By Marge Knoth, Author, Activity Professional
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Marge Knoth attended Purdue
University and took her activity
director training at Indiana
University and her social
service at Ball State. She is
the author of ten books for
activity professionals. Her
books have been used as
teaching guides in colleges,
trade schools, and in activity
director courses throughout the
U.S. and Canada. They have
won both national and state
awards from the National
Federation of Press Women
and Women’s Press Club of
Marge has written a monthly
column, "A Letter from Marge"
for Current Activities in Long
Term Care. She has been
published in Family Circle,
Lady’s Circle, Women’s Circle,
Indianapolis Woman, Christian
Science Monitor, Event,
various Christian and craft
publications, and other
magazines and newspapers.
She wrote a weekly newspaper
column called “Do You
Remember?”, and wrote and
recorded a long-running series
of nostalgic radio
commercials. Also, she is a
motivational speaker having
traveled the United States and
Canada speaking at many state
and province activity
Re-living an Old-Fashioned Christmas
(We are running this Christmas article because we know you need time to prepare for
Christmas before we publish our December issue. Enjoy!]
Residents will most likely recall early Christmases spent pleasantly at Grandmas’
house. Those Christmases were charged with excitement. The old goose pranced
nervously about the barnyard, somehow sensing her time was about up. The fire
crackled in the hearth. Dad’s long black stockings were draped on it, awaiting a visit
from St. Nick. Young hearts longed for a plump juicy orange to be found in it on
Christmas morning. Sweet aromas permeated the house: wild turkey, well-cured ham,
luscious oysters, fruit pies, and the irresistible plum pudding. There was no doubt
about it. Christmas was in the air.
As activity directors, we work so hard as activity directors to provide our residents the
best possible Christmas. Unfortunately, it is in the way we think Christmas should be
celebrated. Because we are younger and live in a different era from when our residents
and their parents were youngsters, we may not know how to celebrate Christmas like
they did then. Wouldn’t it be fun to take them back, way back to their childhood at
Grandma’s house, to a Christmas like those they once so eagerly anticipated. Maybe
we could! Let’s time travel back to one of those Christmases their parents told them
about, and some they themselves experienced.
A look back
Preparing for Christmas long ago was no easy feat. Oh, there wasn’t the rush of
shopping as we know it, but even so, months of preparation preceded the big day. After
the children were tucked snugly in bed each night, Grandma pulled her rocker close to
the warm, flickering fire and knitted mittens, scarves, and socks for presents. Weeks
ahead, women gathered together and began preparing cakes, gingerbread, and
succulent sugar cookies. They spent long tedious hours mixing, tasting, and adding
brandy or other spirits to their fruit cakes. Then they baked them in the old iron cook
stove. These goodies were locked in the storehouse with the key tucked safely in the
pocket of Grandma’s long flowing skirt.
The men looked forward to a hunting trip, hoping to shoot any wild turkey, partridge or
grouse hearty enough to still be around. They also went to the woods for evergreen–
cedar, hackberry, holly and pine, as well as mistletoe and red berries which were used
to decorate the house.
Mirrors, pictures, the mantle, and hallways were draped with greenery and accented
with pine cones and red bows. Red cellophane was sometimes wadded up and placed
around window edges for color. Wreaths were hung on doors, and paper angels were
placed in the windows. Long paper chains and nut dolls were fashioned by the children
for the tree. They also strung wild berries and popcorn. During the merry season in
colder regions, friends and neighbors shared a sleigh ride behind old Dobbin, caroling
through the countryside.
On Christmas eve, guest began arriving. After the children were asleep, the tree was
set up and decorated. Real candles were placed on it to be briefly and carefully lit the
next morning. That first glimpse of the tree was a unique delight for tender young eyes.
And then it was Christmas!
In the old South, everyone awoke early to the blast of gun shots as neighbors were
sending traditional Christmas greetings to one another. In most areas the early risers
warmed themselves with rounds of potent egg nog, and snacked on Christmas breads
topped with Grandma’s fresh churned butter and homemade preserves. The breakfast
feast began in earnest as ham, bacon, eggs, biscuits, gravy and other delicacies were
Then it was off to church. Coats were stuffed with wadded-up newspaper for warmth.
