People's History of the NHS


Happy Holidays, NHS!

Spending the holidays in hospital - whether as a patient, a family member, a carer, or an NHS worker - is no-one's idea of a good time. Yet there is a long tradition of celebrating Christmas and other religious feasts and civic festivals in medical and care settings. This tradition, particularly in relation to Christmas, is richly evident in the history of Britain's health services, and has roots in their own pre-NHS origins. From singing sisters to tinsel-decked wards to Christmas dinners, NHS hospitals have tried since 1948 to make the holiday season festive, albeit with mixed success. Beyond the hospital, NHS health educators and advocacy groups also take up seasonal themes in an effort to encourage healthy and safe behaviour at Christmas time, and references to the holiday season have permeated major public campaigns, most noticeably in relation to alcohol consumption and drink driving (where trips to NHS emergency rooms and morgues regularly feature).

It is considerably harder to catch glimpses of other religious traditions in British hospitals and other healthcare settings, though we know that such celebrations also took place. For example, in the mid-1940s, during its years as an Emergency Medical Service Hospital, the Jewish Hospital in Manchester gave both Christmas and Hanukkah gifts to servicemen and women on its wards. We know that Eid, too, has been celebrated on the wards more recently. Do you have photos, memories or stories about celebrating your holidays in the NHS? We'd love for you to share them. It is certainly an aspect of NHS culture that has proven elusive in in traditional archives - so we really need your help!

Of course, Christmas is also a prompt to many in Britain to think about gifts and giving; for the NHS, this can often mean charitable fundraising, volunteering and other acts of gratitude, including blood, tissue and organ donation. If you have ever given or received a gift in the NHS, why not take our gift-giving survey and tell us about it!

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