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Meet the people working on the holidays so you don't have to

(SOUNDBITE OF NAT KING COLE SONG, "THE CHRISTMAS SONG")

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Just the first few notes of that song make you want to join in, don't they?

(Singing) Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CHRISTMAS SONG")

NAT KING COLE: (Singing) Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose...

SIMON: Nat King Cole's version of "The Christmas Song." Robert Brandt of Syracuse, N.Y., and his team may really have Jack Frost nipping at their noses.

ROBERT BRANDT: I am the assistant superintendent for the Department of Snow and Ice.

SIMON: He was one of the people we spoke to this week about working during the holidays, which, by the way, happens in the news business, too. For snowplow crews, it comes with the territory.

BRANDT: We live in, like, the snow belt. It could sit over us for hours, days, and it could come out of nowhere.

SIMON: Plow drivers are often exhausted while their children open gifts, if they can make it home in time at all. But Mr. Brandt and his colleagues are proud to help make his city's streets safer, and he is often touched by his community's gratitude.

BRANDT: I remember one year plowing snow, and we were called into the cafeteria, and someone donated 15 turkeys. There was mashed potatoes. There was, like, a whole, you know, family spread.

SIMON: Over at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, Alinda Dygert is another Syracuse resident who's on duty while the rest of us sing carols or spin dreidels. She helps stand watch over the zoo's elephants, who still need to be fed, watered and cared for.

ALINDA DYGERT: You know, the animals don't know it's a holiday, so we kind of try to give them a little bit extra food or something like that. And we always like to do something that's themed for that holiday that's around us for them to kind of get to experience it, as well. But even, like, the snow - some of them like to play in the snow or, like, eat the snow and stuff like that. So I think they've been feeling festive.

SIMON: Does sound like it would be extraordinary to see a baby pachyderm play in the snow. If you like your cocoa, let's say, leaded, Brett Johnson of Washington, D.C., will be on the clock this Christmas. She'll be tending bar at Larry's Lounge and says the holiday can wait.

BRETT JOHNSON: We'll have, like, you know, a random Christmas dinner, just not on Christmas Day. My husband is also working Christmas as a police officer, so...

SIMON: She won't be hungry, though. Larry's provides a full spread for every patron and employee, free of charge. Johnson says that's because it's a gay bar. Members of the LGBTQ community don't always have a supportive family with whom they can spend the holidays. And she says she tries to keep that in mind.

JOHNSON: Of course, I would love to not work. But it's also - one thing about working is that you get to hear people's personal stories, as well, especially in this, like, tightknit community.

SIMON: Not often a white Christmas for Rob Dillion of the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office in California. What about a silent night?

ROB DILLION: You can get a holiday that ranges from a beautiful afternoon all the way out to some pretty crazy, hairy who knows what?

SIMON: He's the deputy public information officer and always on call on Christmas. He says the department tries to celebrate with meals or snacks at the station and recalled a Thanksgiving when he was a patrol officer and responded to a call.

DILLION: They were very appreciative. They offered us dinner. They appreciated the fact that we were working and weren't home with our own families.

SIMON: But duty called, and Officer Dillion had to refuse. Maybe he would have stayed if Mama Stamberg's Cranberry Relish had been on the table. Is it better to be home with loved ones? I guess, but everybody we spoke to said they were also happy to serve their communities, and that's what really makes the season bright.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ryan Benk
Ed McNulty