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When there’s no summer holiday

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Not everyone gets a break to celebrate Christmas Day.

Ahead of Christmas, we look back on one of our favourite pieces of 2017 by Emma Macdonald. 

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the city… people were actually hard at work. As you sit down to your seafood platter for Christmas lunch, or summon the energy to hit the Boxing Day sales, spare a thought for Canberra’s Christmas workforce.

These are the people manning our essential and emergency services, caring for the sick or vulnerable, or simply cooking for the hordes who want to be catered for over the festive period. For them the champagne toasts and bon bons will have to wait. There is important work to be done.

From 8 am to 6 pm on Christmas Day, Mate Peric will be one of this city’s first responders. As a member of ACT Fire and Rescue, Mate is trained to deal with a wide range of emergencies–from housefires to car accidents, gas leaks, drug overdoses, children’s fingers stuck in drains, and everything in between.

For 12 years it has been his way of life, and about half of those years have landed him the Christmas Day shift. Unfortunately, the Christmas period is one of ACT Fire and Rescue’s busiest.

“I guess with everyone at home, kids around, and lots of people travelling by car that day, there’s just a higher likelihood thing will go wrong. Adding alcohol into the mix is also a problem.”

When human tragedy strikes, Mate and his team at the West Belconnen Fire Station are often the first on the scene. Added to this is the heightened fire danger that summer Christmases carry.

“We always hope every day is a quiet day, but we also know to expect the unexpected and to keep alert and prepared for anything.”

The father of four says his children have known no other life than one in which dad is just as likely to be rostered on to work over Christmas as to have the day off, and he pays tribute to his wife Leah for her unflagging support.

“It is just the way it is, they don’t know any different and they are really good about it.” It lessens the blow somewhat for the littlies–his youngest are three and five–that families are invited into the station on Christmas Day for a special lunch.

“We try and cook something special, like a roast, and we do salad and veggies, and one of the families might bring in something nice for dessert. We all get together and have our own little celebration.”

Of course, that all ends the minute an emergency call is placed. Mate laughs when he thinks about all the meals he has cooked at the Fire Station over the years which have gone cold while the team has been out on the job.

“Well, at least on Christmas Day if we do get a call, the families can stay put and eat it while it is hot.”

Across town, Genevieve Harrigan is a critical care nurse at Canberra Hospital who has worked more Christmases than she has had off.

Given her career spans almost 20 years, this has not always been easy for her daughters Lily, 14 and Isla, 11.

The girls have often been far from impressed when mum has either had to change Christmas Day to the 24th, or duck off early on the 25th once the presents are unwrapped.

“My girls have been a bit disappointed, yes, but they also know the work that I do and they love that I am a nurse. I like to think they are proud of me.”

More recently, Gen has been promoted the nurse manager of the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit. It means she works a nine-to-five shift, and will this year spend the day with her family. But, like every year, her thoughts are with the 190 nurses she leads. Last year Gen and her daughters got up early and baked 200 cookies to take into the hospital.

“I have had to write up the Christmas rosters, knowing these staff will have to sacrifice a special day with their family and I have tried to accommodate everyone. God bless the staff who have actually put their hands up to volunteer to work. That makes things a bit easier.”

Christmas in a hospital—and in the area where life and death literally hang in the balance—can be an emotional time.

“Christmas intensifies everything, and it is usually a pretty busy day. I would say that mixing families and lots of people with alcohol can sometimes end in disaster.”

One Christmas was particularly traumatic for Gen, and she says she has been left with a few emotional scars. But her heart is with patients and their families, for whom celebration is suspended in favour of bedside vigils and often, tears.

“Nobody wants to be in hospital over Christmas. But we do our very best to make it a cheerful and happy day. The executives often come in and throw on a special lunch. Even though it is busy and sometimes really difficult work, we try and put a smile on our faces.”

If you are trapped in a dysfunctional relationship it is hard, if not impossible, to produce that smile.

Bombarded with images of the perfect nuclear family gathered around a Christmas tree, it can be easy to forget this is a time of coercion, punishment and violence for many people who live in an intimate partner, domestic or family violence relationship.

According to chief executive of the Domestic Violence Crisis Service ACT Mirjana Wilson, Christmas is often the only time of year that isolated women are around friends and family. This gives rise to the additional angst of hiding injuries from loved ones.

The combination of financial pressure, free-flowing alcohol and being cooped up in closed quarters, exerts additional burden on relationships.

“In an abusive relationship, this pressure is manifold. Some of it could be playing happy family when things really aren’t going well; it could be financial pressures to make ends meet and buy presents,” she says.

It means Christmas is a perilous time of year when already-stretched services attempt to balance the wellbeing of staff—which includes leave and time with family—and the safety of victims of domestic and family violence.

“Essentially, we try to do what we can to prepare for the busy summer period, including calling in casual staff. We do not have the resources to do much else,” says Mirjana.

November and December are peak months for contacts to the service, with around 5,000 contacts made on each of these months last year, compared with an average on the other months of around 4,000.

On Christmas Day, a handful of staff manage incoming calls and respond to crisis situations. By Boxing Day all hands are back on deck. Ironically, it is here that contacts peak.

“We tend to get a spike in calls for assistance in the evening and into Boxing Day after people have been spending many hours together and behaviours escalate.”

As always, Mirjana spends the day close to her phone, assisting with the complex and distressing cases that need her attention. The Domestic Violence Crisis Service crisis line is open 24 hours a day on 02 6280 0900.

Someone who enjoys a happier, and much quieter, time over Christmas is Carlos Palmer, the front office manager for Hotel Realm.

