For many transportation workers, Christmas comes a day early or a day late

Courtesy of the Shaffer family

Tom Shaffer, a longtime bus driver and a senior training instructor for Greyhound, estimates he's worked 15 of the past 20 Christmases. He said his wife has adapted to his absences over the years because "she knows I love what I do."

Military service it is not: These workers expect to come home safe, and their absences are typically measured in days, not months.

But for thousands of pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers, bus drivers, train conductors and other transportation employees, an un-jolly reality exists: Until they attain enough seniority, many of them can expect to spend anywhere from five to 25 years working on Christmas and other major holidays.

Faced with such an enduring buzzkill, transportation employees and their family members often get creative about when and how they celebrate. Sometimes Santa comes with great fanfare on, say, Dec. 19. Sometimes he rolls in with his reindeer (and gifts obtained at fabulous after-Christmas sales) on Dec. 28. But for many of them, Christmas consistently comes a day early or a day late — year after year after year.

That’s the situation Tom Shaffer has learned to accept along with his wife, their two sons and their extended family members who descend each Christmas on the Shaffer home in Rockwall, Texas. A longtime Greyhound bus driver and senior training instructor, Shaffer estimates he’s worked 15 of the past 20 Christmases — and this Dec. 25 will be no exception.

“I’ve just gotten used to it over the years,” said Shaffer, 56. “Greyhound is really, really busy during that time of year. My wife understands this is what I do and she’s grown accustomed to it and she’s accepted it. She knows I love what I do.”

Courtesy of the Shaffer family

Regina Shaffer, right, described her husband Tom Shaffer, left, as a "great person." "He's always so positive," she said. "I've learned a lot from him myself."

Opening gifts at different times
Indeed, everyone who knows Shaffer recognizes how much he loves his job and cares about his passengers. He takes great pains to make holiday bus rides cheery and upbeat.

“I like to be cheerful with everybody,” he said. “I make it my business to say, ‘You have a merry Christmas and a most happy and prosperous New Year’s.’ ... Sometimes people sing Christmas songs on the bus.”

Back at home, Shaffer’s family has found ways to adapt to his absence on pivotal Christmas mornings. They typically break with tradition and open special gifts at different times — sometimes on Dec. 24 before Shaffer has to leave town, or in the late afternoon or evening of Dec. 25 after he’s completed his bus route.

“Whatever we consider to be, you know, the big gift, we always want him to be here so he can see the reactions,” said Tom Shaffer’s wife, Regina Shaffer, 43.

Occasionally the “big gift” reveal happens late on Christmas day in front of as many as 20 members of the Shaffers’ extended family, and can result in special memories for everybody present. Last year, for instance, the Shaffers bought a telescope for their youngest son Jordan, who was 10 at the time. They were pretty confident their son, a space enthusiast, would love the gift — but his ecstatic reaction astonished everyone.

“We didn’t wrap it — we actually hid it and then set it up when he was in the back,” Regina Shaffer recalled. “When he saw it, his eyes were so big. He was almost crying and saying, ‘Thanks, Daddy! Thanks, Daddy!’ ... There wasn’t a dry eye in this house.”

Courtesy of the Shaffer family

Jordan Shaffer is pictured opening Christmas presents in 2009. Jordan, who is now 11 years old, delighted his family with his reaction to the gift of a telescope last Christmas.

Supporting, cheering fellow employees
A number of airlines provide priority travel passes to crew members so they can have a spouse or another close family member travel with them over the holidays. That way, if they have to spend Christmas in a strange city, at least they have their nearest and dearest along for the ride.

On an informal basis, senior airline workers will sometimes switch shifts with junior crew members who have small children. That way, the junior crew members can enjoy the Christmas morning experience at home.

No matter what, though, many moms and dads do end up working on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Sometimes winter weather is to blame.

Capt. Mark Niles, a pilot for Horizon Air, recalls flying one year with a first officer who had been scheduled to make it home on Christmas Eve.

“We got delayed due to a really bad snowstorm,” said Niles, who lives in Portland, Ore. “She was telling her young son over the phone that Santa Claus had a special arrangement with pilots and flight attendants, and he knew when they had to be gone and he would still show up on the right day. ... That was kind of hard to listen to.”

Niles — who also serves as vice president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations, an organization that represents 28,000 pilots — said he’s worked many major holidays during his 13 years with Horizon.

“I’m fairly junior as captains go in the grand scheme of things,” Niles said. “The junior guys are flying on holidays — that’s just how it is.

