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Rochester and Mayo Clinic bring Christmas cheer to patients

Children and families visiting Saint Marys Hospital were greeted by Santa, toys and spirit-lifting activities.

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Plummer Building
Mayo Clinic's Plummer Building is lit up like a Christmas tree in this photo from December 1951.
Contributed / History Center of Olmsted County

Christmas can be a bittersweet season in Rochester, with so many Mayo Clinic patients here rather than at home for the holidays.

But the community has never shirked from celebrations, and efforts have always been made to acknowledge the sadness some people feel at this time of year, and to offer hope for better times.

On Christmas Eve 1937, one of the most powerful men in Washington, D.C., Harry Hopkins, was himself a patient at Saint Marys Hospital. Hopkins, a key figure in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program, was a frequent Mayo Clinic patient, and was in the hospital recovering from surgery.

Knowing that many children would spend Christmas in the hospital, Hopkins requested that Works Progress Administration toy manufacturers in Chicago, Kansas City and elsewhere send shipments of toys to Rochester. The toys arrived in time to be distributed on Christmas Eve to children in the hospital.

A Christmas party, including the showing of movies and cartoons, and a visit from a doctor playing Santa Claus, was held for 45 sick children. Some of the children were in wheelchairs and portable beds, but others were not able to be moved from their hospital rooms because of the nature of their illnesses. A few of the children had small Christmas trees in their rooms.

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A turkey dinner was served to the children on Christmas Day. Dinner trays were decorated with miniature Christmas trees, candy-stick sleighs and Santa Clauses made of apples and marshmallows, the Post-Bulletin reported.

Likewise, on Dec. 11, 1948, fresh from a children’s Christmas party at Mayo Civic Auditorium, Santa made a detour on the way back to the North Pole. He steered his sleigh once again to Saint Marys Hospital, where he visited sick children, stopping at their bedsides to offer cheer and words of encouragement — and promising to make a return visit on Christmas Eve.

That same year, in anticipation of the large number of people who would want to make long-distance phone calls for the holiday, Northwestern Bell lined up 75 additional operators to work on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. “The flood of calls is expected to be great,” the Post-Bulletin reported.

About 2,000 long-distance calls were expected to be placed on Christmas Day alone, most of them in the morning. Many of those calls would be from Mayo Clinic patients spending the holiday in Rochester.

Callers were warned to expect delays in getting along-distance lines, and were advised to wait until the afternoon or evening to make their Christmas calls. “It’s not that we have more calls on Christmas,” said Neva Penz, chief operator. “It’s that most of them are long calls and they all come at once.”

Starting in 1950, Mayo Clinic’s Plummer Building became the focus of the community when lights in the south-facing windows of the building were lit to resemble a giant Christmas tree. Every holiday season for the next few years, the tree was visible for four nights, starting on Christmas Eve.

The tradition of the Plummer tree was recently restored. Now, the Plummer Christmas tree shines for weeks, bringing light, healing and hope to Rochester’s holiday season.

Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.

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Then and Now - Thomas Tom Weber col sig

Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.
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