Words by Abi Scaife
For many Brits, Christmas Day is quite similar: wake up, open presents, eat a large amount of food. At some point you may see family or friends, maybe walk the dog, but for the most part, it's a time to focus on yourself - to put our feet up, take some time off from work and step back from the stress of the real world.
For others, it can be a little different.
Just because it is Christmas Day, the world doesn’t come to a standstill. People still struggle and need mental health support, or carers, or healthcare workers, or may need to go to somewhere like a soup kitchen to receive food.
This is where Christmas workers come in.
Working or volunteering on Christmas Day can be a hugely rewarding experience. The festive spirit is all around you in the decorations and the music, and you’re also getting to do something wonderful - give back to your community.
Sarah Pascoe is a nurse at St Catherine’s Hospice in Crawley. This year she will be helping to run Christmas Day at the facility, along with her fellow nurses and 10 very generous volunteers who will give up their day to help out.
For Sarah and her fellow nurses and volunteers, working in the hospice at Christmastime is complex, but incredibly rewarding. For most patients in the hospice, this Christmas is their last, and not everyone is feeling the festive mood.
“It's very tricky at times because as much as Christmas is exciting and festive … you have got that lingering in the back of our mind and we have to be respectful of that as well,” says Sarah. “You have to adjust what you're doing depending on the patient. So some people like to embrace Christmas and get those memories … for others it’s a struggle and we have to be sensitive to that as well.”
"Hospice nurses deliver compassionate, skilled care throughout the year and Christmas-time is no different."
Sarah, who has a seven-year-old daughter, giving up her Christmas is a sacrifice - as much as she wants to be at home with her daughter, she knows she is also needed elsewhere. Despite that, she says she has given up her Christmas Day willingly, as do all the other staff and volunteers at St Catherine’s.
“Hospice nurses deliver compassionate, skilled care throughout the year and Christmas-time is no different,” says Anita Hayes, head of clinical leadership at the charity Hospice UK. “There’s approximately 12,700 hospice nurses across the UK and we’re incredibly proud of the work they do, often going the extra mile to make people comfortable at the end of their life, supporting their loved ones, and making difficult days slightly easier.”
Every year they have volunteers helping out, whether that means helping to serve Christmas dinner, bringing round drinks and the Celebrations, or just keeping people company. The volunteers give up some - or all - of their Christmas Day to help make what can be a difficult day just a little easier for someone else, whether that means the patients, or the staff who work hard all year.
“The essence of Christmas is about giving,” Sarah points out. “And if you can make someone's last Christmas feel that little bit more special or supported … it might not be quite what we have in mind when it comes to Christmas time but it might just help to have someone sit with them.”
Shannon Phillips works for Breathworks, a charity that provides free access to mindfulness and meditation to people who are struggling with their mental health. As a mental health charity, Breathworks are very aware that Christmas isn’t a picture perfect day for everyone, whether that is because of loss, grief, mental health struggles, or because they simply don’t celebrate Christmas.
"It actually really improved my Christmas Day."
Each year, Shannon volunteers her time on Christmas day to provide technical support for a special Christmas mindfulness session. These sessions are run by a mindfulness teacher and are open to everyone completely free of charge. Whether you are feeling isolated, or you just need a break in the middle of a busy Christmas Day, the session is open to everyone.
“It actually really improved my Christmas Day,” admits Shannon, who first pitched the idea to Breathworks for Christmas Day 2021. “I felt like I'd connected with loads of people and not just my own family and I felt really good about it.”
The mindfulness sessions don’t take up the whole day, just a small portion of it, but give many people a huge boost. There is meditation, and discussion, and even a time where people are able to share their stories and talk about what they are feeling. It allows even the most isolated of people to connect with people on Christmas Day, and get in touch with their mental health.
Volunteering on Christmas Day might seem completely alien to some - particularly if your family are real sticklers for tradition. But really, don’t all traditions just start out as an experiment?
“At the end of the day, [Christmas Day is] just an arbitrary day in the year and there's no reason that with a little coordination [you could] experiment with having your own tradition,” says Shannon. “Could you even do it with your family or your friends? Could it be something you can do together and it becomes part of your joint experience? I don't think it has to be either or.”
For the festive lovers of us, it can be easy to forget that Christmas isn’t always a happy or easy time of year - many don’t celebrate it at all. Ultimately, the spirit of Christmas is in love, and giving - so when you’re tucking into your turkey this year, maybe take a moment to really think about what you’ll be doing on Christmas Day 2023.
St Catherine’s Hospice in Crawley provides end of life care and support to terminally ill people and their families across West Sussex and East Surrey. For more information please visit stch.org.uk.
The Breathworks Christmas Day practice session is 10 - 11am UK time, on 25th December and you can sign up on their website community.breathworks-mindfulness.org.uk .