What’s it really like to work on December 25? Linda Stewart asks five people in a range of careers who won’t be putting their feet up tomorrow.
Dr Paul Baylis (53), originally from Manchester and now living in Londonderry, is a consultant in emergency medicine at Altnagelvin Hospital. He is married to Fiona, a nurse in the hospital’s paediatric ward, and they have two sons aged 14 and 15.
On Christmas Day, Dr Baylis will be working from 10am until 4pm and will then be on call overnight, followed by a 10am-4pm shift on Boxing Day.
“I’ve probably worked most Christmas Days over the last 30 years,” he says.
“It’s usually very quiet in the morning as people are busy at home trying to prepare for their families. In days gone by when kids were getting skateboards, roller skates or bikes, you might have got a few kids into the hospital who had fallen. In the afternoons there might be ladies who had been rushing to prepare Christmas dinner for a big group – so they might have maimed themselves opening a tin or burned themselves trying to get a huge turkey out of the oven.”
In the evening, he says, staff are more likely to deal with the aftermath of family rows.
“It’s the season of goodwill for all men until they’ve had a couple of cans of alcohol and then it’s the season of seething resentment,” Dr Baylis says.
He recalls patching up two brothers-in-law who had ended up in a fight and it turned out the cause of the row was a hedge trimmer that had been borrowed in June.
Dr Baylis says they can find themselves dealing with people who have ignored worrying symptoms at Christmas time, often leading to worse illness.
“People don’t want to get sick on Christmas Eve or Boxing Day, but it’s quite a stressful time of the year and you get more heart attacks around that time. You end up with a lot of very sick people who probably should have come in a couple of days earlier.”
Despite the sobering sights in A&E, he says there is still quite a festive atmosphere. One year, staff constructed a reindeer head out of three urine pots to decorate the wall.
“The main thing for me is that the staff work hard every day of the year and you appreciate them every day of the year,” he says.
“People who work in emergency departments are quite resilient – they tend to be very bright, active and game.
“Once you get to about mid-afternoon it is just another day, but you try to make sure the staff get their breaks and share stories about their year and have a bit of fun.
“My wife’s family tends to come up on Christmas Day and I’ll be pleased to see them in our social bubble when I get home this year. If I am called back in, such is life, but hopefully I’ll get a few hours with family in the evening and take it from there. I always say, if you don’t want to be on the frontline, don’t join the marines!
“What I would say to people is if you have a minor complaint, go to your GP or pharmacist, but if it’s something that you think is serious, you must come in and let us get a look at you. If you have chest pains or symptoms of a stroke, we really do want you to come in.”
THE CHILDREN’S NURSE
Band three nursing auxiliary June Lewis (57), from Dundonald, has been working in the children’s medical ward at the Ulster Hospital for 17 years. She will be working on Christmas Day from 4.30pm to 8.30pm.
“It’s nice in the morning because normally somebody would dress up as Santa, either one of the doctors or there’s a male nurse called Ian who sometimes does it,” she says.
“By the time I come in the evening it’s normally a bit quieter. You are trying to cheer people up because they don’t want to be here on Christmas Day. Normally there is a nice Christmas tea and some of the parents will bring in their own Christmas dinner.”
June says she usually works on Christmas Day or Boxing Day, but you’re never expected to work both.
“The lead-up to Christmas is normally lovely but because of Covid this year, you can’t have people coming into the ward. But in previous years we’ve had the Belfast Giants, Ulster Rugby players, the Lord Mayor, the Salvation Army and church choirs all coming round,” she says.
“The parents are usually with the children, but that’s going to be different this year because only one parent is allowed to be with them.”
This year the ward became a Covid ward, but it ended up being relatively quiet because very few children were catching the virus.
“We had a very quiet year really, because the kids were off school and were not mixing and not picking up winter infections,” June says.
“I’m caring for my mum and dad who are 94 and 87, but it’s a nice balance. This year I’m only doing the evening shift, so I can take them to church on Christmas Day in the morning and organise dinner before I come in.”
