'Away in a manger in frosty

The single mother, the angel, the carpenter, the inn-keeper - Hester Lacey and Victoria Yiasoumi revisit the nativity and discover what the modern-day participants are doing on the 25th

THE ANGEL

Louise Bush, 27, is a senior staff nurse with the intravenous therapy team at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in London.

I get very involved in the run-up to Christmas. Every year the children are given a Christmas party and this year we've got a magician who I'm quite looking forward to seeing myself. The children get very excited, and the wards are laden with Christmas decorations. On Christmas morning, after presents have been opened, it's business as usual and the children are given their medicines. Later on a yeoman of the guard or a doctor dresses up as Santa, and even more presents are given out. Then lunch is served. The turkey is cooked the night before by one of our nurses so they're not distracted from duty.

In the past when I've had to work on Christmas Eve, I've helped to fill the children's stockings which are left at the bottom of their beds. These are presents donated to the ward from large retail companies. I remember one year there was a boy who had leukaemia, and his mum had told him he could open his presents if he stayed awake until midnight. She thought he'd fall asleep, but like all children he proved his mum wrong and was allowed to open up this super Scalectrix set. He wanted to play on it so much, but it took 15 of us two hours to put together, and after all that he ended up having one go on it and falling fast asleep with exhaustion.

This year I'll be spending Christmas day with my family. Mum'll be cooking the turkey, and we'll just be having a normal family Christmas, which is exactly the atmosphere the nurses try to create on Christmas day in the wards. To me Christmas is a time for family and fun, but it's not like that for everyone. Working on the wards at Christmas, I can appreciate how stressful and upsetting it can be to spend an important day away from loved ones.

THE INN-KEEPER

Rebecca MacKenzie, 27, will be managing the Hoste Arms in Burnham Market, King's Lynn, over the Christmas festivities.

All our rooms are fully booked for Christmas this year, which is nice. I've been working here three and a half years and this is my fourth Christmas; some of our residents are regulars and it's really nice to see them again. We are putting on a three-day package, which starts with afternoon tea on Christmas Eve. We have a champagne reception before dinner in the evening, and a chauffeur service to Midnight Mass for those who want to go. On Christmas Day the lunch is going to be split green pea soup with parsnip croutons and pesto, salad of baked red mullet, globe artichokes and oyster mushrooms, roast turkey with all the trimmings, and Christmas pudding with brandy sauce or raspberry and vanilla mousse.

I really enjoy working over Christmas, it's brilliant. It's just as good for the staff as it is for the guests. We never have any trouble getting people to work over Christmas, lots come back for several seasons and most of them this year are regulars who know the routine. As long as you make the staff feel that it's Christmas Day for them too, not just an ordinary day, they're really happy. A lot of the locals come in too - we've got a lot of friends round here. The Hoste used to be a coaching inn and it was frequented by Lord Nelson. It was restored by the present owner, who wanted to keep it as a proper inn, not like a big hotel, and that's just what he's done.

Christmas for me means going to Midnight Mass, reflecting on the year gone by, and spending time with my family. That's very important - I can't go home so they come up here, and come in on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

THE SINGLE MOTHER

Samantha Williams is 29. She lives with her three children, Charmaine, 13, Ben, 12, and Georgina, four, in Highbury, north London.

This year we'll all be at home together, we'll be cooking dinner and playing games. It won't be turkey because none of the children like turkey. They are all really excited - the tree went up at the beginning of December, and all the decorations. It's difficult when you're on a tight budget, but I joined a Christmas Club back in February. I've been putting away pounds 5 a week and I get some vouchers as well, which will really help, and I'll be getting some stuff from the Share a Capital Christmas Appeal. I've already got everything for the little one, and my son wanted to go on the Internet, so I've sent off for that. My elder daughter wants things like jewellery and trainers. It's expensive, but what can you do? I don't want to say "No" all the time and they have to wait all year for the things they really want. I'm not much in debt and I don't go over my budget.

Last year we were flooded out - I was doing the Christmas dinner and all these drips started coming through on my head. I ran upstairs to the neighbours, they don't keep Christmas - I think they're Kurdish. I was banging on the door - they didn't speak very good English but I think it was something about their pipes. I had to phone the emergency people. By the end of the day I was on the phone to the Samaritans, cracking up. Last year I was poorer than this and I don't know how we managed - I don't like to even think about last year. Fingers crossed this year will be better.

Christmas is definitely a time for children. The little one still believes in Father Christmas - if you can keep it going as long as possible it makes Christmas more special. It's quite sad when they go to school and the other kids tell them it's their mum and dad. It's worth all the saving and hard work - my kids are definitely worth it.

THE DONKEY

Jubilee the donkey, 21, lives at Butts Farm near Cirencester. He is looked after by Judy Hancox and her daughter Rosie, seven.

