The highlight for many at the world's first hospice came on Christmas Eve, when staff and volunteers processed through the candlelit wards, humming carols and carrying Katie, a three-month-old baby, daughter of one of the ward managers.
This tradition of carrying the youngest child of a member of staff to the patients' bedsides began in 1970. Dame Cicely Saunders, who founded the worldwide hospice movement from such small beginnings at St Christopher's, used to join the procession. This year, at 80, she sat and listened.
"The atmosphere is a very strange, paradoxical mixture of sadness and celebration which, I think, is the reality of Christmas," said the Rev Len Lunn, the hospice's chaplain for the past 11 years. "If the patients are well enough we give them a carol sheet, otherwise they listen. They always want to see the baby and sometimes they want to hold the baby. It's a very powerful symbol of life being in the context of death, a juxtaposition which is very welcomed."
Anyone well enough to go home, if only for a few hours, did so yesterday. Joanne Luker, 64, joined her daughter for Christmas lunch, knowing that if she needed any help or advice the home-care team was a phone call away. "You can't really put it into words what you feel and what you think," she said. "It's not difficult, but it's not easy either because they are so perfect."
Had Mrs Luker not been fit to leave the hospice, she would have been equally happy to stay. "I would have been more than happy to have stayed here with the lovely atmosphere that surrounds the place," she said.
St Christopher's - in south-east London - is "a strangely Christmassy place", as Mr Lunn put it. "We try to make what we do at Christmas recognisable to people who don't necessarily go to church but like the traditional bit. In other words, the candles, midnight mass and the carols. We don't tone down the jollities because sad people don't want it, because I think they do. Dying people and their relatives like the familiar around. It's almost more important to have the familiar."
Dame Cicely's own husband was a patient at the hospice before he died in January 1995. She remembered: "I was in the ward with my husband. A very difficult man died who had been really awful to his children. His daughter took the weeks he was with us to forgive him and to relate to him in a different way. When it was Christmas Day the nurse in charge was able to get in touch with the son, who had always refused to come, and he came to help his sister. He gave his father his last shave."
Christmas has a special meaning for Dame Cicely, whose life's work has been a vocation. "There are many hidden places of poignancy at Christmas, but I know that the way care is given can reach the most hidden places. That can happen at any time of the year and maybe has a special value on Christmas Day."Reuse content