“In our case, we’ve done alternate days for Christmas, or for Thanksgiving we’ll plan to do it on a different day. Sometimes that works when you can coordinate with family, and sometimes it doesn’t. Then you just have your own little celebration with your immediate family.”

When transportation employees do have to spend the holidays with their “work families,” they usually enjoy special meals together. Greyhound provides traditional Christmas lunches or dinners to workers, and Delta does the same thing for gate agents, ticket agents, ramp workers, baggage handlers and other employees. American Airlines said teams of employees often create potluck, grassroots holiday celebrations with their co-workers.

Niles has fond memories of an unforgettable Thanksgiving meal he shared with fellow Horizon crew members about a decade ago.

“A crew member actually cooked the complete meal, with all the trimmings, and brought it with them in a cooler,” he said. “We were in a hotel in Boise with nothing open around us, and this person had taken care of the whole meal for all of us!

“It’s so great when you work with a really good crew and everybody kind of bands together for the holidays and does nice things for each other.”

Has a work schedule ever prompted your family to celebrate the holidays in different ways or on different days? Share your stories in the comments! 

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Discuss this post

And they do it without so much as a single published complaint... from the baggage handlers to the pilots! All the whiny retail workers could take a lesson!

  • 4 votes
Reply#1 - Tue Dec 18, 2012 6:48 PM EST

It's not always work schedules that require a shift in celebration days. Many have extended families that cannot be in two places at once. Our kids need to be with their spouses' families on the "big day," so we all get together on the day after and celebrate again. Works out great! Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and blessings on everyone, everywhere, especially our troops overseas!

  • 2 votes
Reply#2 - Tue Dec 18, 2012 8:03 PM EST

My father was a transit worker, and I was a state trooper. We both worked a lot of holidays including many Christmases. Christmas in our family happened when Daddy got home, simple as that.

  • 3 votes
Reply#3 - Tue Dec 18, 2012 8:17 PM EST

Many years mom came up with an idea that to this day....tho she has been gone for several years now....we still hold true. As we got married and had families..instead of trying to work out how to get from one place to another...children in tow..and to not upset inlaws......New Years Day became ~our family~ Christmas. Every one came in some comfy dressing up...we had *snick-snacks* till we could eat no more..everyone bringing something....and took turns descending on someone's house....and having a friendly pool for the football games on that day. What made it even better is that after the was better because everything was on sale!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It took the strain and pressure off..and as the famiy grew....childrenand cousins....nieces and nephews have grown and gotten married..or have moved away.....the tradition continues today.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

  • 2 votes
Reply#4 - Tue Dec 18, 2012 8:37 PM EST

Cool idea. My family often does something similar. With family spread out all over the state and country, and work schedules and other commitments being as they be, it's rarely possible to get everyone together at once. Christmas for us is often the weekend before or after, and during New Years. We split the celebration into two or more separate gatherings with whoever can be available at a particular time.

    #4.1 - Wed Dec 19, 2012 12:08 PM EST

    Spare a thought for the pet-sitters taking care of your animals while you're out of town with your families. I've worked on Christmas, sometimes 12 hours, since 1990-- and Thanksgiving, and New Year, and 4th of July, and Memorial Day, and Labor Day.... A salute to everyone else who works while you play!

    • 2 votes
    Reply#5 - Tue Dec 18, 2012 8:59 PM EST

    Let's not forget about all of the people who work in the medical profession. We all have spent many Holidays away from family and friends. You learn to improvise and celebrate whenever you can. Merry Christmas and a very Happy, Healthy New Year to everyone!

    • 4 votes
    Reply#6 - Wed Dec 19, 2012 2:12 AM EST

    Yes, Patients don't go home on Thanksgiving or Christmas, it's a 24/7/365 job like the others.

    • 1 vote
    #6.1 - Wed Dec 19, 2012 5:30 AM EST

    Yeah Liru1006, I learnt that dating one of your kind - with no fixed time off - is no easy job either :-)
    My girlfriend got her first Thanksgiving day off in 12 years of working as a nurse... and she's working the night shift on Christmas! Could be worse, right... at least we have Christmas eve and most of the next day together.

    • 1 vote
    #6.2 - Wed Dec 19, 2012 9:06 AM EST

    During military shift work, we tried to get the married guys leave for xmas with the family nd the single one's for new years parties. Worked out fairly well.

