Christmas Memories Of Dining With Mental Patients

Now gone, the Philadelphia State Hospital, an institution located in the Byberry region 10 miles north of Philadelphia’s city center, housed thousands of mental patients from 1906 through 1990.

For most of its history, Byberry was a human warehouse, where residents lived under horrible and abusive conditions. Throughout the 20th Century, the name Byberry was often applied by Philadelphians to frighten misbehaving spouses and kids, with the angry shout: “You’re acting crazy! You’re going to Byberry!” 

The facility was also infamous in its abandoned state, as it sat empty from 1990 until finally replaced by suburban housing in 2006. During its empty years, curiousity seekers and vandals would often sneak onto the property and explore its vast (and allegedly haunted) buildings.

Conditions at Byberry had improved somewhat by the 1970s when I originated an annual Christmas dinner event involving patients from the institution. As community relations manager for my company, I recruited a crew of 100 employee volunteers to participate.

I invited Byberry officials to bring several busloads of patients to our office building on a night just before Christmas break. At first, there were some company misgivings about having “crazy” people there, and fears of possible injuries to employees and building damage.

Before the event, I counseled our volunteers that none of the guests would be violent. Further, most of the patients had long ago been abandoned by their families. As with anyone else at Christmas time, they would appreciate enjoying several hours with sympathetic and friendly people.

On the night of the party, the volunteers and some of our kids dressed as Santa’s helpers. We had a huge Christmas tree in our building lobby. We placed a stack of presents under it, each printed with the name of a patient guest. After a catered holiday dinner and singing of Christmas carols, our volunteer elves and a costumed Santa gave out a gift to each patient.

I still treasure the joys and excitement our guests experienced. Though hopelessly warehoused in a prison-like institution, many with no contact with the outside world, they understood Christmas and Santa Claus with childlike excitement. 

I hosted the annual Christmas parties for the patients through the 1970s and 1980s, until Byberry was abandoned and the patients sent to other institutions.

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