This Christmas Jubilee the white donkey will be snug in his barn with his various friends: Parsley and Gizmo the goats, Pinky and Perky the white Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs, Midget the Shetland pony and her foal Merrylegs, Calypso and Hee Haw the other donkeys, the Jersey cows and their calves and a tribe of rabbits and guinea pigs. He is taking on the role of the donkey in the annual Butts Farm grotto, and on 23 December he will be taking part in the children's Christmas service in the village of Coates, near Cirencester. Wearing his best bridle, with tinsel and bells, Jubilee will carry either Mary or one of the kings into the church and up to the crib. He knows he is a star and enjoys every minute of it, according to Judy Hancox, though the singing makes his ears twitch.

Jubilee, who was born in the year of the Queen's Silver Jubilee, is a veteran of the Coates Christmas service, and he also takes the lead in the Cirencester Easter Parade on Palm Sundays. His reward is a bunch of his favourite food, carrots. In summer he comes out of his barn to be groomed by visitors to the farm, who can also milk the goats, bottle-feed kids and lambs, and meet the rabbits and guinea pigs. Jubilee also gives rides to children, including occasional rides for the disabled. One little girl who visited him for her birthday was convinced he was in fact Desert Orchid.

Butts Farm can be visited on Sundays 11am-5pm in winter (Santa is in his grotto at 3pm), and seven days a week in summer. It is on the old A419 Cirencester to Swindon road, beside the new bypass.

THE CARPENTER

George Pysden, 81, has been a carpenter for 65 years and a member of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters for 14 years.

I've been in the business for 65 years and the basics have stayed much the same. There's been a great improvement in the tools and machinery - everything's electric now and I wish I was too. But you need to know the traditional ways as well, because most restoration you need to do by hand. I do a fair bit of antique restoration, and cabinet work - making furniture. I spend from 7.30am to 2.30pm in my workshop in Croydon and at the moment I'm doing some Victorian-style aspidistra stands and a bird-table that a customer wants as a Christmas present. I was asked to make something for the Millennium for our local church, St Paul's and St Agatha in Woldingham in Surrey, and I made four elm coffin stools. These days people think that working with their hands is downmarket but it's a quality, craft industry and I love it. I help to run a competition each year for schools and colleges, to encourage young people.

Our Christmas this year will be much the same as last year. We'll spend the afternoon of Christmas Eve getting ready for Christmas Day, when we've got friends coming for lunch. Then in the evening the neighbours will be coming in for a little celebration. My wife Joan will be doing the lunch - turkey with all the trimmings, Christmas pudding, mince pies and proper trifle with home-made custard.

My thoughts about Christmas are mainly selfish - it's the only holiday we ever really take. We didn't have a holiday for the first 15 years we were working - we just went straight through. Then we had a week in Hove and didn't know what to do with ourselves. But you can knock off at Christmas with a clear conscience.

THE SHEPHERD

The Reverend Angela Hughes, 46, was ordained in 1994. She has been the vicar of the South Leicestershire parish of Gilmorton with Peatling Parva and Kimcote-cum-Walton for nearly three years. She keeps a flock of Manx Loghtan sheep.

Manx Loghtan sheep come from the Isle of Man - their name means mouse- brown or burnt-brown and their main features are their unusual brown wool and the fact that both male and female sheep have horns. I started with three sheep in 1986 and now I've got a flock of 50 or 60. I originally got them by mistake: I had horses and I was looking for sheep to eat down the grass. I thought I had got hold of some Soays but when I realised they weren't I got in touch with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, which now classes them as Category Four - vulnerable to at risk. It has become a hobby now, showing them and breeding them. They are low maintenance, very easy lambers and they are thrifty, hardy little things. They are full of character - I've had a lot of fun with them.

For me, Christmas Day starts the day before; on Christmas Eve we have a children's carol and crib service in Gilmorton. Then at 11.30 in the evening I'm taking a service in Peatling Parva. On Christmas Day the service is at 9am in Kimcote, then I shall collapse in a heap. My father is coming to stay and we're going to a friend's for Christmas dinner.

For me, Christmas is a reminder that God knows humanity from the inside as well as the outside - he knows what we go through. It was not a palace that the Christ child came to, but a hillside cave. He is with us through the bad as well as the good, and Christmas is an annual reminder that God knows what it's like to be human.

THE PEARLY KING

Chris Friend, 69, has been Pearly King for East London's Poplar and Isle of Dogs area since 1976. Before that he was a Pearly Prince. He spends his year raising money for charity.

This year I'm going to be spreading some Christmas cheer to some old age pensioners in Bethnal Green. They come from all different clubs and societies to join in our good old cockney sing-song. They like the old Pearly tradition and it gives them a treat to hear golden oldies like "Barrow Boy" and "Up The Apples and Pears". Me and my wife Joan will do anything to keep them happy. But Christmas Day is reserved for the family. I've got nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren and some of them get involved with the Pearly way of life. They go out collecting with their mums and dads, who are Pearly Princes and Princesses.

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