The floor of the buggy, or sleigh if snow, were lined with warmed bricks to keep feet
toasty warm on the ride. Affluent people traveled in “horseless carriages”/early
automobiles. As time went on, common people, too, traveled by car. At church, the
Savior’s birth was heralded with songs of rejoicing, and a well-practiced message was
given by the preacher. Once home again, dinner was served. The children patiently
waited the grand finale–the sparkling plum pudding which would be doused with
brandy and ignited. If there were gifts, they would be exchanged. Soon the children
would rush outside to go sledding. The lucky ones had double-rippers, but for many
kids, a lard can lid would take them down a hill just a fast.
Meanwhile, inside, the rugs were rolled up while piano and fiddle music lured guests to
their feet for dancing. The mistletoe that hung overhead allotted young guys and gals an
opportunity for a friendly kiss. Partying stretched on past midnight, and then guests who
weren’t spending the night headed across the countryside to home. But what a day it
had been! Indeed, the grandest day of the year.
“Yes, that sounds wonderfully nostalgic,” you might say, “but how does it affect our
Let’s see if we can improvise a bit and plan an old-fashioned Christmas for our
Reminisce: Begin as early as October and involve residents in lively reminiscent
groups about Christmases long ago. Ask questions. Take careful notes. Learn all you
can. Solicit both happy and sad memories.
What did they eat? What did they wear? What did they do for fun? Did they go to church?
How did they decorate? Did they receive presents? How were they wrapped? Where did
they get their Christmas tree? Did they even have one? How did St. Nick dress? Were
they satisfied with their orange and peppermint stick? What was the best gift they ever
received? Were their toys handmade? What kind of doll did they have? What music did
they play or sing? Did they have a piano? Did they roll up the rugs and dance? Did
someone play the fiddle? What clothes did they wear? How did they travel? Did friends
come to visit? Did they have snow? What is their most memorable Christmas? What
did your parents tell you about Christmases of their childhood?
The questions could go on and on. Prepare a list for your people. You may
want to tape the session and review it later for ideas.
Choosing a date for your facility’s Christmas
As activity director, you probably will have Christmas day off, so choose a day that will be
“Christmas” at your facility–the 23rd, the 24th, whatever. Celebrate it like the real day.
Consider developing an “old-fashioned Christmas” theme in your facility. For the whole
month, involve staff in thinking “old days.” Perhaps they will even dress the part on your
“Christmas” or during Christmas week. If your facility does not frown on publicity, go
public with your old-fashioned theme. Inform the newspaper and the television station.
You might want to open your facility for visits by school children and the public at large. It
is great public relations.
Decorating your facility
Forget about store-bought paraphernalia. Leave traditional decorations in storage and
make or scrounge up natural ones. If you have a fireplace, think about putting a large
braided rug on the floor in front of it. You might set up two comfortable old rockers on
the rug. Hang a large old, oval shaped photograph above the mantle, and natural
looking wreaths on each side of it. Drape some men’s socks on the mantle, and maybe
hang some on the back spindles of wooded chairs placed nearby (if you didn’t have a
fireplace, that’s where the stockings were hung.) Hang old photographs about the
facility. Display old objects: a quilt, baby cradle, candle stick holders, a gas lamp, an old
chest, kitchen items, or even an old saddle and bridle. For items to display, you might
check with an antique store, museum, older people you know, and residents’ families.
Old toys look great near the tree. You might also run an old train around the tree.
Consider a wooden rocking horse, other wind-up toys, dolls, and lots of old teddy bears.
Decorate Christmas trees naturally. Granted, for safety regulations, you will probably be
forced to use an artificial tree and greenery, but make it appear as natural as possible.
Fifty years or so ago folks brightened their trees with artificial candles with a gel inside
that bubbled when they got warm. A similar type candle decoration can still be
purchased where Christmas lights are sold. I found some at Walgreens. Use pine
cones , ribbons, sugar cookies, and resident-made decorations.
Resident Crafts: Involve residents in decorating. Adorn stairways and doorways with
greenery and red bows, and wadded-up red cellophane. Gumdrops wreaths can be
made by attaching gumdrops with toothpicks to a Styrofoam wreath. Resident can
string popcorn and cranberries, and decorate pine cones with glue and glitter. They
look great on a natural tree. They can help make evergreen wreaths by wrapping and
securing greenery around a coat hangar bent to form a circle. Residents can make
simple gifts for their families. Check out the children’s section of the library for quick
and easy ideas, or my book Activity Planning at Your Fingertips, “Christmas.”
