Away from the manger: Meet the people who spend Christmas in extraordinary circumstances

From Afghanistan and the Antarctic, to a maternity ward and rehab...

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The Independent Online

Christmas in the maternity ward

Dr Eve Allen

I am a senior registrar in obstetrics and gynaecology, and on Christmas Eve, I'll be working the night shift, responsible for all the women who come to King's [College Hospital, in London] in labour or with gynaecology emergencies. We look after any ladies experiencing problems – needing a Caesarean or other procedures. Sometimes babies have to be delivered quickly.

I have worked Christmases in 2008, 2009 and 2010, at St Heliers [in Surrey], St Bart's and Bromley hospital. Everybody takes their turn, but I quite like working the Christmas Eve night shift; in fact, it's one of my favourite shifts of the year because everyone's in a good mood. It lasts 12-and-a-half hours; it starts in the evening of Christmas Eve and you work till morning on Christmas Day – and I'm working the following night this year, as well.

There's always a great mood in hospitals at Christmas; all the staff bring in food, we'll have Christmas songs on, and patients' relatives tend to bring things in. They've got decorations everywhere, and we'll have some mince pies.

Sometimes I have little presents for babies born on the night of Christmas Eve. And, depending on the religion of the parents, we usually make a little crib with tinsel in it for the first Christmas baby. I don't know what they do at King's yet, but at other places I've worked they get a Christmas present. It's quite a common thing that units will do.

All babies that are born are special, but there's always a bit of magic about Christmas babies, I feel. That's why if I have to work [over the festive season], I choose to work on Christmas Eve. I have had some memorable ones in the past: one lady who I had looked after during her pregnancy came in on Christmas Eve; we had a long discussion about names, and she decided it should be an appropriately festive name, so she called her Mary. She was a vacuum delivery, just after midnight, and Mary went in the Christmas crib – the one with a bit of tinsel on it. We always have discussions about Marys and Noels and Hollys, though not all of the parents go for those names. I always say Eve is a festive name! And I have had some Eves; it's always a proud moment, though I probably can't take credit for it.

Within the healthcare system we all know that somebody has to cover the emergency work, and you accept that as part of your working hours when you take a job in healthcare, so you make the best of it really.

On average we see three or four ladies. I haven't been involved so far in any adverse events around Christmas, but the care that's provided is always the same, no matter what time of year, so if unfortunate things do happen, we're equipped to handle them.

At the end of my shift, I hopefully find someone who'll cook me a Christmas dinner without my having to make any effort! And then I go to bed, and stay there, and have Christmas another day.

My brother is a fireman, so he sometimes has to work at Christmas, too. My family accept that it's part of the normal routine, and we do [Christmas] on another day. I don't mind, I haven't got any children, so it's not really a problem.

This year, I'm a bit more senior – I've got several doctors below me, in fact – so I'm really looking forward to it. It will be less hands-on, but I'm still there; hopefully I'll have more time to eat more mince pies!

Christmas in Afghanistan

Captain Mike Brigham

I went out to Afghanistan from September 2011 through to the beginning of April. We were in a place [in Helmand Province] called Nad-e-Ali. It was bloody freezing! It wasn't a white Christmas, but it was a frosty Christmas.

My company group was quite large, more than 200 people. We had a Christmas Day, it was really well supported by the combat-service support groups, who ensured that every bloke had a Christmas dinner. We had minimum manning where possible – not taking any risks with security, but just to ensure every bloke got a dinner. Where possible, as well, we all ate together.

We pulled all the stops out – we actually got turkey, pigs in blankets, roast potatoes, and we all had Christmas pudding, lots and lots of cakes as well; the chefs were ingenious. It's not what you're going to get at home, but it was a really good standard.

Our commander, Brigadier Patrick Sanders, visited our base dressed as Santa, and handed out welfare gifts. We get these nice little boxes that are given to us by a welfare service [called UK4u Thanks!], things like drinks tokens, tape measures, torches, sewing kits.

More importantly, families send stuff out at Christmas – which is why it's really important that people don't flood the postal system with welfare presents, so the boys can get their parcels from their families. There's a 2kg weight limit, but no size limit as such. People get all kinds of stuff – one of our soldiers had a huge pile of presents, everything from Lego helicopters to football strips, computer games he couldn't play… He had a very enthusiastic mother!

As a corps of officers, in our regiment none of us would get Christmas parcels sent out, just to ensure that the blokes got their parcels. But we got phone calls – so I spoke to my partner on Christmas Day, which was nice. We get 30 minutes [of calls] a week, and have an extra 30 minutes over Christmas and New Year. I know it doesn't seem a lot, but it's really quite good.

My day-to-day job was absolutely the same every single day, including Christmas Day. I was basically the company second-in-command, so I commanded all the patrols, activity and communications. It's essentially just sequencing the patrol activity between ourselves and our partners, making sure visual aids, helicopters, vehicle movements all happen.

I wouldn't like to say that Christmas brings us closer, but it reflects that, in operations, we are all there for each other. The blokes went carol-singing early in the morning, and woke up all the officers. We also had an eating competition, to see how many Christmas puddings they could eat in a [certain] time, which was quite amusing. The blokes are hugely resourceful, and they're fundamentally what makes my job worth doing.

Without a shadow of a doubt, if a soldier died on Christmas Day it would be harrowing. We are more vigilant, and cautious of that, because we understand the enemy is eager to cause harm to us on those days.

