For the past 13 years, Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt staff at its health and dental clinics have played Santa for the 200 residents at the Mount St. Mary extended care hospital in downtown Victoria.
“It’s a long-standing tradition that’s become very special for everyone,” said Sara John Fowler, chief executive officer at Mount St. Mary.
“For many residents, this is their last home and they might not have family here. This might be the only gift they get.”
The process begins in early fall, when navy and hospital staff survey residents for their Christmas wish list. The wishes are posted at the navy clinics, where members can pick a resident for whom they would like to buy a present.
“It might be a favourite biscuit or, one year, a fellow really wanted a Blue Jays cap,” said Fowler. The residents at Mount St. Mary range from those in their 40s to several centenarians. All need an assisted living environment because of injury, illness or old age. The residents include 12 sisters of St. Anne, part of the Roman Catholic order that founded the hospital in 1941.
“The gifts vary, but a lot of people want things like picture books from their childhood — of the Prairies or trains. And many want cardigans and warm socks,” said navy organizer Scott Morgan. This is his third year participating in the gift-giving tradition.
“Everyone who is new to the unit gets brought in. Some people have been doing this for years. It’s part of their family’s Christmas tradition.”
The gifts are delivered by Santa, navy members and their families Christmas Eve.
“We go to each resident, sing carols and have some coffee or eggnog with them,” said Morgan, who plans to bring his five-year-old daughter this Christmas. “A lot of the elderly residents like to let the kids open the presents for them and watch their reactions.”
Morgan’s wife is also a reservist and brings a gift. Morgan said this year he chose to buy for a man who wished for a specialty beer that he also fancies.
The Christmas celebrations at the hospital take place in the village square, a foyer meeting room with a stage and fireplace. It is surrounded by a café, gift shop, spa and reception area, the social hub of the place.
“We hang out here pulling each other’s legs,” said Keith Turner, who is in a wheelchair with limited mobility because of multiple sclerosis. The longtime Victoria milkman moved to the facility 10 years ago, after it became difficult for his wife of 43 years, Liz, to care for him at home. She visits for coffee with Turner and his friends most mornings. “We get to talk but as soon as she sits, she’s up again saying hello to everyone,” he said. The immediate group nearby included his wife and fellow residents Else Jerusalem, whose art hangs around the hall, and Mary Toft, a bubbly Scot who said she prefers to skip the holiday haggis.
Turner said he enjoys Christmas at Mount St. Mary. He played the angel Gabriel in this year’s Christmas pageant and jokes about the year he got a T-shirt from Santa.
“He’s never worn one in his life,” his wife said. I traded it for cookies, Keith piped in proudly.