Santa Claus for Sixty-four Years

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A small card of thanks appeared in the Creston Review of January 2, 1931:  “The staff of Creston Valley Hospital wish to thank the people of the Valley who were so generous with their gifts of Christmas cheer to the hospital.  Everything was very much appreciated and helped to make Christmas a very pleasant time for those unable to join in the usual Christmas festivities.”

Local produce, meat, and dairy products were being donated to the hospital since its opening the previous August, but the Christmas season warranted something more to cheer the hospital’s five patients.

One of those generous local residents was fifteen-year-old Irene LaBelle.  She was working in the hospital office at the time, and as Christmas approached she and the nurses spent ten cents each to pay for crepe paper and popcorn decorations.  They hung these in each of the patients’ rooms.  Irene felt that this was not enough, so she asked her father for money, saying, “If I had two dollars, I could buy something for everyone in the hospital.”  Her father, Frank LaBelle, gave her the money. She spent $1.25 on linen handkerchiefs from the Creston Mercantile, and distributed them to the patients on Christmas morning.

This was the start of a tradition that would span more than sixty years.

Every year, from 1930 to 1994, Irene chose and wrapped gifts for each patient, and made sure she had a few extra just in case patients were admitted in an emergency.  She went to the hospital on Christmas morning, and visited each patient for a few minutes while she distributed the gifts.

Irene had help with this.  At first, the Creston Hospital Board included the expenses in its annual budget.  In 1949, though, the BC government took over all the hospitals in the province, and the board was no longer allowed to support Irene’s Santa Claus undertaking.  Other community groups helped, including the Creston Women’s Institute, the Hospital Ladies’ Auxiliary, and, most significantly, the Lions Club, which provided the necessary funds for decades.

Irene Labelle and two members of the Creston Lions Club,
visiting Reginald “Happy” Eastlake in the hospital on Christmas Day, 1962

As the local hospital expanded, so too did the number of potential patients to remember, from eleven in 1930 to forty-four in the present-day hospital, built in 1970.  The addition of the Extended Care Unit in 1983 brought the total up to a potential sixty patients to bring gifts to each year.  She also remembered the hospital staff who, because of their duties, could not spend Christmas with their families either.

Her report to the Ladies Auxiliary for Christmas 1950 is a good illustration of her work: “There were 19 patients in the hospital, 5 children, 2 babies, 3 men and 9 women.  Each received a gift, the four boys books, the little girl a doll, the 2 babies rattles, the men handkerchiefs and the ladies, Yardley cologne.

24 members of the staff received gifts, to the nurses an electric kettle for the home, the ward aids, kitchen maids and cook, cleaning women and office girl all received earrings; laundry men, china; and the Hospital Board secretary, cigarettes.  All together 43 people were remembered at the hospital on Xmas Day.”

In 1978, Irene was interviewed by CBC about her work.  Her forty-ninth consecutive annual visit to the hospital was a BC record, and, as the December 14, 1978 Creston Review  stated, “an outstanding achievement.”  She received congratulatory letters from across Canada.

Irene LaBelle did not have a Christmas at home for sixty-four years, but never seemed to regret the fact.  In an interview with the Creston Review in 1979, Irene said simply, “It’s my Christmas too.  I enjoy making someone happy on Christmas morning.” Irene passed away on November 17, 1994.

Originally published December 2010