Christmas without all the trimmings

How do you celebrate if you're at war, at sea, or detained at Her Majesty's pleasure?



The prisoner


This year will be the first in 15 that Charles Hanson has not spent Christmas in prison. Here he describes what life is like as a guest of Her Majesty on Christmas Day.

He said: "The prison routine hardly differs from any other day, although a few decorations and a tree gives the impression there might be a thread of humanity in what is otherwise an often violent and chaotic place.

"We would have a special breakfast spread, but then it was back to our cells until exercise time. Many prisoners spend the time wandering about the prison yard, lost in thought, perhaps thinking of loved ones.

"The focal point of the day was the turkey dinner, which was traditionally served up by the governor and his staff."

The paraplegic sailor

Geoff Holt spent Christmas at sea in his bid to become the first quadriplegic to cross the Atlantic.

The sailor, 43, left Lanzarote in the Canary Islands on 10 December to sail 2,700 miles to the British Virgin Islands.

He is returning to Garden Bay, Tortola, where he was paralysed while diving in an accident when he was 18.

"This is the journey I needed to make for 25 years, and now I'm in the right place to make it. I was a professional yachtsman at the time of the accident and part of the reason for making this incredible voyage was because I had my career taken away from me by the accident. But I also wanted to demonstrated that disability need not be a barrier to achieving your dreams," he said.

Yesterday, as his 60ft catamaran Impossible Dream bobbed in the middle of the Atlantic just under 2,000 miles from the Caribbean coast, he defrosted his chicken, to celebrate not just Christmas, but an emotionally charged journey back to the Virgin Isles.

Mr Holt, from Southampton, who was the first disabled person to single-handedly sail around Britain in 2007, said his wife and seven-year-old son, Timothy, were staying on the beach where he had his accident, waiting for him to arrive.

"It's hard being away from them for Christmas but I know they'll be there when I arrive. I spoke to them on the phone and it hit home that they were staying on the beach where I had the accident, and that my wife was having to explain 'this is what happened to daddy'," he said.

"At the same time, I've been at sea, reliving wonderful memories of the Atlantic ocean. It's everything I remember it to be. It's just beautiful."

He said the trip is physically challenging – "all the aspects of my disabilities are magnified aboard and the wheelchair moves of its own accord at times".

His carer Susana Scott is aboard to assist him with his personal care, but he is able to navigate himself, as the yacht is designed for wheelchair use.

Mr Holt is due to complete his journey by 5 January. To view his daily video blogs, go to www.geoffholt.com.

The flood victim

Sue Cashmore has been vowing to cook the turkey in her home in the Cumbrian town of Cockermouth for the past two years.

Yet she has been prevented from doing so after freak floods left have left it devastated two years in a row – the most recently hit just weeks ago on 19 November. Yesterday, Ms Cashmore packed her two daughters and five dogs into her car to spend Christmas with her parents, whose home in Cockermouth was also affected by last month's deluge, through not as ruinously as her own.

"We had seven feet of water in the house and we only just moved back two days ago, but the kitchen is in such a state that we couldn't have Christmas dinner there, even though I've been promising my parents that I'll cook for them for the past two years. My parents' house was damaged too but at least their kitchen is in working order."

Ms Cashmore, 49, a university lecturer and head of the Cumbrian town's Flood Group, said this was the second time her family had been forced out of her home during the festival season – the house was also heavily damaged in the floods of October 2008, and had been redecorated since then. "We hadn't quite recovered from last year's flooding when this happened," she said.

Such was the devastation this time round that they were forced to move out in November, along with 630 homes in Cockermouth.

A charitable woman in a neighbouring town offered Ms Cashmore's family a roof over their heads until her home became habitable. A few days ago, she had her boiler and electricity reinstated and made the emotional journey back home. "I'm angry, I'm very, angry, but you have to channel the anger. My anger will go into asking key questions about whether there was anything we could have done to prevent this from happening again."

The volunteers

In the basement of a red brick house tucked behind King's Cross Station, Denise Hancock, 47, is midway through chopping and scoring a bowl of sprouts. Husband David is on carrot duty, frantically trying to keep up with the meticulous schedule he laid out the day before on carefully laminated spreadsheets.

"We've got about 20 people to cook for and timing is everything," he said. "We'll get the beef in first and do the turkey later." But the Hancock's are not cooking for their friends and family this year. Like thousands of kind hearted people across the country the couple from Beenham, near Reading, elected to spend Christmas Day ensuring those less fortunate than them get a half decent festive dinner.

Yesterday morning they were busily preparing a meal for residents of a housing unit run by the homeless charity St Mungo's.

"I think the reason we wanted to volunteer this year was because you realise anyone can end up in a bad situation," says Mr Hancock. The commercialisation of Christmas was also a reason for volunteering according to Mrs Hancock. "After the year we've just had with the recession I've found the build up to Christmas a little obscene to be honest," she explained.

The soldier

The sun shone brightly over Forward Operating Base Shawqat in Helmand yesterday as the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards prepared to celebrate Christmas in the middle of a war zone.

In the past week three British soldiers have lost their lives in Afghanistan, the most recent of whom Lance Corporal Michael David Pritchard, 22, from the 4th Regiment Royal Military Police, died outside Sangin on Sunday.

A morale boost for the Grenadier Guards came in the form of three fresh turkeys which had been bought by members of the Afghan National Army from locals and delivered to the base.

"They sourced them locally and handed them over to us in a ceremony," beamed Captain John Donaldson (right). "It was a lovely gesture. We even had Nad-e Ali district governor Habibullah serving Christmas dinner to the troops."

For the soldiers, Christmas Day is effectively a working day just like any other and patrols still need to happen.

"We got a 30-minute lie in and a big fry-up for breakfast, which was nice," said Capt Donaldson. "It's a normal working day but the atmosphere is much more relaxed. The Christmas meal was fantastic and came with all the trimmings."

He added: "It's not been a bad day considering we're 5,000 miles away from our families."

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