The familiar scenes of Christmas – lazy mornings, squeals of joy from children glimpsing Santa’s deliveries, family members bustling in the kitchen to prepare a meal… and the car engine revving to head off for a day of work. In some retail jobs, emergency responders and a handful of other professions, Christmas day is just that. Another day.
Holly Irvin is a technician in the Abilene Regional Medical Center laboratory, where she has worked since 2001.
“Hospitals don’t close on Christmas, even if there’s not many patients,” she said. “We have a skeletal crew in the lab because generally there are not as many people in the hospital. No elective surgeries, for example. So we typically only have three to five people on a shift.”
The employees usually take turns working Thanksgiving day or Christmas. For Irvin, a Christmas work day wasn’t new to her experience of the holiday.
“When I was growing up, my dad worked shift work, so I was used to the concept of doing Christmas in the morning and having a big lunch if dad worked evenings,” she said. “If he worked in the morning, we’d have a big dinner when he got home. I was used to the idea of ‘the holiday is special when you make it special.’ You just work with your family. It might not be the same kind of Christmas as everyone else, but it is whatever you make it, and it’s special to us.”
The Irvins have learned their own routine of adjusting Christmas plans to fit around a work shift on years when she is scheduled to be on duty for Christmas.
“When the kids were younger, if I worked nights, we had a rule that they couldn’t come see what Santa brought until I got home that morning,” she says. “Sometimes Santa would come Christmas Eve while we were at church, and sometimes he would come Christmas morning.”
The atmosphere is festive and more relaxed on Christmas day in the lab at Abilene Regional with seasonal décor and a catered lunch for employees’ Christmas meal.
“The hospital really takes care of employees,” Irvin says. “They do things throughout December also so that people who work different shifts get special treats, like having a cookie day.”
Last year, Irvin wasn’t scheduled to work on Dec. 25 but was on the back up list if someone called in sick. So a day or two before Christmas when Irvin talked to a co-worker who was scheduled to work and discovered she and her young child had the flu, Irvin knew she’d likely need to re-work her own Christmas plans.
The team spirit among employees means that even when it’s not required, co-workers help each other out to cover the work on holidays.
“The people in our department, and I’m sure other departments too, work well together,” Irvin says. “Not all people can do all areas of the lab, so someone may say, ‘I’ll come help for a couple hours,’ and it’s kind of a team approach with different people coming and doing what they can.”
Christmas day on the job has a more solitary feel for Abilene police officers who often work from their vehicle. Andy Adkins, an evening shift patrol sergeant, says in some ways, working on Christmas can feel fairly routine.
“We’re generally on our own like any other day and just trying to keep the peace when answering calls,” he said. “The only people around are generally our dispatchers and patrol officers.”
Which officers work on Christmas is determined by lottery and perhaps by trading days between officers.
Although working on Christmas isn’t his preference, Adkins said he realized from the beginning it was a fact of life in his chosen career.
“I wasn’t a fan. But, welcome to adulthood. Time to be a grown up,” he said. “Knowing others were working helped.”
With two young children, Adkins said Santa’s annual visit has, at times, had to be adjusted to meet his schedule. He works evening and midnight shifts, so he may miss Christmas Eve activities but is home in time for Christmas morning.
In Christmas of 2008, Adkins finished his shift at 1 a.m. on Christmas morning. His family, however, was celebrating in Dallas that year. Snowfall and poor road conditions had hit Abilene and Dallas that Christmas Eve, and I-20 was closed. After a 12-hour shift, he hit the road to join his family but had to take back roads going about 25-30 miles per hour. The normally three-hour drive turned into nine.
“I was exhausted and been behind the wheel for almost 20 hours,” Adkins said of his arrival to Dallas for Christmas morning. “We celebrated, and then I dozed on the couch while the kids played.”
Abilene residents often show their appreciation for the holiday time and hard work of the APD, with a steady stream of notes, snacks and treats, particularly around the holidays.
“We appreciate the thoughtfulness,” Adkins said.
Susanna Cates, associate rector at the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest, leads a Christmas day service at 10 a.m. The church has two well-attended Christmas Eve services filled with families, but the Christmas morning service offers a smaller, more contemplative atmosphere.