Overwhelmingly for me, Christmas was a sombre time: it made me realise exactly how lucky we are in the Western world. We, on a very limited scale, experienced the hardship that the people of Afghanistan do. I've done several tours out there, and watching the economic development, the development of their troops and their ability to look after their own country is phenomenal. It's quite grounding to realise what you have, and what they still have yet to achieve: peace.

Christmas in Antarctica

Tamsin Gray

This year's going to be my seventh Christmas in Antarctica. I'm at Rothera Research Station, which is on the Antarctic peninsula. This is my fifth Christmas there; before I was at Halley [research centre] which is even further south. It feels very different to the UK because it's 24-hour daylight, and we're still working through Christmas – the science we're doing carries on.

My job is monitoring the weather, so we're recording that all the time, literally 24/7. We're doing lots of types of science here [for the British Antarctic Survey], a lot of it looking at climate change, collecting information about the weather that people are using to work out what's going to happen. It's one of the fastest-warming places on the planet right now.

So Christmas Day often starts for me, because I'm a meteorologist, by launching a weather balloon; sometimes I get dressed up for it, with some tinsel in my hair, or a Santa Claus outfit.

I have been snowboarding on Christmas morning before, that's quite nice. There aren't very many girls down here but we usually get together and open our presents together on Christmas morning and try to make it feel special.

We are guaranteed a white Christmas. Sometimes it snows on Christmas Day, which makes it feel a bit more Christmassy than if it's blazing sunshine and blue sky. It's pretty warm: it's either going to the same temperature as the UK or even a degree or two warmer, around about zero, so it's not too bad – we can go outside and enjoy the sunshine, which is unusual on Christmas Day…

I came down here at the end of October, just as the clocks changed, so I left a drizzly, dark UK to come down to 24-hour sunlight twinkling off the snow and icebergs, which is a pretty special feeling. At Christmas, it's very strange, but I am getting used to it now – this is what Christmas is to me at the moment.

We try to take some time off [from work] in the afternoon and have a big Christmas dinner, and that's just like at home: everyone dresses up nicely and we have turkey and all the trimmings, and sometimes we do a secret Santa. We get fresh food delivered quite rarely down here, but we have a ship that supplies the base shortly before Christmas, so we usually have fresh potatoes, which are a bit of a luxury. Tinned potatoes are just not the same!

Everyone misses friends and family, of course, but down here it's like an extended family: you live with all your colleagues so everyone gets pretty close and we keep each other smiling. Often on Christmas Eve we'll have a Christmas quiz, and mince pies and mulled wine. Last year I was presenting the quiz, wearing an inflatable Santa Claus outfit, which caused much entertainment.

I do usually celebrate Christmas with my friends and family before I go away. I have a Christmas dinner at my parents' house and they give me presents wrapped up, ready to take away. And I always phone home on Christmas Day. [My family] understands why I love it down here – it is a really beautiful and exciting place to be part of – but they're looking forward to the time when I will actually come home for Christmas. It's been a while. Being away so much does make you appreciated when you do get to spend time with each other, though.

Christmas in rehab

Chip Somers

I was in a rehab centre called Clouds House in Wiltshire, and it was 1984. I had been a chronic junkie, an addict, for 18 or 19 years. I had been admitted on 1 December; I'd finished my detox, but I think my fear around Christmas was that we were all going to be sitting round a campfire, strumming guitars, singing "Kumbayah" – which we almost ended up doing.

We put on a Christmas show, which was extraordinary, in that I just didn't ever believe I would ever have the confidence to do anything like that. Four weeks before, I had been scurrying round Piccadilly and Shaftesbury Avenue [in London's West End] trying to find someone to score off; four weeks later I was taking part in a Christmas show in a treatment centre – you couldn't have had a greater contrast. If you had asked me what is your idea of hell, it would be taking part in a Christmas show and there I was doing it. And it was really nice.

It was a sort of variety show – you could stand up and read a poem, or sing a song, or put on a skit. I got chosen to be the MC, which was beyond anything I would have ever imagined possible. I had spent my life hiding from people, trying to duck into doorways, and hiding from the police – the idea of being open and vulnerable and doing that in front of people was quite extraordinary.

Everything was very pleasant, everyone was very nice to each other, the treatment centre gave us little gifts, little toiletries. They laid on a big Christmas turkey and we all put on silly hats and pulled crackers and did really normal things.

When you're using and out there on the streets, it's ingrained that you deride anything normal and nice. If I was going to, so-called "have fun", I felt as though I would have to get stoned first; the idea of actually having an enjoyable time, clean, just didn't enter my head. I didn't believe it was possible.

I think [that Christmas] was the first time I ever had fun without using drugs. Yet, I'd never really had fun using drugs – I used to kid myself that I had, but I hadn't. It taught me that there was a possibility I might actually be able to cope in the outside world. Until that point, [rehab] had been quite intense – I'd come face to face with all the dreadful consequences of my using and what a wanker I'd been for years. To quickly follow that with Christmas Day celebrations was quite a contrast.

There were about 25 of us – there were only about four addicts; most were alcoholics – and we had the day off from treatment. We were all in the same boat – it's not as if in the room next door there were people getting pissed. I think we were all aware we had previously used Christmas as an excuse to drink or use more.

My family had disowned me, and I had only just told them I was in treatment – they were naturally sceptical about my chances of success. The previous Christmas I had got so stoned I missed Christmas Day, and I went home on Boxing Day thinking that it was Christmas Day. When I arrived at the door, laden with the stolen goods I was bringing as presents, I couldn't understand why my family was so pissed off. [Being in rehab] made me realise I hadn't celebrated Christmas properly for about 23 years.

Chip Somers is the chief executive of Focus 12, a charity providing alcohol and drug rehabilitation