It’s just a few days before Christmas, and most of us are winding down at work and focusing on last-minute preparations to our dinner table. But Christmas Day isn’t a holiday for everyone.
From nursing home chefs, taxi drivers and gas station attendants, to hospital lab technicians, pharmacists and tow-truck drivers, the list of people at work on Christmas Day is surprisingly diverse. And with many people working from home, there will probably be quite a few covertly tapping into their computer checking emails during a lull in the yule action.
But for most people employed outside the home, it’s either their turn on a rotation schedule or they volunteered and are eager to earn a few extra dollars on next week’s paycheque.
On Christmas Day, when streets are generally devoid of traffic and virtually all businesses are closed, their offer to work a shift makes our lives more secure, comfortable and stress free. The Gazette salutes their generous spirit. Let us introduce them to you.
Primary Care Paramedic
St. Albert Firehall No. 3
Peter McDougal, a long-time primary care paramedic stationed in St. Albert for 13 years, is excited about Christmas given that he has two children under the age of seven who still believe in holiday magic. But this year he works Christmas Day.
“We run a two-day, two-night schedule. There are four platoons in St. Albert, and we rotate. Every four years we are doomed to work on Christmas,” he said jokingly, adding that everyone on shift is very supportive of each other's needs.
This year the McDougal family decorated their home with a tree and traditional decorations, many which were handed down from Grandma.
“On Christmas Eve we hang up the stockings. I read The Night Before Christmas and we set up milk and cookies for Santa and carrots for reindeer. And then we get ready for bed. I love the magic of Christmas and I love to watch my kids. And I feel guilty knowing we’ll have to pop that bubble.”
Usually on the big day, the children are permitted to empty their stocking and open one gift before eating a healthy breakfast of fruit and buns. By 3 p.m., the grandparents have arrived and everyone sits down to a big turkey meal with all the trimmings.
“Every once in a while, my mum says we should do ham, but we also do turkey. After the hustle and bustle we watch a movie. We have a relaxed time and don’t worry about anything.”
“Christmas Day is about connecting with family and taking time to step back from the hustle and bustle. It’s about reminding yourself about the special people in your life and taking time to appreciate them.”
This year, Dec. 25 at the fire hall means finishing up or cleaning any tasks not completed by the night crew, checking equipment to make sure it’s operational and pitching in to cook meals.
Since the fire hall is a public building, residents sometimes pop by with coffee, doughnuts and treats.
“I feel we have a good relationship between the department and St. Albert. I feel they appreciate us and we’re happy to do things for them.”
Emil Chun Yim
Emil Chun Yim, manager of Borealis Lights, St. Albert’s newest massive outdoor light attraction at Kinsmen RV Camp, keeps on top of things using three cellphones.
With a staff of six, he administers and maintains the light show. That includes exhibit repairs, dealing with technology issues and smoothing over any grievances from the public. And while completing the daily duties means working 10 to 12 hours every day, his upbeat personality keeps him on track.
“I enjoy it. When you’re in the middle of putting it up, it’s nose to the grindstone. But once everything is up, it’s very rewarding to see the smiles on people’s faces,” said Yim.
He is a seasonal employee for CLG, an Edmonton company with more than 20 years experience in commercial Christmas lighting and decorations. Yim has displayed his skill at numerous regional outlets including West Edmonton Mall, South Edmonton Common, Southgate Mall, Fort Edmonton Park Winter Market and the University of Alberta Luminaria.
Although Yim is not celebrating Christmas Day with family this year – their work schedules conflict – he has a deep respect for the celebration.
“It’s about family and friends and making whatever time you have with them meaningful. It pulls to the forefront. For me it resonates because I work on Christmas Day. Here you see cars go by with happy smiles and laughter. It makes you think about the time with your family. And if you can schedule time, use it meaningfully.”
Born in Hong Kong, his parents immigrated to Canada when he was two years old. Life was financially difficult for the Yim family, but somehow there was always a humble Christmas cobbled together for the two sons.
“We had a little apartment but no fireplace. So, we hung up our stockings on a lamp because it had a knob that fit the hook. It was the only place to put them,” Yim said, laughing at the childhood memory.
“We’d make a wish list. Our parents would do what they could, but most of the time it wasn’t an actual thing. It was a knock-off from the Dollar Store.”
Once in Canada, the family continued their tradition of celebrating Chinese New Year.
On the appointed day, the family would go to a temple where parents would sit on a row of chairs and children would line up to receive red pockets, envelopes filled with a loonie or toonie symbolizing good luck and prosperity for the coming year.
“As a kid, you have all these loonies and toonies and it seemed like so much money. But I always gave it back to my mum. My dad died of cancer [when I was] in junior high and I had to help with the bills.”
Although conflicting schedules prevent the Yim family from gathering at Christmas, they plan a big meal at a restaurant closer to Chinese New Year.
“I’m grateful to be part of this with the Kinsmen and the Kinettes. Lots of people have been asking where the proceeds go. A portion of every ticket goes to them. Did you know that the Kinettes are the only organization in St. Albert that delivers a Christmas hamper to the door of families in need? I think that’s special.”
Cpl. Terrance Willard
St. Albert RCMP headquarters
Cpl. Terrance Willard is a 17-year veteran of the RCMP who spent a decade working in the shadows performing undercover drug surveillance. One year ago, he was promoted to the position of watch supervisor and is back in uniform with six constables under his guidance.
Willard is scheduled for the day shift where he will be handling phone calls dealing with alcohol related issues, collisions or welfare checks.
