Sharon Cramer: Tour offers a glimpse of Christmas past - The Buffalo News
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Sharon Cramer: Tour offers a glimpse of Christmas past

“Christmas is so nice, why not celebrate it twice?” I received that explanation in July 1978, when my fellow elementary school teachers announced that we would be celebrating “Christmas in July.” In spite of 90-degree weather, our students excitedly decorated classrooms and hallways with snowmen, holiday drawings and paper garlands. Instead of arguing about who was going to sit nearest the fans in the auditorium, they eagerly practiced singing Christmas carols. At the end of the program, cheers greeted Santa Claus, and Christmas bells were rung.

“Christmas in July” was the title of a tour I led on July 26 at the Richardson Olmsted Complex. In addition to the regular tour, in which visitors learn about the past, present and future of the hospital that served patients with mental challenges who resided there from 1880 to 1974, we invited visitors to learn how Christmas was celebrated in such hospitals during the 19th century.

Through research, I learned that staff members at Utica State Hospital (a 19th century contemporary of the Buffalo hospital) carefully maintained scrapbooks, detailing life in the hospital. Amazingly, these scrapbooks survived the centuries and are now housed in the New York State Archives in Albany. Through the diligence of Daniel DiLandro, Buffalo State archivist and special collections librarian, and Jim Folts, head of reference services at the state archives, I reviewed the scrapbooks, and photographed materials pertaining to Christmas.

Although, unfortunately, we don’t have specific details about what took place in Buffalo’s hospital, likely there were parallels. Utica newspaper reporters visited the hospital each Christmas, and reported on celebrations. Thanks to these meticulously detailed articles, and copies of the holiday programs, our tour members ignored summer heat and imagined the 19th century holiday season.

On our tour, we created a holiday mood by providing answers to anticipated questions. Did holidays occur in these hospitals? Yes, decorations, celebrations (involving local actors, singers and musicians) and special meals commemorated the holidays. Were family members of the patients involved? Annually, the superintendent of the Utica hospital wrote to “relatives, correspondents and visitors” requesting that they send “some gift, no matter how trifling the cost, for your absent friend who now sojourns with us.” Gifts of all types – practical, whimsical, edible – arrived. Care was taken (through donations) to ensure each patient received a gift.

One of the journalists explained how those gifts were received: “Those who must make their homes in the hospital, although they are denied many of the pleasures of ordinary life, partake of the Christmas spirit with the rest of the world, and this is as it should be. Beginning with the entertainment last evening, and continuing all day today, the holiday spirit will prevail and they, too, will realize that this is a day of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Recent Richardson visitors were invited to listen to newspaper accounts, and imagine a structure that was enhanced by employees who ensured joyful holidays for the residents. Our visitors participated in “Christmas in July” by bringing gifts to be shared with the patients at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center this December, as well as by singing 19th century carols. By the end of the tour, one visitor thought he heard sleigh bells ringing.

Sharon Cramer, Ph.D., SUNY distinguished service professor emerita, has celebrated Christmas in eight states and three centuries.

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