Nut dolls can be made using mixed nuts and elastic string. A walnut is the head, a long
nut is the body, and hazelnuts make hands and feet. Join the nuts with elastic string
which becomes the legs and arms. Use hot glue to attach. Residents will enjoy making
paper chains and mobiles with coat hangars. Encourage them to make their own
placemats. Grab a stack of paper placemats from the kitchen (with the food supervisor’
s permission, of course) and have residents paste Christmas cards over the entire
placemat, both front and back. It’s okay for the cards to overlap. Cover this with clear
contact paper, both front and back, so it is reversible.
Cooking: Like the old days, throughout the month of December involve residents in
Christmas preparations. Let them don aprons and roll, cut, sugar, and decorate
cookies. Help them bake nut breads and sweet breads. Solicit family members and
other volunteers to be a “pie partner” to a resident. Buy pie shells and have them fill
them. Short of that, buy cookies and have residents decorate them. Improvise where
you can. While waiting for lunch one day, have residents make Christmas butter. Put a
little heavy cream in small jars (one for each table, and encourage them take turns
shaking it until butter comes. Snow ice cream was a special treat in days gone by (my
grandfather’s deathbed request was for some fresh snow ice cream). It’s simple. Just
mix clean snow, milk and vanilla. Your dietician may be weary of eating snow, so check
it out first.
Activities: Plan fun activities. If there is snow outside, bring a wheelbarrow full inside.
Give each resident gloves and a little snow, and challenge them to build a mini-snow
man. Play old-time Christmas music throughout the month. Invite a bell choir to come.
Enjoy the many carolers who come. Have Santa visit dressed as Kris Kringle, or as the
residents remember him dressing in their childhood. Depending on the country their
ancestors immigrated from, this could even be
in a long black coat with a bag of switches in his hand. Share the history of Santa
Claus, his many names, and how Christmas is celebrated in other countries.
Drive through a Christmas tree farm and let residents watch people choosing and
cutting their tree. Tour the city one evening so residents can admire the lights. Tour
decorated churches. Invite nursery school children to act out the Christmas story. Take
them to a church Christmas program. Have an Advent calendar, and let one resident
each day open a window (the date), and receive the candy behind it. Catholics
sometimes make an Advent wreath symbolizing the 4000 year wait for the Messiah. If
you want to try it, use a round wreath of greenery laid flat on a table, and stand four
candles in it, three purple and one pink. One candle is lit each week during December.
Hold a door-decorating contest and invite a Junior High art class to come and be
creative with each door. Choose an interesting judge: a television anchor person, a disc
jockey, or the mayor.
Have resident make a knotted comforter and give it away in a drawing. Consider
holding a food collection drive. Have residents sort and package the collected food.
Take it to the Salvation Army for distribution to the poor.
Christmas Day: Pass out stockings with an orange and a peppermint stick in each.
Begin your special day with a church service. Make it as authentic as possible. Play a
tape of church bells ringing so the grand holiday can be proclaimed, and at the same
time summon residents who wish to attend the service. If you don’t have a chapel,
arrange chairs and decorate an area to resemble an old-time church. You might even
draw a huge picture of a church or a stain glass window and hang it on the wall. Invite a
clergyman to officiate. When church is over, serve a round of eggnog or non-alcoholic
wine and the Christmas breads baked by residents. Allow the time for visiting. Serve a
fancy lunch, and then settle down to reminisce with an old-fashioned Christmas movie.
Check your library, museum, or video store. There is one available about a Victorian
Christmas. Then there are the traditional movies: It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy
Stewart, Miracle on 34th Street with Natalie Wood, White Christmas with Bing Crosby
and Danny Kaye, and Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. For the evening
entertainment on their Christmas, invite residents’ families. Provide old-time carols on
song sheets and do some caroling. Put on some romantic Christmas music and
encourage dancing. Then, finally, it is off to bed for some very tired seniors.
After so much activity, we don’t want the last week of December to be a “let down” for
residents, but we don’t want it too hard for us either. Invite children in to share their new
toys. Encourage residents to spread pine cones with peanut butter and sprinkle that
with bird seed. They can then be hung outside a visible window for future bird-watching.
Show some more Christmas movies.
Plan a goodbye 2008 party and reminisce over the old year. Set goals and plan
activities for the new year.
Without a doubt, the Christmas season is one of the greatest challenges an activity
director can face, but it is no reason to become over-stressed. With proper planning the
season can be a real joy, not only for your residents, but for families and staff as well.
And you can take the bows because you have given them a full month of great activities.
Merry Christmas and God bless you all. Marge.