It's supposed to be the merriest time of the year. Laden with presents, young professionals go home to see their elderly parents and soak up the comforts of home. What is Christmas without someone else to do your laundry, cook for you and generally spoil you?
For others, Christmas sees children return home, or a chance to catch up with old friends. Christmas is familiarity, comfort and crucial downtime.
It's also an economic necessity for scores of businesses. Christmas spirit leads us to loosen the purse strings, spending thousands at our favourite retail outlets. Per capita spending on Christmas peaks at 639 euros in Britain, with Spain, Italy and Germany not far behind. European non-food retailers make 20–50 per cent of annual sales (paywall) in the four weeks leading up to Christmas.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic this makes for a toxic mix. Families are desperate to see each other, particularly after a challenging year where many people’s wellbeing has taken a hit. One-in-five Luxembourgers, for instance, report feeling lonelier than before. Businesses too, are desperate to keep trading and protect the livelihoods of their workers.
However, keeping shops open and allowing families to see each other risks increasing Covid infections. An (admittedly small) study published in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine found that customer-facing employees in grocery stores were five times more likely to test positive for coronavirus than their backroom colleagues, and probably acted as reservoirs of infection in their communities. As for festive gatherings, Canada saw its highest number of Covid-19 infections in the two weeks following Thanksgiving on 12 October. Something similar may be unfolding currently in the US, which celebrated Thanksgiving on 26 November.
The fear is genuine. A combination of increased shopping activity and inter-generational mixing at family gatherings could lead to yet another surge in cases, with the hospitalisations and deaths that tragically follow.
For governments, this leads to tricky decisions. Do you increase restrictions in order to suppress the virus, but risk hurting businesses and damaging people’s morale? Or do you allow people to meet with fewer restrictions, and let businesses keep trading, while accepting the risk of a sudden rise in cases?
Across Europe responses have differed. Germany has gone into a partial lockdown from 16 December until at least 10 January. Britain is relaxing Covid rules for five days, though with guidance differing between the four nations. Luxembourg has so far maintained current restrictions, although a full lockdown may be looming.
Perhaps the clearest approach is Poland’s. Poland is allowing people to host up to five guests in their household over Christmas, but has de facto acknowledged that this will lead to a rise in cases by pre-announcing a lockdown of at least three weeks from 28 December. This includes a delay in the new school term, as well as the closing of all non-essential shops and other measures.
Depending on your point of view, this could seem either transparent or cynical. Transparent because the trade-off is clearer than in other countries, where politicians have not always been clear with the public (although public health experts can be refreshingly honest). Cynical because by announcing a lockdown in advance, they’ve essentially acknowledged that opening up shops and households for Christmas is going to cause harmful effects, yet gone ahead and done it anyway.
What does this mean for us as individuals? As sons, daughters, parents, grandparents and so on, we have to weigh up the risks and benefits and come to our own decisions. There’s no cookie-cutter template for this, as the official rules that apply will vary depending on where we live and where we’re planning to visit.
But the official rules, while undoubtedly important to follow, are a poor guide to difficult personal decisions. The risk of unwittingly carrying an infection to our loved ones is difficult to bear, but in personal terms also maddeningly difficult to quantify. We can also mitigate this risk with practical measures. The World Health Organisation recommends a set of practical measures for Christmas such as maintaining physical distance from our relatives, keeping rooms well-ventilated, and wearing masks.
With governments across Europe allowing varying degrees of freedom over Christmas, they have essentially placed the burden on individuals to decide. My own decision is to not travel back to Britain to see my family this Christmas — we’re holding out hope that things will have improved sufficiently by Easter that we’ll be able to celebrate a ‘delayed Christmas’.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow. 2020 has been a long year, and for my family as for many others we’ve had a bit of a rough ride. We decided not to see each other, but the pendulum could just as easily have swung the other way. We wouldn’t be breaking any rules and the desire to have some quality time together is high.
These tightly balanced decisions are being taken by millions of families across Europe this week, who are trying to juggle the risk of spreading an invisible virus against a web of complex public health rules and the simple wish for some kind of normality.
At the very least, governments should be honest and upfront with their citizens and make it clear that the virus doesn’t care for Christmas. Whether it’s right or wrong to meet our loved ones is a finely poised personal decision, but as a society we’ll all suffer from any post-Christmas surge and/or further lockdown.
Let’s not make 2020 any longer than it has to be.