“Christmas can be tough for some people. If someone calls and they haven’t heard from a friend or relative, we check on them. And Victim Services provide gift cards. If we run into anyone who needs them on Christmas Day, we hand them out,” said Willard.
Since he’s on shift Christmas Day, most of his celebrations take place prior to Dec. 25. As part of his pre-Christmas celebrations, the dedicated grill master purchased a 15-pound brisket to barbecue for a party with staff.
“They’ve been asking and they’re coming to my house.”
The Willard family is big into decorating Christmas trees – one for the bonus room and one for the main floor. Outdoors, the family has installed permanent exterior lights along the eavestroughs. Using a phone or computer app, Willard can choose from numerous choreographed light designs and colours
During the second week of December, Willard celebrated Christmas with his Italian mother, enjoying turkey, ham and lasagna. And on Dec. 24, the family will drive to Red Deer for a celebration with his in-laws. By the time they return that evening, Santa will have magically arrived with a stash of surprise gifts.
Every year in a pre-Christmas ritual, the Willard children are required to complete seven acts of kindness. Once the acts of kindness are finished, a magic flashlight appears on their doorstep.
“They shine it up in the sky and Santa knows they’ve done their acts of kindness. We put the flashlight under the tree and when he comes, he takes it back.”
As for his role as an officer, “I just want people to know we’re here and are working. People sympathize when you can’t have Christmas Day off, but we are here to do a job when people need us.”
Landmark Cinema St. Albert
Shea Spofford, a St. Albert Catholic High alumnus, has a bright future. He is studying computer software development at NAIT and starting January, he’s been accepted into an IT internship with Correctional Services Canada.
Employed part-time at Landmark Cinemas St. Albert since 2019, he is one of the longest-serving employees at the local movie house.
“It’s very close to where I live. It’s convenient. They’re flexible with school and I can work the hours I want. They’ve been good to me,” said Spofford.
Unlike many applicants who enjoy working front-of-house, you will likely see him at the back cleaning theatres or in the kitchen cooking pretzels, pizzas, cookies and nachos.
“I’ve always liked cooking and I like working by myself. I’m more quiet, introverted and I like working back there. And working Christmas Day is fun. Everybody is happy and joyful. It’s surprisingly busy. It’s fun and the time goes by quickly.”
The one-tree family starts the Christmas celebrations by decorating the house, including a Nativity manger placed under the tree.
“On Christmas Eve night, and every year my mum gives my sister and I a different ornament that represents something about us kids,” Spofford said.
On Christmas Day, the family traditionally has breakfast together before his 1-6 p.m. shift at Landmark. And then it’s off to Grandma’s house for dinner.
“Ham, turkey and mashed potatoes. That’s my go-to.”
As for gifts, he has reached the age where he never seems to know what he wants.
“My mum and grandparents just wing it. It’s harder for them, but it’s more fun for me.”
But Christmas Day isn’t complete without watching a holiday movie and munching home-baked cookies. Home Alone 2 is his favourite.
“It’s the best holiday. It’s the best time. During the season I love sitting in the dark by the Christmas tree with lights on and watching Christmas movies. It makes me so happy.”
Father Jack Herkoltz
St. Albert Catholic Parish
Father Jack, as he is known to the congregation at St. Albert Catholic Parish, describes his long road into the priesthood with a smile, a twinkle in his eye and a few well-timed jokes.
Raised in a devout Catholic family, many members eventually took up the cloth. Coming from that milieu, Jack Herkoltz, too, was pointed in that direction.
“But I discovered girls in high school. I tried it in my early 20s, but it wasn’t for me. And then I took up working for the Department of Environment,” said Father Jack.
But at a certain point, the calling was too great, and he was ordained as an Oblate priest. His first parish was in Whitehorse, where he served the region for seven years.
“I enjoyed it. For me, it was the people, the strong sense of community. Also, I was chaplain of the RCMP.”
He was then resettled at The Pas, Manitoba for four years before returning to Edmonton to serve at St. Charles Catholic Parish for another three years. Father Jack was uprooted once more to St. Peter’s Catholic Church in New Westminster before receiving St. Albert Parish as his current assignment.
“Travel has broadened me. It’s made me more open to people and possibilities. If you are very provincial and come from a small community, it’s easy to become set in your ways. By moving around, I believe it makes you a deeper person.”
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are a blur of activity. Four masses are scheduled on Christmas Eve when the bulk of the congregation attends, while two more masses are held Christmas Day.
Christmas Eve mass at 5 p.m. is typically when a family Christmas pageant is added.
“It’s a mass for families and younger children. We also set up chairs in the basement and live stream it because we can’t accommodate everyone in the main church upstairs. I’ll be doing the 10 p.m. and midnight mass.”
On Christmas Day, Father Jack will officiate at the 11 a.m. mass. Once all the services are complete, he will drive to Vermilion to celebrate with extended family, an option he was unable to enjoy when he lived out-of-province.
As he shepherds his congregation through December, Father Jack will have attended Christmas concerts, school events, committee meetings and assisted parishes providing Reconciliation services. This is in addition to presiding at funerals, hearing confessions and serving mass at three seniors continuing care facilities, as well as being on call at the Sturgeon Hospital.
When asked what Christmas means to him, he pauses for a moment and contemplates.
“We honour a man who, just like any family or friend, has a birthday. This is a fundamental part of my life and that of many people who share the day. We have a man who inspired us through the life he espoused – and that is, love God and love your neighbour. And if you do, you’re in good shape.”