Blue Christmas is a day that’s observed on the winter solstice on 21 December. It was originally about comforting those who are grieving or struggling during the holiday season. And though the reason for observing this day has mostly remained the same, it has also taken on a new meaning.
In 2016, a resident of Simpsonville, South Carolina, started a whole new movement that sought to honour and highlight law enforcement officers’ sacrifices each year to protect us during the festive season. This day has been chiefly celebrated in the US, primarily focused on police officers. But all around the world, first responders and members of the emergency services make sacrifices at Christmas to keep us safe.
Johnny Walker, from one of the ambulance services in Yorkshire, talked with me about the working hours during the holidays. “We don’t get any special leave; it’s just another working day for us”, he said. “We try to work it out amongst ourselves. If somebody has young children, we normally swap our shifts with them so they can enjoy a family Christmas. It’s an entirely voluntary arrangement.”
A firefighter and father from Leeds described what impact the job has on his family time:
“We work on a shift-based system which means we work at least part of Christmas most years. This year I am working on the day shift on the 23rd and 24th and night shift on the 25th and 26th. So, I won’t be able to spend Christmas Eve with my boy because by the time I’ll get home, he will be in bed. But I’ll get Christmas Day with him this year.”
The holiday season can be a time of partying and socialising for many, which inevitably leads to increased demand for the emergency services – and for people like Johnny, this means longer shifts at work. “We are generally scheduled for 12-hour shifts, but because of the severe demand during this time of the year, our shifts can sometimes be 15 to 16 hours long.”
The UK now finds itself in the grips of a cost-of-living crisis. With the colossal rise in energy bills and a hike in the cost of food and basic necessities, emergency services personnel – like many other people right now – are struggling to manage their expenses while meeting the demands of their strenuous jobs. Johnny says:
“Our wages aren’t brilliant, we don’t get any extra help from the government, we just struggle like everybody else. Me personally, I am quite fortunate that my partner just moved in with me. But, if she hadn’t, I would be struggling to heat or eat.”
“It’s not easy for anybody right now”, says the firefighter. “We are on a pretty mediocre wage. That is why a lot of firefighters try to find extra work on the days off to try and boost their income to meet the price of groceries, price of heating, and just fuel to get to work. About £600–700 a month goes into heating the house, electricity and fuel for the cars; that’s quite a big chunk off your wage.”
The rising fuel costs apply as much to the workplace as they do to people’s homes. Johnny explained: “The stations are quite old. At my station, the heating regularly goes off, and the boiler keeps breaking down. So, we have to keep warm blankets, and a lot of us prefer to sit in the vehicles because it’s warmer. We ask our stations to be on standby so that we can keep the engine running and the heaters on in the ambulance.”
Protecting the protectors
It has previously been reported that low wages and a real-terms pay cut over the last decade has left police officers in West Yorkshire forced to use food banks and suffering from mental health problems. The people meant to protect us, are struggling to put food on their tables.
In a previous interview, Craig Nicholls, vice chair of the West Yorkshire Police Federation, talked about the officers who are planning to leave the service. The starting salary of just £21,600, means “they are putting their lives on the line for just above minimum wage”.
Mental health is a significant factor for all those working in the emergency services. Johnny told me:
“A lot of staff have left recently because of the sheer demand of work. We get very little in the way of physical and mental health support. There’s absolutely no effort to retain good staff. I had looked at the stats during the summer, and our yearly turnover rate was, I believe, 11% compared to 4.8%, ten years ago.
“It’s a very taxing job. It’s a job I’ve loved for a long time, but it’s getting harder to love. We are currently planning strike action. It’s not something we want to do. None of us wants to go out and strike. But we feel like we’ve been downtrodden for so long that we have to take a stand now.”
To serve and protect
The Leeds firefighter echoes similar emotions but said: “We don’t earn a great amount of money, we work unsocial hours, and we take risks when it’s required. It’s the job we joined, and we know what it means. We are out there to serve the public; that’s why we joined, and we accept that.”
When the people meant to protect us are struggling themselves, you know the situation is dire. The cost-of-living crisis is hitting everyone hard this Christmas. Maybe observing a Blue Christmas won’t change their situation or make things better for them, but it will let our local heroes know that we stand with them in solidarity. You can do this by replacing some of your traditional holiday lights with blue ones or light up blue candles. Or you can share your gratitude for our local heroes on your social media pages and use the hashtag #BlueChristmas.
Make sure first responders know that they are appreciated and respected.