Titanic Hotel head chef Nigel Mannion (43), originally from Sligo, will be cooking Christmas dinner in the Belfast hotel on the big day. He is married to Christine and is dad to Lily, Archie and Charlie.
He says there has been a lot of demand this year: “People have been locked down for so long that they want to go out.”
“I’ll get up with the kids, see them opening their presents and I might have a spot of breakfast, then head in about 10am to start preparing for the service at 12.30pm.
“I’m hoping to get away by 4pm and then I’ll go home and start cooking my own dinner. It really puts you off Christmas dinner! But I’ve always done ours. On Christmas Eve I do most of my prep for my own house so there’s only a bit of finishing off – then I’ll sit down with a glass of wine after it all.”
Nigel says there’s a lovely buzz about the hotel on Christmas Day. “It’s good because Santa comes in. I’ve built a life-sized gingerbread house – I did it last year as well and it got a brilliant response,” he says.
“It was a lot of hard work but I’m sitting looking at it now and it was worth it in the end.
“Usually the atmosphere is good, and we’re going to be very busy on Christmas Day – we’ve filled the restaurant now and we’ve started booking for the Drawing Office.”
THE RADIO PRESENTER
Broadcaster Cate Conway (44), from Dunmurry, will be hosting a show from the U105 studio on the afternoon of Christmas Day.
“I’m going to my parents in Carryduff to have Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve after I finish work. I’ll stay there on Christmas Eve and go to work on Christmas Day,” she says.
“While everybody else is tucking into the turkey and stuffing, I’ll probably be having a turkey sandwich. But I’ve no complaints – I don’t mind working Christmas at all. This is my second Christmas Day at U105.
“I like Christmas but I’m not rigid about the traditions of it. I like the whole Christmas time rather than one particular day. I don’t have kids so it’s not the same thing.”
Cate admits it will be very different this year due to Covid.
“Last year I would have sat and had a mince pie with whoever was on before and after me, but with Covid you have to be so careful. So they will be out of the studio and it will be disinfected before I’m going in – we will be waving at each other!
“But the atmosphere comes from the people sending in the messages. Last year was amazing – there were hundreds of messages on Christmas Day. The listeners are the atmosphere.
“I will be in the studio on my own, but you have all the Christmas music and the Christmas quizzes, that kind of thing – lots of shoutouts.”
This year there could well be more people spending Christmas alone in order to stay safe: “I think that is where we come into our own – people know you are there and you are with them.
“I feel every day is like a weird Christmas Day this year. I had to ramp up the festiveness this year and I bought a lot more lights, but I still feel like I am in April – it’s been so strange.
“Afterwards I think I’ll go back to my parents and get more turkey sandwiches. Christmas dinner is my favourite meal of the whole year, but I love just sitting watching TV and eating the sandwiches. I will have a glass of Prosecco, sit back and watch TV and just chill.”
THE SHOP OWNER
Aaron Gray (23), from Newtownabbey, owner of the Station Road Costcutter in Greenisland, Co Antrim, will be giving his staff Christmas Day and Boxing Day off and working himself.
“I announced that we were opening from 10am to 2pm and it had a really good response from customers. People often need a gas top-up or even things like gravy,” he says.
“It’s good for people who are on their own too. This Christmas older people may be spending it at home on their own and some of them are saying they’ll come up anyway, that it will be nice to call up and see somebody. It will be a bit of social interaction for people who can’t go and see family this year.
“They’re enjoying the fact that even though it’s Christmas day they can go and get necessities if they need to. This is the first year we decided to do it. Last year would have been our second Christmas here and we didn’t think about it so much but this year we definitely want to.”
Aaron says he will still have time to spend with his family.
“I’ve got younger brothers aged nine and 11, so they’ll have us up from 5am or 6am for Santa. I’ll come down here from 10am to 2pm and then go home in time for dinner – the most important bit.
“I’ve grown up in the family business and I really enjoy working at Christmas. I think I will enjoy seeing people on Christmas day. Then I’ll kick back and relax until Boxing Day. Usually we have the whole family round but not this year – it will just be my granny. We’ll have dinner and we’ll end up in front of the TV and maybe a board game or two.”