… 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!