The Alternative Christmas

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Christmas greetings card on bed sheet with fairy lights
Not everyone spends their Christmas Day eating too much turkey...
‘It’s an eventful day and usually full of fun, but I have a duty of care so work doesn’t stop'
Nurse at Christmas
Rt Reverend Martin Wharton

We spoke to four people – a footballer, a bishop, a volunteer and a nurse – who have very different Christmas itineraries.

The Footballer

Last Christmas Day was a bit different for 21-year-old footballer Sammy Ameobi. The winger earned a place in Newcastle United’s first team squad for their Boxing Day fixture away to Manchester United – good and bad news. It meant the chance to play in front of 75,000 fans at Old Trafford which is fairytale stuff, but a game on Boxing Day also meant he’d be training on Christmas morning.

‘It’s a strange feeling. All my life I’ve never had to do that,’ he says. ‘So having to go in last year was tough, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. It was a bit of a shock to the system – the roads were nice and quiet though so at least I wasn’t late. We got in at 9am and did an early session so everyone could get home to their families. Christmas Day training is not normally a big session, it’s more designed to keep us ticking over before the game on Boxing Day. After we finish, we spend time with our families, then, if the game is away, we meet up at the airport around 5pm and travel.’

Sammy is used to older brother Shola not always being around on Christmas morning, as the eldest Ameobi brother has played professionally for 15 years and is used to the Christmas Day disruption. That said, Sammy reveals Shola nearly always makes it back in time from training to carve the turkey. ‘I think his wife does most of the work but, just to take the credit, Shola will carve!’ Sammy is a Christian from a big family, so Christmas Day is a big occasion in the Ameobi household. ‘Usually we’ll go to Church in the morning, after that we come back and, depending on whose house we’re at – it’s usually Shola’s – open presents and just spend time together. We only get to see each other every so often and Christmas is one of those times.’

The players are given permission to eat a Christmas dinner but, for obvious reasons, must avoid the Christmas sherry. Newcastle United face Stoke City at St James’ Park this Boxing Day and the players don’t yet know if Alan Pardew will summon them on Christmas Day. ‘We’ll just do what we’re told. It would be nice to get the day off though, but the opportunity to play football is something you can’t really turn down. If we are in it’ll just be like any other day. Everyone will wish each other a Merry Christmas but it’s just another session under our belts to keep us fit before we go home and eat.’

Newcastle’s players have their actual team Christmas celebration earlier on in December, so that nothing gets in the way during what is traditionally a busy period of fixtures. ‘The chefs whip up a Christmas meal for us earlier in the month with all the trimmings and we’ll have decorations up all over the canteen and training ground. We put Christmas tunes on and after training everyone sits down for Christmas dinner together, just like at home.’ There are no Christmas gifts exchanged between players though. ‘We don’t do secret Santa,’ explains Sammy. ‘I might suggest we do that this year. I’m sure there would be some interesting gifts exchanged.’ But what would you buy a Premier League footballer? Surely all they want for Christmas this year is three points at home to Stoke City.

The Nurse

Caring for others on Christmas Day is one of the most rewarding things you can do, according to mental health nurse Hannah Dagg. Hannah works in a care home, predominantly looking after patients who suffer from mental health problems such as severe obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder. As she explains, within the healthcare sector, work doesn’t stop for Christmas Day, which for her begins as usual at 7.15am, when the night team hands over their notes from the previous evening and the day follows a strict routine, starting with breakfast. 

‘Breakfast is at 8am, and after that we pop a Christmas DVD on. Some patients enjoy a good soap, so if we’re lucky we can still catch up on the crazy storylines on Eastenders. At 9.30am, lunch preparation begins, because if lunch is late an incident is likely to occur. ‘One thing that differs on Christmas Day is that we have a communal lunch, where all staff and those patients who can cope sit down and enjoy a Christmas dinner. It’s great fun, and despite being away from home and missing out on seeing my own loved ones, I love seeing the smiles on the faces of the people I care for when they enjoy their dinner. It’s an amazing moment, as they are generally happy and content within themselves.’ 

Care must be taken to avoid any incidents. These can include panic attacks or violent episodes, so it is important to strike a balance between exciting activities and blocks of down-time. ‘After lunch is cleared away, everyone enjoys dancing and singing to Christmas songs and watching A Christmas Carol. After all this hype, patients then have to relax and lie down for a period which is called “snooze line”, which is essential in lowering anxiety and excitement. At 5pm, tea is served, which is usually leftovers from lunch and some are allowed a turkey sandwich, providing they don’t have a choking hazard. ‘Patients are given presents, and staff often give them these later in the day to prevent over-excitement and nerves. At 6pm, it’s wind down time, so a less stimulating activity will take place, such as listening to some quiet Christmas songs or watching TV. At 7pm, we complete our notes and handover to the next shift of nurses, and we finish at 8pm.’

