When Christmas is just another day

By Joanna Mathers

Most of us will sit down to traditional Christmas fare but Joanna Mathers finds others will be hard at work

Angela Wilson at Birthcare with baby Michael, 2 days old, and mother Pekina Semu. Photo / Doug Sherring
Angela Wilson at Birthcare with baby Michael, 2 days old, and mother Pekina Semu. Photo / Doug Sherring

There's a comforting predictability to Christmas Day. It unfolds with a steady rhythm of present opening, food scoffing, and family bonding (or fighting). It also marks the welcome start of the holiday season; the office is closed, the working year is over, and you can almost feel the country breathe a collective sigh of relief.

But although Christmas may seem synonymous with "holiday", it hasn't always been this way. For much of the 19th century, December 25 was pretty much like any other day. It was only after a series of worker protection laws came into place in the latter part of the century (reinforced in 1910 by the introduction of the Public Holiday Act) that Christmas was enmeshed in law as a public holiday.

And this status isn't a guarantee of a day off. New Zealand doesn't stand still on Christmas Day; there's food being cooked, power being generated, planes being flown. And people working to make these things happen.

Maree Joyce is one of them. As a phone counsellor on a mental health line, she has worked many Christmas Days, answering calls from people in need.

She says it can be a pretty jarring experience. "I'm often rostered on a late shift, so have time for Christmas dinner, but then need to rush off. It's rather dislocating, to be honest. But it is great being there for people who need us - Christmas is a very lonely time for some people."

There are no official figures around the exact number of people who work on December 25 but Peter Conway, secretary of Council of Trade Unions, says people are increasingly asked to work on Christmas Day.

"More people are working less structured hours. This increase in insecure work means people can often find themselves working over the holiday period."

Certain industries are more likely to need workers on Christmas Day, he says. "The holiday season is one of the busiest times of the year for some businesses, and many people will be working over the holiday period, especially in the retail, hospitality and tourism industries. Essential industries will also be busy."

Then there are the volunteers. All around the country, people give up their Christmas celebrations to serve meals to the homeless and staff crisis lines.

So while we're munching away on Christmas roasts and toasting friends and family with glasses of bubbly, others will be spending Christmas Day in less traditional ways.

The Herald on Sunday chatted to three such New Zealanders about their very different Christmases.


The midwife

There's a baby at the centre of the Christmas story. And there will be babies at the centre of Angela Wilson's Christmas as well.

She has been a midwife since 1998 and estimates she has spent the past 18 Christmases welcoming babies into the world. She is rostered on this Christmas shift again at Parnell's Birthcare Maternity Hospital.

It's a shift she enjoys doing. "A lot of the midwives with young children prefer to take Christmas off or do shorter shifts but, as I don't have young children, I'm happy to do it."

Wilson says working with babies makes the Christmas experience special. "It's really lovely here on Christmas Day," she says.

As well as delivering babies, Wilson will spend her 12-hour Christmas shift helping young mums learn the ropes when it comes to looking after their new arrivals.

"I help them with breastfeeding and bathing and generally support them and their babies."

She says that it is always exciting when a Christmas baby is born. "The significance of the day is lost during the drama of the delivery, but it's always really special when Christmas babies arrive. They get a special gift, something to commemorate their arrival date."

Wilson will start her shift at 7am and finish at 7pm. But this doesn't mean she will miss out on festivities. "The staff is given a lovely breakfast, then a Christmas lunch. The later shift has a Christmas dinner. The hospital is decked out in Christmas decorations and there's a Christmas tree."

She won't be able to spend the day with family but Wilson will be celebrating in January. "My family live in the Mt Maunganui area and we will get together for a celebration in the new year," she says.


Brent Sarden's family are used to him having his pager at hand on Christmas Day. Photo / Mark Coote
Brent Sarden's family are used to him having his pager at hand on Christmas Day. Photo / Mark Coote

The coastguard

"My family are used to the pager," says coastguard volunteer Brent Sarden. "I've had it with me on Christmas Day for the last 14 years." Sarden is one New Zealand's 2500 coastguard volunteers. Based in Wellington, he spends Christmas on call, ready to take to the water if help is needed on the perilous harbour and Cook Strait.

