa Claus. My parents had a plan with a touch of the devious.
To accomplish this change in routine and to allow Santa to slip into our home to do his thing, we all piled into the two-toned ’58 Chevy Brookwood station wagon at nightfall to “go see the lights” as we called it—-to enjoy Christmas lights decorating homes around town. When we returned home and entered the living room, then what to our wondering eyes should appear but Christmas laid out in splendid array under and about the tree. Santa had come down the chimney while we were out. Apparently our house on 12th Avenue was one of his first stops while we were absent to “go see the lights.” My little sister was totally thrown off for a moment wondering how Santa had arrived when both our parents here with us in the station wagon.
It gave her reason to believe.
And in later years as a parent myself, I have come to suspect this bit of foolery that morphed into family tradition was as much a convenience for my parents as it was wanting to keep my little sister in Santa-believing childhood for a few more years. The advantage for parents was to avoid the bleary-eyed ritual of waiting till my two sisters and I were fast asleep before pulling out the gifts and so forth. This was a ritual with which I became all too familiar: wrapping presents, assembling bicycles and stuffing stockings till 2 a.m, falling exhausted in to bed only to be awakened a mere four hours later by the heavy pitter-patter of little feet and incessant, exuberant chatter as my children discovered Christmas morning.
This switch in our family tradition was accomplished, it turned out, by my dear grandmother who lived a few blocks away. While we were out and about, she simply drove down the street to our house and put out the presents in a prearranged scheme.
Nothing was said, but I could tell by her smile as she re-entered our back door after having returned to her house for a nominal amount out time I presume, that it was my “Nanny” who was in cahoots with Mother and Daddy. My “Nanny” was Santa Claus.
From that Christmas Eve and beyond. the exchanging of gifts and arrival of Santa became an ‘eve’ thing. The next several Christmases, having figured out that driving around town to see illuminated Christmas decorations meant Santa could slip in, my little sister, eager to have long-awaited Christmas arrive, began asking to “go see the lights” starting at three in the afternoon. As exasperated big brother, I remember telling her “But we CAN’T see the lights if it isn’t dark yet. The people don’t turn on the lights until it gets dark outside.” I suspect that Deep South childhood scene was like big brother Jem explaining life to little sister Scout.
The circle keeps turning. Perhaps in a few years, if my precocious granddaughter begins to doubt Santa’s existence, my daughter and I can hatch a similar plot. After all, I live but a few blocks further from my daughter’s house than my Nanny did from ours those many years ago.
Wonderful anecdote, Ted. And I can picture the look on your younger sister’s face! Your folks were really wonderful to go to that much trouble.
I’m struggling to remember your grandmother … but don’t seem able. Did she go to FBC?
Merry Christmas to you, your boys still at home/college, your daughter(s), and the grand-kids. and, of course, to Diane.
Yes, Jeff. She was very active at FBC. She lived in a little brick house on the corner of 17th Ave and New Hampshire, Will see if I have a photo I can scan and email.
I miss caroling! Seems like something we expect our youth groups to do these days. When I was growing up, we had a mixed-age group for door-to-door caroling, as well as a church youth organized to visit hospitals and nursing homes. My experience with the state mental institution came later, when part of our abnormal psych class grade was to visit the “Sunshine Club,” where residents who earned enough good behavior points for the week could have a recreation evening. That’s where I met a high-school age kid who told us about being left on Earth by his parents from Uranus.
Chris, that sounds like a Close Encounter of the Third Kind.
Jeff, I hope you & your family have a merry Christmas. What a lovely post. Makes me nostalgic for when I was little & the holidays were really something special. I hope you enjoy yours. XOXO
Thanks, Katharine. The best to you and yours, as well. Merry Christmas!
What a wonderful memory, Jeff! What I remembere about Christmas from my chldhood is a tree with a multitude of presents (5 kinds, 2 adults, do the math) and we got to open our family gifts on Christmas Eve and the gifts from Santa on Christmas morning!
I think that’s a great way to divide the enjoyment: family exchanges on Christmas Eve and ‘Santa’ gifts the following morning. We’ve always had it jumbled up.
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What beautiful memories you have with your family. I make my hot chocolate with Hersheys Cocoa and have to add sugar and it is so good.Wishing you and Denise a very blessed and merry Christmas. I love your stories.
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Such lovely memories. I am sure that the patients truly appreciated it. I have cousins who go caroling at the hospital here, we had been invited to go along for a few years but they always do it during the big family gathering on the other side of the family so we could never attend.
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Thanks. As I remember, it was a big hit with the staff and the patients. After my dad left, however, I don’t think they continued that tradition.
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