'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the town of Conover, N.C. (pop. 8,165), police officer Michael Harrison steers his patrol car through neighborhoods of festively lit homes, where few people–or even a mouse–appear to be stirring.
"Christmas Eve can be rather quiet, since most people are home with their families," says Harrison, 51, who volunteers for the holiday shift to help maintain public safety as Santa Claus makes his rounds.
The veteran patrolman has worked nearly every Christmas Eve for 30 years and is among thousands of dedicated laborers–from firefighters and nurses to news reporters and tow truck operators–whose job takes no holiday.
For Harrison, who is single with no children, working Christmas Eve has become his holiday tradition-allowing fellow officers with young children to be home with their families. In the process, he reflects the spirit of giving and finds his own Christmas magic on the job.
"Working on Christmas is like being part of a special fraternity," Harrison says. "It's really what puts me in the Christmas spirit."
Keeping watch by night
Reporting to police headquarters at dusk last Christmas Eve, Harrison began a 12-hour shift that ushered in Christmas Day.
The mood was light as he and three other officers described plans for Christmas Day celebrations, then they settled down to discuss patrol assignments and outstanding arrest warrants.
With snow in the forecast, Harrison pointed his cruiser downtown to a street lined with shops and family restaurants, all shuttered for the holiday. Parking beneath a red illuminated "Merry Christmas" banner, Harrison stepped into the chilly night air to peer inside the windows of a drugstore, an antique store and a jewelry shop. As he walked, he rattled each doorknob to make certain each business is secure.
"We try to be on the lookout for anything that might seem out of the ordinary," Harrison says. "It might be a stack of equipment sitting outside a warehouse door or a light on where it should be dark."
Back in his patrol car, the officer drove to a convenience store, where he stepped inside to assure night clerk Destiny Scheuerman, 22, that he's on the job. "Let us know when you're ready to lock up. We'll swing by and make sure you're OK," he says with a smile.
Born in Bethlehem, N.C. (pop. 3,713), Harrison grew up with elaborate family Christmas celebrations. If not for his Dec. 24 work shift, he'd be at his aunt and uncle's home in nearby Taylorsville, enjoying food and presents and reminiscing with his cousins.
Instead, Harrison finds other ways to mark the holiday, such as delivering toys and other Christmas gifts to less fortunate kids and writing a children's book, published in 2010, titled Cop's Night Before Christmas. The tale is about a small-town policeman encountering Santa Claus while on duty one Christmas Eve.
While Harrison has yet to see the real Santa on Christmas Eve, he is quick to spread the joy of the jolly old elf while on the job in his police cruiser.
"Keep an eye out for Santa Claus!" he shouts to a woman standing outside of her trailer home. "And have a merry Christmas, too!"
Holiday at the hospital
Nurse Dorothy Graves, 61, has spent 39 of the last 40 Christmases on the job caring for others.
"Since I have to ask members of my staff to work Christmas, I feel I should, too," says Graves, a nurse manager at Tallahassee (Fla.) Memorial Hospital.
Yet, Graves finds moments to treasure during her holiday assignments. She oversees a staff that cares for patients recovering from surgery. During the holidays, the unit's patient count is somewhat lower than usual, but 10 of its 30 beds were filled last Christmas.
"The hospital is unusually quiet at Christmas," Graves says. "But our staff is always happy and upbeat, even if they are a little anxious to complete their shift and get home and be with their families."
To liven up their evening, staff members share traditions that include a Christmas Eve potluck meal featuring homemade dishes prepared by nurses and other workers on the unit. Graves is known for her baked ham. "I cook it slowly and baste with Coca-Cola and brown sugar," she says. "Everyone loves it."
Graves also shepherds the family care unit where, holiday or not, babies are born. Last year, 14 newborns arrived on Christmas Eve, and another 14 on Christmas Day.
The Grinch might grouse about the labor required in delivering babies, but the nurses never complain, according to Graves.
"We love our babies," she says. "We sent them all home in a crocheted hat and a special Christmas blanket."
The beat goes on
Christmas Eve finds reporter Joey Bunch, 48, interviewing stranded travelers at a bus stop, talking with officers at the police station, or researching stories by telephone from the newsroom of The Denver Post.
"I work the 3-to-midnight shift, which nobody wants during the holidays, so I usually just volunteer," Bunch says. "I don't have any family nearby, and other people have kids."
Bunch says he's worked all but a few Christmases in his 15 years as a news reporter.
Among the most memorable holidays was 2006, when three consecutive blizzards pummeled Colorado, virtually shutting down the city of Denver. Bunch rented a four-wheel-drive truck to get to work. "We only had three or four reporters working and no editors, but we put together four Page One stories and wound up being one of the top three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize that year," he recalls with pride.
Last Christmas Eve, Bunch reported on a Molotov cocktail tossed through the window of a cellular phone store. On Christmas Day, he wrote about skiing and snowmobile accidents at nearby Steamboat Springs and Aspen, Colo.
"Other than that, I kept tabs on some car accidents, checked the airport for delays, and ate a lot of Christmas food," says Bunch, noting that the biggest treat for holiday news staff is an abundance of food in the newsroom.
"Almost every holiday I coordinate a newsroom dinner," says Bunch, who brought barbecued meatballs and a 14-pound ham last year. "It's always a big spread. You have to learn to pace yourself or you might regret it."
Bunch trades his Christmas vacation for extra time off throughout the year. Yet he never feels he's missed the holiday experience.
"You don't have to go looking for Christmas," Bunch says. "If your heart's in the right place, Christmas will find you anywhere."