Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 18, 2000
Christmas in an institution
Prisoners, nursing home residents face loneliness during festive season
By ANH HOANG
WCR Staff Writer
They celebrate Christmas in Katmandu and Timbuktu. They celebrate it in every city and township in North America. But do they celebrate it in prison?
"People are amazed (inmates) have Christmas dinner," said Reno Guimond, chaplain at the Edmonton Institution for Women. "They say (inmates) don't deserve turkey and presents.
"There's an emphasis on punishment. If someone does something wrong, you want to isolate them from the world. It doesn't work that way. They're human beings, they're still people.
"Even people in churches think you should lock up (prisoners) and throw away the key. They don't think they should celebrate Christmas."
That kind of notion is what Christmas isn't about.
Donna, who did not want to give her last name, has served two months of a three-year sentence for fraud. Her two adult children live in Calgary. They will probably come to visit her a week before Christmas, but will celebrate the holidays with family members closer to home.
This will be the first Christmas she will spend away from her children. Although they are grown, Donna gets emotional when she talks about not seeing them open their presents on Christmas morning.
"Some of these women have had to give up their kids. It's painful. Christmas is the hardest time," Donna said. "You talk about the women here who have young children - they'll miss being with them. But it doesn't matter how old your kids are, you miss not being there with them."
Guimond tries to make the holiday season more bearable for the inmates, particularly the ones with children. The prison hosts a family day social, Christmas dinner, Christmas Eve service and gift exchange. A life size crŠche stands at the centre of the grounds. Decorations are minimal, but festive.
"We try to normalize it a little, I try to identify with what they're going through," Guimond said. "I try and let the women express their pain. And I try to connect that pain with the Christmas story.
"The time they spend here is God's time. It's God's time, not the system's time."
The biggest issue during this time of year, said Guimond, is separation from family. It's a depressing time of year because it's the time of the year most synonymous with family gatherings.
Before working in the prison system, Guimond worked in hospital chaplaincy, where he said places like nursing homes can sometimes be like prisons in terms of isolation. Nursing home residents sometimes spend the holiday season alone.
But many residents like Clara Holdsworth at Youville Home in St. Albert, are blessed to be spending Christmas with their children and grandchildren.
"There are a lot of people who don't get to go out for Christmas," said the 78-year-old, who will spend Christmas with her son and his family in Edmonton. "I'm lucky to have my son here."
Sister Therese Riopel also sees the loneliness some of the residents experience this time of year, which is why she makes the extra effort to visit with residents who have few visitors.
The 75-year-old Daughter of Jesus sister has been a resident of Youville for the past couple of years. She compliments the staff's efforts to liven up the home with red, green and gold garlands. Even the elevator is decorated in festive colors.
"We have singers who come here," she said of the carolers. "There's a lot to do here. We keep busy. It's very nice at Christmas."
There are arts and recreational programs geared around the Christmas theme. Local Church and school groups often visit to sing Christmas songs and visit with the residents. A Christmas Mass and social help to fuel the spirit.
"We're fortunate to be a Catholic organization, we can have Christmas Mass," said Sister Rose-Anne Gauvin, manager of pastoral care services at Youville. "Even people who aren't Catholic, they like going to the Mass because Christmas is Christmas no matter who you are."
About two dozen of the home's 162 residents don't have family visiting or nearby during the holiday season. It's a small population, but Gauvin and the staff try to keep these residents from getting too lonely on Christmas Day.
"Even the staff and volunteers who don't work will come in (on Christmas Day) to visit," Gauvin said. "Those who have to stay here, we make sure they don't get too lonely. It can get very lonely for them."
Guimond emphasizes the true meaning of Christmas is often lost in between the shopping rush and family entertaining. It's also lost in whom we celebrate Christmas with.
"The first people who came in touch with Jesus were the shepherds - they were marginalized.
"Jesus was in prison. He was in chains. He died on the cross with two prisoners. There's a lot of reflection people should make when it comes to prisoners.
"People have to look at the story of Christmas. Jesus did not say because you're in prison, I don't think I will visit you today."
Donna added, "We're all one, we're all from one, It's a respect issue."