“I have a very special feeling about working Christmas day,” says Cates, who has served at Heavenly Rest for the past two and a half years. “Although it’s a full church service with readings and communion, it’s a quieter service, one of the smaller ones. It’s a very intentional service. People are thinking more about why they are in church.”
Wes Gomer, organist and director of music ministries, has worked at Heavenly Rest for 12 years. He plays the organ and coordinates music at that Christmas day service, as well as the two on Christmas Eve.
Beginning with advent, Gomer says, his workload increases as there are always extra musical events taking place at church. The pace slows a bit for the four or five days after school lets out for Christmas break, and he has a chance to prepare and practice for the Christmas Eve and Christmas day services. On Christmas Eve, he comes in that morning to review and set up, then goes home briefly and usually is back at the building from 4 p.m. until after midnight.
“Sometimes I arrive on Christmas morning tired and a little undernourished,” Gomer said. “But it’s a neat service, and although it’s a quieter service, it’s still joyful. You feel closer to people; it’s like a family service. And I feel closer to the baby Jesus on Christmas day, maybe because it’s less of a show.”
Gomer should know; he’s been participating in Christmas day church services every year since 1977. His extended family celebration has simply adjusted as necessary; he travels to gather with family and relatives at other times during the season.
Cates also tries to visit out-of-town family at times other than Christmas day, and although her Christmas traditions look quite different than the experiences of her childhood, she’s thankful for the change.
“For me, I grew up with big family Christmas but it was not religious, so I had to transition from seeing Christmas in that way,” she said. “Like the Grinch, I feel like my heart grew three sizes. It’s not about the presents or what’s in it for me, it’s more about what God has given me. Now, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’d rather be in church celebrating than not. It’s a joy for me to feel like I’m right where I’m supposed to be on Christmas morning.”
At Fire Station 1 on Grape Street, working on Christmas has an element of predictability. Each shift (about 10 people) works every third day, so a simple glance ahead at the calendar lets the firefighters know when their Christmas day duty will land. Because of leap year, however, workers on the C shift will inevitably work each holiday two consecutive years.
“I’ve been on C shift since I started, and the family has adjusted very well,” says KC Morris, who has been with the Abilene Fire Department for more than eight years. “Since day one, they have known that I might work on holidays.”
When he began as a firefighter, Morris had one young child. Now he has two – ages 11 and 5 – and he says the Christmas days when he works have been able to coordinate fairly well with his family celebrations.
“We just get up early and do Christmas morning before I leave,” he said. “Especially when the kids were little, we were all up early anyway, so it didn’t really hurt me getting there on time. We just work Christmas around my schedule. We get up extra early, or if I don’t get home until Christmas morning, we wait until I’m home.”
Even during the time Morris and other firefighters spend at the station, the holiday work has a family and festive atmosphere.
“Each station is kind of a family,” says fire Lt. Mike Miller. “We sometimes cook a big dinner and invite families to come here to the station. Sometimes there are gift exchanges. It’s a lot like being at home. It’s laid back and relaxed.”
Miller, who has worked with the Abilene Fire Department for 20 years, says the work load tends to be somewhat reduced on Christmas, as there’s less administrative work, and fewer emergency calls due to less traffic and fewer businesses open.
“Of course, it could go opposite way at the snap of a finger,” Morris said. “If weather is bad, for example, we’d have more traffic calls.”
Firefighters have the option to swap holiday duty with a willing coworker. Some who don’t have Christmas day plans offer to swap with a colleague who does, or some will take on a Christmas day shift in exchange for two other shifts.
“Out of 6 years that I was scheduled to work, I maybe worked on Christmas once or twice,” Miller said. “I had someone offer to swap a couple times. I had been on 10 or 11 years before I worked on Christmas.”
But for many firefighters being at the station isn’t so bad after all.
“We are in the station with at least three other guys or more, and it’s our second family,” Miller says. “I don’t know if you’d say it’s easier, but we can sit in the day room and watch TV together. We have more food and snacks than we can we eat. It’s like being with family. That makes it more tolerable and enjoyable.”