October 28, 2021

They’ll be home for Christmas… right after work

firefighters observes safety suit

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Cortland firefighter Dustin Contri looks over ice water suits Wednesday at Cortland Fire Department’s Court Street station.

Christmas gifts come in many guises.

Some are boxes bedecked in colorful paper and shiny ribbons. Others are as simple as an envelope with a gift card, or maybe a note inside a Christmas card.

Some gifts are time — time loved ones spend to get to you, and to stay with you to celebrate, or perhaps you spend for others.

And maybe a Christmas gift is a random smile, or a small act of kindness that might otherwise go undone.

But think of the Christmas gift these people give you: your safety, the comfort of someone important to you. Or maybe they just have your back because you forgot the eggnog.

Hundreds of people will work Christmas eve and Christmas day in the greater Cortland area. Some don’t mind, many would rather be elsewhere with friends and family. Often, they don’t have much choice.

But they’re still doing it for you. Think of it as their Christmas gift:

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Short shifts and your convenience

Paul Nino, store manager of the Byrne Dairy and Deli at 117 Groton Ave., Cortland, is scheduled to work on Christmas. That’s by design.

“Holidays are semi-required,” he said.

Nino offers his employees, and himself, a choice between Thanksgiving and Christmas. They can take one off, and work a portion of the other.

But he tries to minimize the pain by shortening the shifts, so more employees have responsibility for more — but shorter — shifts.

On Christmas, his Byrne Dairy store is open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., for which he scheduled three shifts: One five-hours shift — that’s his — and two four-hour shifts, one for opening and one for closing.

“If we lived in a society where people planned, we wouldn’t have to work on holidays,” Nino said. But people either don’t plan, or they forget and remember at the last minute, so they invariably show up on Christmas, looking for some last-minute item.

Dairy items, he said, those are the big ones: milk, eggs, butter, eggnog, buttermilk. Plus some baking materials. But definitely eggnog, which is a seasonal Byrne dairy product.

“It really, really takes off around this time,” Nino said.

Beer and tobacco are also big sellers.

“People drink and smoke more on the holidays,” he said.

“My philosophy is … the job is what enables you to do the things that matter to you in life,” Nino said. He tries to apply that philosophy when scheduling holiday shifts.

Since he’ll be working this year on Christmas, he said his family will schedule Christmas festivities accordingly, by either celebrating earlier or later than usual.

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Just another day

Christmas is just like any other day of the year for Cortland Police Officer Brendan Byrnes. He’ll check for hazardous conditions, respond to calls and conduct investigations.

This year, Byrnes will work 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., missing the morning with his wife, Cassandra Byrnes, and his two daughters.

“She understands emergencies don’t take a day off,” he said. “Somebody has to be there to make sure people get the help they need.”

Byrnes has worked most of the Christmases during his 11 years as a Cortland cop. The atmosphere at the police department can be festive as officers share a meal with food that residents and stores donate.

“It’s nice. It brings us together,” he said.

Christmas also offers a time for Byrnes to check in on the community.

“It gives you a unique perspective of how other members celebrate Christmas. There are members of the community who might not be having a nice Christmas and you try to cheer them up and brighten their day just a little bit,” he said. “Even having a friendly conversation with someone passing on the street can brighten someone’s day.”

Once his shift is over, he plans to spend time with his family, “gift giving and having a good time.”

Cortland Firefighter Dustin Contri knew what he was getting into when he signed up.

“When you got hired on, you knew that was part of the consequences and you’re missing that family time that you’ll never get back, unfortunately,” he said.

Contri will work 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Christmas, away from his wife, three children and three step-children, he said.

His duties remain the same as of any other day — checking and testing equipment and the fire engines to make sure everything is working properly.

In previous Christmases, relatives would join him at the station for lunch, though he wasn’t sure that would happen this year.

Working on Christmas does provide Contri an opportunity to “provide comfort to that family” that may be affected from a fire during the holiday, he said.

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Special day for patients

Guthrie Cortland Medical Center Nurse Elizabeth Willis won’t be working Christmas day, but her daughter, Naomi Harty will.

In the past, the two nurses have tried to schedule their Christmas shifts to work together, so they could spend the day together making patients happy, keeping each other jolly and planning a family get-together for their day off.

“I’ve never worked a holiday that’s not been enjoyable to be honest,” Harty said Wednesday. The nurses and other staff come together as a family for a big pot luck.

“They become your family,” Willis said. “You spend so much time with them throughout the years, so regardless of if you’re at home or at work you kind of are with family regardless.”

Christmas tunes will play on radios through the halls for the patients. If it’s late, the nurses will often get requests to put on a holiday service. It’s about making the day special for the patients, too.

“That’s going to be the one holiday they were in the hospital, so it’s like why not just go in with a good attitude you know and you’re there for them,” Harty said. “You’re making a difference, so that’s a big part of it.”

Nurses collect money for a little gift for patients who don’t have family visiting. Others, like Harty’s daughter, adopt a resident of the Guthrie Cortland Nursing & Rehabilitation Center angel tree. A volunteer with get a resident’s name and provide gifts.

Willis said some patients’ relatives return to thank the nurses for a holiday of help. Others bring snacks or treats.

It’s not a huge deal for the family if the family can’t observe Christmas on the actual holiday — it wasn’t when Harty was growing up and her mother was working at the hospital and it isn’t for Harty’s kids now. They’re 3 and 6.

Harty said when she has to work on Christmas day, the kids will write Santa Claus letting him know that Harty has to work and ask if they can have Christmas a little earlier that year.

“My children know it’s not about the day it’s the time with the family,” she said.