As the skipper in charge of his crew, he needs to keep a clear head on Christmas Day. "No, I can't get too merry," he laughs. "I can have a toast or two, but drinking's pretty much a no-no."

He'll be doing the family rounds in the morning and finishing off the day with a big celebration at his place. But while he will have to be judicious when it comes to his alcohol intake, he's looking forward to a big feed. "Fortunately I can eat whatever I want."

Sarden has been a coastguard volunteer for 20 years, working his way up the ranks and earning his stripes through the coastguard's stringent training schedule.

About seven of his Wellington colleagues will be on call this December 25, he says, including a couple of skippers and senior and junior volunteers. If there is an emergency on-sea, it will only take him 12 minutes to get from home in Island Bay to the base in Evans Bay.

Sarden says coastguards around the country will keep their pagers close on Christmas Day. "I'd say between 200-300 coastguards will be on call."

Sarden, a self-employed builder, says many people don't realise coastguards are volunteers. "There's a misconception that coastguards are paid."

He and his team of eight crew the boat on a rotating basis on weekends and public holidays throughout the year.

He is passionate about his role, and isn't fazed by Wellington's treacherous seas. "I really love being on the sea when it's rough and windy," he says.

But as a skipper he has to be sure that his crew and the boat are safe. "I need to be sensible and make sure I'm not putting anyone in danger."

Christmas Day tends to be quiet but Boxing Day is a different story. "Lots of people go out on their boats on Boxing Day," he says.

Fortunately, not too many of the call-outs are related to seasonal high-jinks. "We mainly give people tows if their batteries run out."


Leith Innes plans a low-key Christmas as he prepares for one of the highlights of his racing year, the Boxing Day races at Ellerslie. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Leith Innes plans a low-key Christmas as he prepares for one of the highlights of his racing year, the Boxing Day races at Ellerslie. Photo / Sarah Ivey

The jockey

Leith Innes' Christmas soundtrack is the thundering of hooves. The successful New Zealand jockey has ridden in Boxing Day races for around 18 years, so Christmas Day itself has always been a pretty quiet affair.

Innes comes from a racing family and started riding as a kid around his family farm. His dad Gerald was a trainer, and Innes started training as an apprentice 20 years ago.

The summer months have always been the height of the season. Boxing Day and New Year's Day races are the apex of the racing calendar so Christmas Day has usually been a bit of an afterthought.

This year, Innes is scheduled to ride in up to10 races at the New Zealand Herald Christmas Carnival on Boxing Day and much of his Christmas will be taken up with preparation events. "I will be doing some last-minute research on the competition, andhaving a pretty low-key day."

Innes, who is married to Jessica and has two young children, Stella, 6, and Jett, 3, gets to open presents with his family, but can't enjoy the traditional festive feast.

"I have to be really careful about my weight so I can't indulge in too much food and drink," he says.

He allows himself as mall lunch, but there's no binging on trifle and pavlova. And he'll inevitably have to spend some of the day in the sauna. "I'd like to put an axe through it," he laughs. "I don't enjoy it at all."

After turning in early on Christmas night, he will be up bright and early the next day for a run or a walk.

About 7.30am, the day's scratching are announced and his rides for the day will be confirmed. After another sauna or hot bath he will head to the stables.

Innes' recent form stands him in good stead for a great Boxing Day performance. He won two in a row in Auckland on December 11, and is particularly excited to be riding the on-form Lucia Valentina in the premier Eight Carat Classic (he picked up a first place on her in a $70,000 race in Otaki last month).

The Innes family don't get much of a chance for summer festivities but there are plans to get away mid-year. "I like to head to Australia when everyone else is working in the cold," he says.

And his family are likely to be cheering him on trackside as he spends his Boxing Day doing was he does best - racing winners. "The kids really love going to the races," he says.

- NZ Herald

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