On Christmas Day, you will find him ensuring guests who are away from home are experiencing as festive a season as possible. This is ably assisted by the 10-foot sparkling Christmas tree that goes up in the foyer in mid-November.

“I just love it when the tree goes up. It signifies a really happy time of year and changes the atmosphere in the hotel,” says Carlos.

“We notice that the corporate crowd disappears over Christmas but in Canberra there are a lot of ‘orphans’–as in diplomats and people who have taken up positions in various public service departments and are new to Canberra–who come to our Christmas events,” he says.

Qantas crews who frequent the hotel between flights are also treated to drinks and canapés to celebrate. For families staying in Canberra as part of a holiday, the hotel endeavours to make their visit a little more special through touches like Koko Black chocolates in each room.

“It is actually a lovely time to work here, people are usually a little more relaxed and happy” says Carlos, who has notched up 15 years in hospitality—the last four with the Doma Hotel Group.

While the Philippines-born manager said that Australia does not have a tipping culture, and that it is never expected, he finds Christmas is a time where tips are most often offered—and guests are extra generous and grateful for the time and efforts of staff. “I think we feel a little more appreciated at this time of year—it’s nice.”

Another worker who experiences high levels of customer satisfaction is Jacob Thomas, Vikings Group Executive Chef located at Lanyon Vikings.

He is responsible for organising and helping personally prepare almost 400 Christmas lunches.

Bookings open in October for the two-sitting buffet lunch where people are expected to consume 45 kilos of fresh turkey, 30 kilos each of fresh salmon and barramundi, 20 kilos each of baby squid and octopus, 30 kilos of roast pork belly and 35 kilos of halal whole chickens. The vegetable order fills a truck while Jacob will ensure that the dried fruit to feature in the Christmas cakes has an appropriately long time to soak in sherry ahead of baking in the weeks leading to the big day.

Jacob says the day is one for regular members who bring their families along for a massive feast without the associated shopping, cooking, or cleaning up.

Two professionals chefs cooking together in a kitchen.

“We do two sittings but most families spend the whole day with us,” says the 25-year industry veteran, who has worked across the United Arab Emirates and was formerly the Head Chef of new Parliament House.

The Christmas service is distinctly different to other days of the year—featuring carols, an appearance from Santa, and a communal spirit. And after two months of preparation, and a very long day in which his two grown sons volunteer to help serve, Jacob looks forward to coming home and feasting on a beautiful—but infinitely smaller—meal, lovingly prepared by his wife Jetsu.

For those who cannot afford to eat, who are homeless, or estranged from friends and family over Christmas, it can be a time when loneliness really bites.

St John’s Care has become renowned for hosting a Christmas Day lunch—open to all, staffed by volunteers and attracting up to 400 people who would otherwise spend the day in isolation.

Operations manager Rhonda Thorpe says she is heartened by the number of ordinary Canberrans who volunteer to help set up and decorate the St John’s Church hall in Reid with Christmas decorations, serve the meals, or help clean up afterwards. The demolition of the Allawah Flats in Braddon has seen numbers drop in recent years, but Rhonda said up to 300 people were expected this year. “No bookings are required, you can just turn up.”

Guests are treated to music, a bag of lollies, a visit from Santa, and a two-course meal consisting of ham or chicken with a variety of salads. All children are presented with a wrapped present. Dessert is Christmas pudding with custard and ice-cream or apple pie and fruit salad for the non-traditional types.

It is one of the largest charity lunches on in the city and Rhonda said she sometimes had to turn prospective helpers away as so many people were willing to spare a few hours to assist other vulnerable community members.

“I guess there is something special about taking time out to help others in need. There is always a lovely festive spirit at the lunch and people enjoy the chance to come together and share a meal and some conversation and music. There’s no doubt there are some of our guests who are hungry, or homeless, or alone at Christmas so this really cheers them up.”

On the day there is also likely to be some fresh food available from OzHarvest, where each guest is given an opportunity take home a bag of fresh fruit and vegetables when they leave.

 And while many people are caring for each other, a dedicated workforce also takes time out on Christmas day to ensure the health and wellbeing of the ACT’s animal population.

RSPCA ACT CEO Tammy Ven Dange has volunteered to work again on Christmas Day—having done so last year. While she’s mostly on call, she loves spending part of the day with her staff and a dedicated contingent of volunteers who still turn up to walk dogs, feed cats and clean out kennels, despite having families and events of their own.

With Christmas coinciding with peak kitten and puppy season between December and January—it is often a chaotic time at the Weston Creek shelter.

“We are flat out every day of the year and 25 December is no different,” says Tammy.

While she is pleased to report that people appear to have largely heeded messages about the risk of gifting animals for Christmas, Tammy concedes that often it is at the 12-month mark that so-called gifts become problematic.

“We don’t get that many new kittens and puppies surrendered right after Christmas, which is good, but we do find a slight rise in surrenders this time of year of 12-month-old dogs in particular who have not been properly trained and socialised when they were younger.”

And sadly, RSPCA ACT inspectors are increasingly called out to attend to animals which have been abandoned over the break.

“It’s pretty devastating—people go on holidays and can’t be bothered booking their pets into a boarding kennel, they just go and leave extra food and think it will be OK.”

This Christmas Tammy will bring in a festive morning tea to share with staff and volunteers, and so far reports the RSPCA ACT’s Giving Tree appeal has received a generous response of toys and treats for the animals—which are lovingly wrapped by the kennel staff.

“Honestly it is the best part of the day watching the dogs rip open their presents. I usually video it and put it up on social media. The cats are not so good at unwrapping their gifts, but the dogs go crazy for it.”

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