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Holiday traditions are important. Traditions not only make the holiday memorable, but they serve a higher purpose. Traditions help build a sense of stability, and regardless of what else is going on during the holiday season, families look forward to and count on participating in traditions.

Even if you are a non-traditionalist in every way, you can’t help but notice and feel the warmth of the holiday cheer. From the different lights, decorations, food and drinks, sayings, greetings, songs and the general feeling that envelop the holiday season whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza or just watching the ball drop to bring in the New Year.

Within different professions, such as firefighting, traditions not only a rite of passage but a way of life. Choosing a career as a firefighter is a life, not just a career. Along with this life comes a rich culture, with its traditions, decorations, and even colorful expressions. In tune with the holiday season, here are some traditions within some fire departments that you may or may not know.

Star of Life
The Star of Life is a six-barred cross that represents the six system functions of emergency medical services—reporting, detecting, response, on scene care, care in transit, and transfer to definitive care. This symbol identifies emergency care in medical professions and is worn on the shoulder by emergency communications personnel.

The Maltese Cross
The Maltese Cross is known around the world as the symbol of fire service. Its origins go back to the Crusades and is named after the Island of Malta which was eventually known as the home of the Knights of St. John. The symbol was used to help identify friend from foe while fighting. The Maltese Cross evolved into an appropriate symbol for modern day fire service and represents the principles of gallantry, charity, loyalty, generosity to friend and foe, service and protecting the weak.

Red Fire Engines
Wherever you are driving, you can always identify one of the big red fire engines coming down the street. Fire engines have been painted red since the 1800s. Firefighters in different brigades wanted their engine to stand out by being the cleanest, having the most brass, or being a regal color. At that time, it was a competition between the firefighters in neighboring cities and towns. Red was considered the most expensive color, so that is what was chosen to pain the pump. While there are various sources to this tradition, others say that the red engine tradition came from the early 1920s when Henry Ford wanted to make inexpensive cars, so they were only offered in black. With all the black vehicles on the road, the fire service began painting their vehicles red to stand out. While this is a plausible reason—a unique fun competition dating back to the 1800s is a far more exciting reason.

The Dalmatian Dog
Everyone loves a good pup! One of the most beloved symbols of the fire service is the Dalmatian dog. The fire service adopted Dalmatians during the days of the horse-drawn fire wagons because they weren’t afraid of the horses. The Dalmatian is a dog that has excellent agility and endurance—and would run out in front of the horses and clear the streets for the fire wagons. Eventually, horses were replaced by engines, but many fire departments kept their Dalmatians. Some stations to this day still have dogs or statutes of Dalmatians standing proudly.

Many traditions and symbols are used within the firefighting profession. All have a purpose, and some are widely shared while others are per station. Whatever they are, traditions are great for keeping a community together.