Post 25 Christmas Eve in the Hospital Fifty Years Ago

Hospital life has changed enormously over the last 50 years, no more so than in the way that Christmas is celebrated.   In those days a unique seasonal atmosphere developed during Christmas week and for those of us who were fortunate enough to be resident at that time, celebrating Christmas in hospital was a memorable experience.

Four or five days before the big day, the porters erected a Christmas tree in the centre of the ward.    Each ward had its own box of decorations and it often fell to the night staff to decorate the tree, usually, in the early hours of the morning when the ward was quiet.   Many patients assisted by making paper chains and lanterns, or by designing a crib which was placed in the centre of the ward – an excellent form of occupational therapy!

Invariably the fairy lights, perhaps put away in a rush the previous year, declined to work and this was a busy time for the hospital electricians.    Matron awarded a prize to the ward with the most attractive decorations.   This generated a sense of competition which lifted the spirits of both patients and staff, whilst distracted from other anxieties.

On Christmas Eve, a traditional carol service was held in the hospital chapel.    Patients were encouraged to attend.   They sat in the pews or in wheelchairs in the centre aisle, red hospital blankets around their knees, usually with one of the ward nurses at their side.    A Christmas tree stood at the front of the chapel next to the altar, beneath whose branches were gaily wrapped presents which would later be given to children on the kiddies ward or donated to charities in the city.

Just before the service began, the lights were dimmed and the first verse of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ was heard, floating in through the open chapel doors, sung by a clear solo soprano voice.    
As the second verse commenced, the nurses’ choir entered.    The nurses walked in pairs, wearing their formal hospital capes; nurses in navy blue, the sisters in maroon.    They had crisp white starched caps on their heads and each carried a candle-lit lantern held high upon a long shepherd’s crook.    The light from the candles cast flickering shadows on the walls of the chapel.    It was a moving moment.

The nurses then took their places at the front of the chapel and the service began. 


Matron and her nursing staff, doctors, both senior and junior, as well as managers and members of the ancillary staff all took an active part.   The service was led by the hospital chaplain and the Christmas story was told in readings and carols just as it was being told in thousands of churches up and down the country.    But this service had an extra warmth to it, a certain intimacy.    This was the hospital coming together as ‘family’.    Patients, their friends, family and carers, together with the hospital staff; dedicated, caring people who shared a common ideal, who not only worked together but also worshipped together.


When the service was over, the nurses’ choir led the congregation out of the chapel and embarked on a tour of the hospital wards.    For the patients in their beds, it was an emotional experience.    Without warning, the lights on the ward were switched off and the sound of carols reached the patients’ ears before the choir appeared.    As in the chapel, the choir entered two by two, lanterns ablaze.   They walked to the centre of the ward and formed a semicircle around the Christmas tree in the candlelight.   Regrettably, there was only time for the choir to sing a couple of carols before they had to move to the next ward but it was sufficient to bring tears to the eyes of many of the patients.

Undoubtedly medical diagnosis and treatments have improved greatly since these days, the pace of life in hospitals has increased as has the pressure on the staff but equally something has been lost over the years and it is sad that these wonderful traditions no longer form a part of modern hospital life.

Thoughts for the day


Christmas is the Disneyfication of Christianity

      ‘The Independent’.      Dec 1996

If the Three Wise Men arrived here tonight, the likelihood is that they would be deported.

       Proinias de Rossa      Irish Times       Dec 1997

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Extract from hospital notes: Suppositories given, patient sat on toilet with no result.  Will try again after Christmas.

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