Post 42 Christmas Eve in Hospital in Days Gone By

Hospital life has changed a great deal over the last 50 years, no more so than in the way that Christmas is celebrated.  In the 1960s, a unique seasonal atmosphere developed during Christmas week and for those of us who were resident, 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 the night staff decorated the tree, at times when the ward was quiet. Many patients assisted by making paper chains and lanterns to hang around the ward, or to design and fashion a crib which was placed in the centre of the ward - a form of occupational therapy!  

Often 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, (we don’t see them around now, 

do we), gave a prize to the ward with the most festive decorations which cheered the 

patients, lifting their spirits and distracting from other anxieties.

On Christmas Eve, a traditional carol service was held in the hospital chapel. Many patients attended. They sat in wheelchairs in the centre aisle, red hospital blankets around their knees, 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. Just before the service began, the lights were dimmed and the first verse of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ was heard, sung by a clear solo soprano voice, floating in through the open chapel doors. As the second verse commenced, the nurses’ choir entered. The nurses walked in pairs, wearing their formal hospital capes; the nurses in navy blue, the sisters in maroon, crisp white starched caps on their heads, each carrying 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. The nurses then took their places at the front of the chapel and the service began.

The Christmas story was told in readings and carols just as it was told in thousands of churches up and down the country but this service had extra warmth to it, a certain intimacy. The congregation comprised patients, some of their friends and relations and many members of the hospital staff. This was the hospital coming together as ‘family’; 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 a memorable experience.  Without being forewarned, the lights on the ward were switched off, the sound of carols reaching their ears before the choir could be seen. As in the chapel, the choir entered each ward two by two, lanterns ablaze. They walked to the centre of the ward and then formed a semicircle around the tree in the candlelight. Unfortunately there was only time for the choir to sing a couple of carols before they had to move on but it was sufficient to bring tears to the eyes of many of the patients.

Medical treatments have improved greatly over the years but it is sad that these wonderful traditions no longer form a part of modern hospital life.


  1. The existence of such unusual traditions was pleasing to many patients. This made the stay in the institution more diverse and enjoyable for each of them


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