Santa's Little Helpers

18th December 2009

Looking forward to a day of rest, after all that chaotic preparation?

Spare a thought for those for whom Christmas is just another working day.

No, not the elves.

Heather Harris talks to some of the unseen workforce…

“At least Santa gets the rest of the year off…” grumbled my six year old, when I explained that Dad going to work on Christmas Day was just like Father Christmas.

Unlike Santa – and Doctors, Policemen or MI5 agents, all of whom my son accepts are indispensible – my husband is one of those forgotten festive workers. He’s in the Motorway Service Station industry. When you need a large espresso at 8am on the M1 on the 25th, then he is a life saver, but not in the traditional sense.

As Paulo Amador, Duty Manager at Watford Gap Services (Southbound), told me, “I’ve worked for Roadchef on Christmas Day the last four years. People don’t want burgers, but what they do want are those last minute Christmas presents from our WHSmiths store – oh and coffee!” Paulo’s not complaining, though. In his view, “it’s a great day to work because everyone is happy and far more patient than usual!”

RAC man, Reg Clarke agrees. He regularly patrols our festive streets and can’t believe the changes he has seen. “The roads used to be deserted on Christmas Day but now the M1 is hectic! It’s sad… I think it’s losing a bit of its magic.”

Coming from a large family, Reg explains that it’s always been easy to go ‘awol’ at Christmas, and he always volunteers for a shift. This year he’ll start at 7am (just after Santa clocks off) and go through to 6pm.

“The office is great and always tries to schedule me a job near home at lunchtime so I can nip back for my turkey. And it gets me out of the washing up!”

Like other 365-day-a-year businesses I called, RAC says it has no problem getting volunteers to work on Christmas Day. The increased pay helps, too, of course.

Chef James Harkin, from the Alpine restaurant in Bushey, agrees, “We’ll have five chefs feeding our 110 lunch guests – and all were willing volunteers.”

Many of them are not from the UK, so they prefer to take the time off when the restaurant is quiet, so that they can fly home for a longer period. Being the father of a son who is still a baby, James doesn’t yet have the ‘guilt trip’ of a pleading child as he leaves home. In any case, he has a solution. “I simply move Christmas Day to Boxing Day. I work from 7.45am until 6pm on the 25th and then gear myself up to play Santa on the 26th.”

But there’s just one problem this year. Boxing Day 2009 falls on a Saturday, so after polishing off his final family sprout, James has to sneak out to start peeling again for his Saturday evening customers (those who, just a day earlier, were announcing they’d ‘never eat again’ after devouring an entire box of Quality Street after their turkey and Christmas Pud).

The retail trade is also faced with the date dilemma… to open or not to open at Christmas?

Usdaw – the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers – has a very clear position on this. As their General Secretary, John Hannett, said in his official festive statement (much like the Queen’s but with fewer family photos and references to the Commonwealth, “Usdaw is urging retailers not to open shops on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Usdaw believes that Christmas is a special opportunity for workers to enjoy a break and to spend time with their families”.

And so say all of us…

…Except the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS). They represent over 33,000 small retailers, and, as their spokesman told me, “for business reasons, many of them are opening on Christmas Day.”

He gave me the example of a store in Eltham that took an entire day’s takings in just four hours last Christmas Day. “It’s amazing what people forget to buy,” adds the spokesman. Even turkeys, apparently. “So he’s offering a valuable service.”

Radio DJ Andrew Peacock agrees, “People have to remember that for some, Christmas is a tough time – so they don’t want everything to stop.” A presenter on Hertfordshire’s Mercury 96.6, Andrew will host this year’s Breakfast Show live from the Watford studio from 8am until noon on Christmas morning.

“Loads of children ring in, telling me what Santa bought them, but also people call who are lonely and just want a chat.”

A DJ for the past 22 years, Andrew is used to working unusual hours and happily puts his turkey in at 7am so it’s ready when he gets back. “And we just move the family Christmas to a week before…”

In other cases, seasonal workers move their festive celebrations to another country and time zone. British Airways Stewardess 34 year-old Becky Sullivan is busy organising a festive meal in Prague for all the crew when their flight lands at 5pm on Christmas night. (Strike action permitting…)

“Our passengers flying on Christmas Day don’t tend to be British and so the flight is relatively ‘normal’ but I do like to celebrate Christmas with colleagues when we land. I might not even know all of them but still like to buy little presents to give out.”

For Cornish vet Nicky Paull ‘moving’ Christmas never quite works. No matter when or where the turkey comes out of the oven the phone can always ring.

“We know that if someone does call on the 25th it’s a real emergency. It’s usually one of the farmers with a calving cow or a dog with a twisted stomach,” she explains.

She’s also had the occasional panic call asking for advice on what to do with the hamster that Santa’s just delivered (never a good idea to buy pets as presents, she reminded me.)

“The real dilemma is the hand over time,” she laughs, recalling that last year she was due to end her shift at 8.30am on Christmas morning having worked through Christmas Eve…

“And then I got a call at 8am from a farm 25 miles away, about a cow with a prolapsed uterus… which I knew would take a long time to treat!”

Nicky’s charitable Christmas spirit kicked in. “I felt too guilty handing it over to my colleague, so did it and managed to be home by 11am… the good thing now is that my children are teenagers so are still in bed!”

There are 13 vets in the group, so juggling rotas is an intricate matter. Time off is given first to those with ‘Santa believers’ in the family.

“The only time I was cross,” recalls Nicky, “was when one of my younger colleagues was called out by a dog owner on Christmas evening. When he got there a party was in full swing and he took ages even locating the owner, let alone the dog. He treated the animal and then someone just shouted at him to let himself out… Not even a thank you, or an offer of a mince pie!”

She hastily adds, though, that in all her 22 years as a vet, this was the exception… most people insist on plying her with festive food and drink!

RAC Reg agrees, and recalls that his most grateful customer was a teenager who had been given some new alloy wheels for Christmas. He’d fitted them hastily in his excitement – only for them to fall off half way down the road leaving him stranded and embarrassed.

“Luckily it took just minutes to get him back home in one piece with pride intact,” Reg laughs, adding that he regularly tows carloads of people and presents half way across the county, “to make sure their day isn’t ruined.”

As you settle down to the umpteenth showing of The Wizard of Oz this year, spare a thought for all those unsung Christmas ‘angels’ who are working or on call – from fishermen to farmers, pilots to priests, security guards to social workers. Remember that, just like Santa and the elves, they’ll each be going beyond the call of duty to make sure that we all – even the hamsters – have a very Happy Christmas…

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