Monday, December 31, 2012

An Asylum Christmas

An Asylum Christmas

At the best of times, life at the Kalamazoo Insane Asylum was probably monotonous. At Christmas, however, the staff tried to provide the inmates with a taste of happier times. The process began in early December when letters went out to relatives (or the contact person) of each patient requesting that a gift be sent for Christmas. [1,2]

For more mildly afflicted patients, Christmas morning began with an excursion to the chapel, “as much ablaze as the many lights could make it.” [3] Inside, patients were greeted by a huge Christmas tree adorned with candles and presents. Even Santa made an appearance every year to distribute the gifts. [2,3,4] One year, the inmates were told that “Santa Claus had been seen and that the men had got hocks and poles and had helped him down the chimney.” [2] In 1898, the celebration was amped up. “The asylum orchestra rendered the march from Tanhäuser and the revolution of a magnificent Ferris wheel began. The wheel nearly filled the large stage and was a perfect reproduction of the Ferris wheel seen at the World's Fair. Every portion of the woodwork was covered with puffed bright materials and the entire affair was lighted with electric lights, red, white and blue, which appeared alternately and altogether. The asylum choir sang an anthem.”

In 1894 about half of the 1162 patients were deemed able to attend the festivities. All manner of gifts were received and after being opened and admired, the inmates ate breakfast before returning to their wards until it was time for Christmas dinner. [3] In 1894 the menu consisted of: Fricasseed chicken, mashed potatoes, squash, celery, mince pie, cheese, crackers, coffee, milk and tea. [3] After dinner was over and everyone was comfortable “popcorn, candy, peanuts and raisins were passed around.” [3] It took a lot of food to feed so many. In 1896 the Kalamazoo Telegraph reported the amounts of provisions used for the occasion: 1,350 pounds of chicken, 20 barrels of popped corn, 200 pounds of peanuts, 225 pounds of candy, 300 apple pies, 20 bushels of potatoes, 100 gallons of rice pudding besides vegetables, tea and coffee. [5]

Sadly, only some of the patients grasped the significance of the day. Others only appeared to show interest because the festivities were a welcome digression from the usual routine. “Most of the patients enjoyed the diversion, some were totally indifferent and others grieved over the good time and things that had been prepared for their enjoyment.” [3] Still other residents of the asylum could not even attend the Christmas celebration because their condition was too severe. I'm not sure which is worse, to be so far gone that you don't know the difference or to realize what you have lost. At least the staff seemed to make an effort to raise the spirits of those in their care.

1.  Kalamazoo Daily Telegraph 12-22-1897, P3, col1
2.  Kalamazoo Daily Telegraph 12-26-1898, P4, col3
3.  Kalamazoo Daily Telegraph 12-26-1894, P4, col3
4.  Kalamazoo Daily Telegraph 12-28-1886, P6, col2
5.  Kalamazoo Daily Telegraph 12-24-1896, P8, col3


  1. Great article. I posted a link to it on a comment on a blog post I made which related to the water tower at the asylum.