Although her work is often challenging, Hannah believes that the special bond that forms between the nurses and patients makes it all worthwhile. ‘It’s an eventful day and usually full of fun, but I have a duty of care so work doesn’t stop. As it’s Christmas, we assume most people enjoy this time of year, but when you’re dealing with patients who suffer from autism, mental health or learning disabilities, it can be more complicated. For some, the idea of Christmas cannot be mentioned. It can cause high anxiety due to the inability to cope with the occasion, so many patients are on extra medication to control their aggression and prevent incidents. Many patients don’t have contact with families, but because of the special bond and therapeutic relationship patients and nurses have, Christmas even without family and friends can still be special. My patients are like family to me; I love them all.’ 

The Bishop

First and foremost, Christmas is a religious day: a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. The message is often lost amid the frantic gift buying, turkey sourcing and tree decorating in the run-up to the big day. One man who devotes his Christmas to spreading the religious message of the day is Rt Reverend Martin Wharton, the Bishop of Newcastle. He usually spends the festive build-up attending carol services, visiting volunteer centres and stopping by schools to talk to children throughout the diocese. When the big day looms nearer, his schedule becomes even busier. ‘I do the Cathedral carol service on Christmas Eve,’ he says, ‘as well as the midnight mass in one of our parishes, then I’m at the Cathedral again on Christmas morning to lead the service. After that, I try and look in on one of the Christmas Day lunches that are provided by people all over the city for those who would otherwise be alone. 

‘The best thing about working on Christmas Day is seeing the pure joy on children’s faces. On Christmas Eve in the church, there’s a kind of hum in the air. Most people’s preparations are complete, and it’s wonderful when you arrive in the dark church, illuminated only by candlelight, and you really begin to get in the spirit of Christmas. Christmas morning is a different kind of atmosphere; it’s a time of great celebration with lots of children whose excitement rubs off on the adults. This year, I’ll have three of my little grandchildren here with me, and they aren’t allowed to open their presents until we get back from church. Well, they’re allowed to open their stockings and one main present, but that’s it! We usually get home in the early afternoon and have our Christmas dinner – turkey and Christmas pudding, of course.’

The Bishop is all too aware that Christmas can also be challenging. ‘For many people, Christmas is a tough time, especially if they’ve recently lost someone, be it a husband, a wife or a child. There’s an empty chair there, and that’s very difficult to cope with. The first Christmas without someone you’ve lost is always really hard. On the other hand, there are also plenty of families with a new baby at Christmas, and that’s an especially exciting time for them.’

The Volunteer

The People’s Kitchen, situated in the heart of Newcastle, is a charity that reaches out to vulnerable people across the city, both through their Bath Lane premises, which offers a place for people to sit down and have dinner, and their mobile food service. They offer a special Christmas lunch with their usual open door policy; all are welcome. Russell Gadbury has been volunteering there for over 15 years and believes the work the People’s Kitchen do is especially valuable during the festive season. 

‘The important thing to remember is that Christmas Day can be a pretty difficult occasion for some of our folk who are homeless or devoid of a family. We fill quite a big gap in these people’s lives on Christmas Day.’
So what does a Christmas spent volunteering entail? ‘I usually get there around 8:30am after picking up a lot of the other volunteers. We then prepare the fully-fledged Christmas dinner for our friends coming through the doors. We open at around 11am and tuck into the food, as well as enjoying lots of activities such as raffles and bingo. We’re there serving and entertaining until around two o’clock. 

‘It’s generally a very friendly and very happy occasion that we get to enjoy with anybody who comes through our door. Some of our clients – or friends, as we call them – have been with us for many years, so it’s like we’re a big surrogate family. They genuinely look forward to seeing us on Christmas Day, and us likewise. We very much look forward to making the day something a bit special as opposed to what it could be like for them. It’s great to be able to eat together, spend time together and just enjoy each other’s company.’ Giving up a chunk of your own Christmas to do something so selfless is a large sacrifice, but Russell insists it’s worth every second. ‘The greatest thing is the look on people’s faces and the happiness that they bring with them. It’s clear that they really appreciate what we do for them. They are genuinely grateful and genuinely happy; no matter who you are, Christmas is important. 

‘There’s never any grumbling or groaning, either. Some of the presents we give would seem trivial to some, but things like clean socks and fresh toiletries make a real difference if you have limited means or are living on the streets. It’s nice to see our gifts go to friends who truly appreciate them.

 

First published in: October 2013

Published in: November 2017

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