      #6.3 - Thu Dec 20, 2012 4:08 PM EST

      When I was in high school in suburban Buffalo NY 40 odd years ago, one of my teachers, who was Jewish, organized a group of people in his temple who worked (for free) in the place of Christians who would otherwise have to work on Christmas - those who had to answer the phone, those who worked in nursing homes, in gas stations...all those thankless jobs that still have to be done no matter what day it is. It was a wonderful gift, a truly selfless gesture.

      • 6 votes
      Reply#7 - Wed Dec 19, 2012 5:12 AM EST

      That was so nice of your teacher. Really incredible, so selfless. I agree with others above: those in the medical profession have missed many a holiday also.

      • 3 votes
      #7.1 - Wed Dec 19, 2012 8:20 AM EST

      I never thought about the fact that transportation workers have to work on Christmas. God bless them for never complaining and safely getting families and friends to be with their loved ones during the holiday season. Happy Holidays to everyone! :)

      • 2 votes
      Reply#8 - Wed Dec 19, 2012 8:53 AM EST

      Every year. Both of my adult children work retail in different parts of the state. We never have a family Thanksgiving, and Christmas is always a few days late because they both have to work Black Friday, Christmas Eve, and the day after Christmas every year. Mandatory. This year, they both had to work Thanksgiving Day, as well.

        Reply#9 - Wed Dec 19, 2012 9:44 AM EST

        And it isnt just transportation workers. There are all kinds of service-oriented positions that have to forego the normal holiday times & dates. I worked a lot of years nights, weekends, holidays. Grateful, I no longer have to I am always mindful of certain blessings so many take for granted.

        • 1 vote
        Reply#10 - Wed Dec 19, 2012 10:08 AM EST

        My dad also worked 30+ years at Greyhound. Holidays were always adjusted just a little. Many times he would work the holidays, so his friends with family away could be with them. He knew we would be together some time during the day. Also, the extra money for working the holiday was a nice incentive. Good to see a great story about my dad's old company. My parents met as Greyhound employees in the 1950's.

        • 2 votes
        Reply#11 - Wed Dec 19, 2012 11:17 AM EST

        At least his undeserved Nobel Prize will have some company on his mantle. What a joke, an insult. Everyone involved in Sandy Hook should have been the People of the Year !!!! Not this idiot.

          Reply#12 - Wed Dec 19, 2012 11:22 AM EST

          Wrong story, bub.

          • 2 votes
          #12.1 - Wed Dec 19, 2012 12:00 PM EST

          It's become the "hip thing" this year to jump all over retailers like Target and Walmart for being open on Thanksgiving and Christmas and "forcing their employees to work." But many businesses and services are needed every day-- even on holidays. It's always been this way. I remember working on many holidays throughout college and other jobs. It was tough at times, but it was what I needed to do -- both to pay my bills and to honor my commitment to my employer.

          Kudos to the gentlemen and women in this story for their dedicated work and for shuffling their holiday time with their families, so that the rest of us may get home to see ours.

          • 1 vote
          Reply#13 - Wed Dec 19, 2012 11:59 AM EST

          That's running skeleton crews to sell necessities. "Gift" retailers being open is all hands on deck.

            #13.1 - Thu Dec 20, 2012 4:10 PM EST

            Once again the overworked, overtaxed and over oppressed working stiff american taxpayer who feeds the world and provides all the "stuff" for the riders in the wagon is overlooked. Is it any wonder so many people no longer subscribe to the TIMES and their ilk?

              Reply#14 - Wed Dec 19, 2012 12:10 PM EST

              Huh? What does this story have to do with the New York Times??

                #14.1 - Wed Dec 19, 2012 9:47 PM EST

                I remember being young and missing many holidays working. It is the way of the world. Now it is my little brothers turn, starting out as a chef in a resort, he will spend his first christmas away from the family and will not be there to open presents in the morning with his nieces and nephews. Upon his lamenting to my mother, she looked him in the eye and said "this is the profession you have chosen and you must put up with the good and the bad. be happy you have a job you love at the age that you are and we will see you when we see you. Stop whining." What he doesn't know is that we will all go over after he gets out, and watch him open his presents...

                • 3 votes
                Reply#15 - Wed Dec 19, 2012 1:53 PM EST

                I worked in the computer service industry for over a quarter of a century and seldom got any holidays off, so we just worked around it. The money was excellent when I got called out on a holiday, too, and no, I never belonged to a union!

                  Reply#16 - Wed Dec 19, 2012 4:29 PM EST

                  Don't forget about farmers who work every day to feed you.

                    Reply#17 - Thu Dec 20, 2012 7:08 AM EST
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