For many early decades, there were countless staff families who grew up on the grounds of the Provincial Mental Hospital near Ponoka, and even though we didn’t always get along, each and every one of those tots to teens couldn’t wait to gather together for the annual jolly children/staff Christmas parties.
Every year between Christmas and New Year’s, usually on the 27th or 28th of December, there was a delightful event that hospital staff children looked forward to almost as much as Christmas itself.
It was fondly called the annual “At Home” and organized by the hospital for all children of staff members. This definitely was the social event of the year, with flashy festive party clothes saved just for this occasion, and excitement mounting to a joyful frenzy as darkness fell on that special day.
This was the only time of the year when children were allowed into the hospital itself, as all doors were always locked and could only be opened by enormous iron keys carried by the staff.
But on this night, the huge double carved oak front doors at the main building were opened to welcome us all. It all began at precisely 6:30 p.m. when the doors to the staff dining room swung open and a whole bunch of wide-eyed children were invited in and warmly greeted by Miss Stacey, the head dietitian, and Dr. Maclean, the medical superintendent.
We were shown to our places at round tables, each seating 10 and were gaily covered with white linen and sparkling silverware. At each place setting was a tall glass of red fruit punch, a once a year treat which to us was most exotic.
Tied to each chair was a red or white balloon and beside each place was a firecracker — red and green alternating. For several minutes, the room was filled with loud pops and screams as we pulled the crackers with our neighbors and donned the paper hats contained within.
This wonderful meal was for children only, while our parents stood around the perimeter of the room or visited out in the hall while we feasted.
The meal was a traditional turkey dinner, prepared by the regular kitchen staff, and included roast turkey, with sage stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes served in perfect round scoops and covered with velvety brown gravy, peas and carrots and fresh buns made in the hospital bakery.
We never told our mothers, but most of us agreed that it was all much better than the Christmas dinners we had been served at home, especially the grand dessert finale of Neapolitan ice cream and plates of Christmas cake.
Our meal was served to us by off-duty student nurses, all looking superb in their uniforms, and the atmosphere was always very dignified and elegant. We were treated and served like guests of honor and we responded by being on our best behavior.
The clearing of our now empty dessert plates would signal the end of that magnificent dinner, after which we left the room, shook hands with Miss Stacey and thanked her and the staff for the lovely meal as was earlier instructed by our parents.
It was now time for phase two of this very special evening and this involved moving from the dining room to the Recreation Hall, which was a most delightful and exciting activity as it was a vast distance through the maze of long narrow corridors that passed by at least five different locked wings of the hospital.
Of course we ran all the way, with our patent leather shoes slipping on the gleaming brown battleship linoleum floors and the noise was enough to awaken everyone on the grounds.
That run to the old Recreation hall was more exciting than what happened when we actually got there. These activities varied from year to year, but most often it was a Christmas concert at which we, the children, were expected to perform.
The program was predictable, as two girls would sing two duets — ‘Santa Lucia’ and ‘Sing a Little Song When You Are Happy’ — and yours truly (Yvette Stack) would play two pieces on the piano as would a few other piano students.
Someone would then do an energetic tap-dance, another sang ‘My Grandfather’s Clock’ and a guest from town would sing ‘The Ash Grove’ or ‘All Through the Night.’ On several occasions, there would be a staff choir to sing seasonal music and Mr. Ferguson, a long-term patient with some paranoid tendencies, would sing ‘The Road to Mandalay’ and ‘Keep Right on to the End of the Road.’ There always seemed to be a group of men who sang ‘Men of Harlech’ as ours was a very WASP community, with a strong Welsh presence.
Sometimes we were shown the movie of a Dickens Christmas Carol, which no one really enjoyed that much as we had seen it several times and usually the film projector would break down. But eventually it was all over, and then it was time for another highlight which was the glitzy and glorious arrival of Santa Claus in a real sleigh, laden with a net sack of goodies for each of us.
Magically, he knew each of us by name and could even chide with us about specific misdeeds committed during the past year. No matter about that this night, every child got a bag containing a Christmas orange, pecans, Brazil nuts, filberts and walnuts and quantities of beautiful Christmas ribbon candy.
Sadly, this was the end of the evening for the young children, but just the beginning for the adults, for whom next would soon come the dance. But first, the tired young children were taken home to sitters while the babies and toddlers were put to bed in an empty ward to be cared for by more off-duty student nurses. Some of the older children were even allowed by their parents to attend the dance.
Music at the hospital dances was provided by an excellent live orchestra made up of staff and patients, who played big band type music that featured Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey hits as well as tunes by Glenn Miller and Harry James. One of the band’s best players was a trumpeter named Fred, a patient who had been in the hospital for several years and had earlier played for some of the big bands in the United States.
Besides our parents and all the married couples, the dance was attended by the many single student and graduate nurses and male attendants who worked at the hospital and lived in residence. At midnight, a lavish cold supper was served that included turkey, ham, fish, salads, buns, sweets and a non-alcoholic punch. Dancing resumed again after this, with the whole grand affair winding down around 2 a.m. and everyone always went home from this traditional Christmas celebration with many fond memories.
– with contribution from Yvette Stack