For more than 70 years, these dedicated individuals have given their Christmas mornings in service to others.
Every Christmas morning, Steve Sjogren’s father would join the Salvation Army band for its caroling tradition. When he was old enough, Steve joined, too, and he’s followed the tradition almost every year since. When his children were old enough, they also joined the band.
Now the bandmaster, Sjogren takes about 30 of his band members to the hospitals in Rockford, Ill., every Christmas morning. While most people are celebrating with their families, the band shares with those who can’t make it home, playing Christmas carols and spreading cheer to the patients, their visitors and the hospital staff. It’s one of the Salvation Army’s most direct holiday outreach programs.
“It’s uplifting to those who find themselves confined at this time,” says Sjogren. “The people working in the hospitals enjoy it, too. We even hear that hospital staff members say they’re willing to work on Christmas, just because the Army band is coming to play.”
The band starts its day at 6 a.m., playing for the Christmas morning service at the Salvation Army Corps church, 500 S. Rockford Ave., Rockford. Afterward, the congregation stays for a breakfast, while band members pack up and travel to SwedishAmerican Hospital. There, they split up and play to every floor and ward before doing it all over again at OSF St. Anthony Medical Center. Last year, band members played for patients at Rockford Memorial Hospital, too.
Although it’s an all-morning commitment, the musicians say it makes their day, especially when nurses, patients and families sing along with the music. It’s not uncommon to see a group of onlookers form around the all-brass band. That’s joyous enough, says Sjogren, but the event provokes even more profound reactions from some of the weakest patients.
“We’ve heard from families with a loved one who is not entirely alert,” says Sjogren. “When we play, that individual has come to and mouthed the Christmas carols. Then they go back to sleep.”
Ray Mincemoyer, Rockford, a band member for 30 years, recalls a specific time when a nurse told the band members that, as they were playing, a man had just awakened from a months-long coma.
The tradition of playing for hospital shut-ins, which reaches back at least to the 1940s, started because of the church’s largely Scandinavian heritage.
“The Salvation Army in Rockford was started by Scandinavians, primarily Swedish, who celebrated on Christmas Eve,” says Sjogren. “So Christmas Day would start with a Swedish service, called Julotta. The band would go to SwedishAmerican and OSF, and then play Christmas carols to those who were shut in on that important family holiday.”
Sjogren’s father led the tradition for nearly 30 years, and his grandfather played in the band before that. In some 50 years, Sjogren can recall only one occasion when he missed playing with the Christmas band.
“My kids have grown up, but when they were young, they waited for their dad to get home, and when they were older and in the band, they came along,” says Sjogren. “Now if they’re home, they’ll join in, too.”
It’s the sort of tradition that brings the band members’ families together, too. Mincemoyer, who’s played coronet with the band since 1979, made it his own family tradition. Though his daughters are grown, they joined when they were younger. It’s still common, says Mincemoyer, for young children to tag along with the group.
“A lot of times, band members’ kids will come along and talk to the patients,” he says. “They’ll start conversations with them, or ask them questions, and usually the patients enjoy having them around.”
It’s also a cherished new family tradition for Salvation Army Major Kathy Hellstrom and her family. Hellstrom leads many Sunday morning services, along with the Christmas service, and was at first reluctant to join in on the hospital visit, because of her already-busy morning. Now she loves the tradition so much, she vows it will follow her family when they eventually leave Rockford.
“It really is a wonderful way to help people,” she says. “I think a lot of people would question it, and that’s how I felt before I did it. But now I really enjoy it.”
Hellstrom’s son, David, 17, also joins in, with nearly a dozen other teens who play every year. For the youths, it means an early morning and a late family celebration, but also ample reward.
“Usually I wake up around 5:30 a.m., go to service at 6, go to the hospitals, finish around 10-10:30, then come home,” he says. “It’s tiring, but it’s an awesome experience. It’s a lot of fun, and I think a lot of patients really appreciate us coming out, since they can’t go home.”
In a way, the tradition is the grand finale to a very long holiday season for the Salvation Army. Starting as early as mid-November, the group reaches out to the community through a wide array of social relief programs. In 2009, its holiday programs impacted more than 8,500 Rockford-area residents. Help comes through toy, clothing, food and monetary donations supported by volunteer efforts. A used-coat drive warms about 2,000 children and adults in Rockford every year.
Nationally, The Salvation Army helps about 4.12 million people each winter.
Throughout November and December, groups visit residents at local nursing homes, offering music and companionship. Perhaps The Salvation Army’s most familiar program, though, is the Red Kettle drive. The first bell ringers stood at their red kettles in San Francisco, back in 1891. Each year since, the national campaign has helped more than 6 million people through holiday programs and disaster relief. Starting in mid-November, local shoppers find the familiar volunteers outside area stores. And today’s tech-savvy citizens can help to fill those red pots at RingBells.org. They can log online, sponsor a kettle and then invite friends and family to donate. Though it’s not yet available in southern Wisconsin or Freeport, interested groups can sign up through Winnebago County’s kettle system.
Also in Winnebago County, volunteers may show compassion to inmates at the county jail. One such program lets inmates send a handwritten message to their children, attaching it to a special gift from the Salvation Army’s toy donation drive. In all, it brightens Christmas for about 350 local children. The jail outreach is little-known, says Hellstrom, but very heartfelt.
“The prisoners are so thankful that we would even think about seeing them at Christmastime,” says Hellstrom. “A lot of people think, ‘Going to jail? I don’t want to see those people.’ Truth is, the prisoners are just people who have made bad decisions, but they’re still people. Many of them are so thankful and they’re happy that they can write their own notes to their children.”
Sjogren says the Christmas season volunteer work makes it all the more fun to gather together on Christmas Day. Members enjoy the tradition so much, they’ve also visited hospitals on Easter, for more years than most can remember. The emotional impact of sharing with others, says Sjogren, makes it rewarding for both patients and the band.
“Our band plays for Sunday worship, funerals and concerts, but the Christmas visit is special,” says Sjogren. “We also play at the kettle, but that’s not the same as this, when you go through the hospital and cheer people up. You normally don’t find a brass band at a hospital, and people really enjoy it.”