How to have a happy Halloween, Christmas and St Valentine’s this winter

Forget large groups, this winter is all about early planning and intimate gatherings

The list of seasonal milestones set to be cancelled, curtailed or re-imagined this winter is long. It is either profoundly depressing or a golden opportunity to make special memories of a year most of us would just as soon forget, depending on how you view the state we’re in.

While dealing with a lockdown and a pandemic as the days warmed up and the evenings stretched out grandly was hard for most people, facing the challenges of the virus in the dead of winter will be tougher.

It will be harder still once many of the ritualistic celebrations which have been part of our world since pre-pagan times are taken away or altered almost beyond recognition.

While Zoom parties may have lost whatever lustre they once had, there are alternatives for people who want to keep the magic of Halloween alive in the minds of children

Even thinking about Christmas, New Year's Eve or St Valentine's Day at the end of a September week that has seen the country basking in an unexpected Indian summer seems ludicrous. But now is the right time to "face the fact that those winter moments we land on and plan for are going to be different in 2020," says clinical psychologist Tony Bates.


Rather than hoping the “cold dark winter months” look after themselves, Bates suggests we “lift the curtain of denial and give our plans some thought, at least to help us get through to the new year”.


With the Covid monster potentially lurking behind every door, living on every door bell and travelling unseen on every wrapped sweet handed over as part of a Trick or Treat expedition, it is unlikely there will be any door -to-door collections this year.

While the Government and its public health officials have yet to formally rule it out, the idea that hundreds of thousands of school children will break from free from the shackles of their school pods and go searching for sweets from strangers is as laughable as the idea of bobbing for apples.

But that does not mean Halloween will be cancelled, and Bates suggests it will be the first chance people get this year to change the narrative from “Woe betide, everything is gone” to “What can we do to make what we have special?”

“Even in small pods people will be able to create their own Halloween festival,” he says. “Maybe they could dress up and have Zoom parties . The trick is to not give up but to be more creative about the celebration.”

While Zoom parties may have lost whatever lustre they once had, there are alternatives for people who want to keep the magic of Halloween alive in the minds of children. Young folk – and adults – should be encouraged to dress up as elaborately as ever but then, instead of going door to door, small groups of friends and family could be brought to a spooky woods or field – where organised grown-ups have hidden treats and maybe the odd trick behind the trees.

Think an Easter Egg hunt only scarier.


Once Halloween is over, the country will be racing headlong into that most wonderful time of the year.

Speaking on his radio programme this week, Ryan Tubridy (a man who knows a thing or two about the magic of Christmas) confirmed that not only had Santa Claus been self-isolating since the start of the year, he also has immunity from Covid-19 and, in any event, has tested negative.

So we know the toys will still come on Christmas morning as they have always done, but the visits to Santa Claus in shops and grottos will be different this year. And people need to be prepared for that.

A socially distanced Santa will then greet family pods and each child will get that all-important gift

Travel within the country, if permitted in the pre-Christmas period, will open up possibilities. Rathwood in Co Carlow hosts one of the most popular Santa grottoes in Ireland with prime slots booking out well in advance of December.

There will be no sitting on Santa’s knee there this year but there will still be a Santa, after Rathwood came up with what it says is “an original idea for these unusual times”.

Families will have a “secure pod” on the Rathwood Express and take “a magical journey through a festive forest” where they will see Santa’s reindeer. The train will then enter a circus big top and families “will enjoy a magical show with Santa, Mrs Claus and the elves from the comfort of their family pod on the train.”

A socially distanced Santa will then greet family pods and each child will get that all-important gift.

"We carried out an experiment in July to see if our trains would fit in the Big Top and they do so people won't have to leave the train," says Rathwood's event manager Brenda Walker. "The only thing is there will be no one-to-one with Santa but this is something new and something different and the safest way we could do it. We also have to respect our Santas and we did not want to put them at risk."

Rathwood has also been noting the counties of those making bookings and will contact those in locations where movement is restricted. “We have a no-risk, no-quibble cancellation policy for people who can’t travel because of restrictions,” Walker says.

Santa aside, shopping and partying are always the big events of the Christmas season. Retail expert and TU Dublin lecturer Damian O’Reilly says that while the shopping season will be wildly different from anything we have seen before, there will still be shopping and supply chains remain “robust”,

He says retailers have been planning for a Covid Christmas since the pandemic was declared in early March.

For popular lines people will shop earlier or where they have younger children who can be guided as to what they like they may purchase earlier

When it comes to buying food, O’Reilly believes it “will be done over an extended period and we will see longer opening hours with people ordering their turkey and hams well in advance and picking them up at allotted times rather than queuing.

“I think people will be better at organising their menus and restrictions might actually make that easier because there won’t be any surprise visitors. And there won’t be the parties where you invite everyone around and have 15 people for dinner.”

Certainly the retailers believe they are ready. Aldi Ireland's Group MD Niall O'Connor tells The Irish Times that there is "no doubt this Christmas is going to be like none we have ever seen before" but he stressed the store is "working hard to make it as special as possible for people".

He says the emphasis on safety will remain and adds that Aldi has “been planning all year for Christmas so we will be ready for whatever the public health situation is at the time”.

Over at Marks & Spencer, it has already been pushing its gift range including illuminated gins and enormous Percy Pigs and at the beginning of next month its Christmas food to order offer goes live with collection slots available for customers to book.

While people can place orders up to December 15th, it seems clear that this year more than any other the earlier the shopping is done the better.

Apart from food, O’Reilly says the large crowds normally seen in towns in the weeks before Christmas will most likely not materialise this year – although there will be queues. “With so many people working from home there probably will not be the last-minute rush, and shopping will be spread throughout the day. There might be queues all day but I think they will be managed better by the retailers. The only thing you can hope for is some half-decent weather.”

He anticipates online delivery is “going to be huge” in 2020.

The sales

After Christmas will come the winter sales. O’Reilly believes they may be less pronounced than before, as retailers have managed their stock differently and there is unlikely to be as much excess stock. “You will still have winter sales with the retailers who buy specifically for the sales,” he says.

While Santa Claus obviously takes care of the bulk of toys for children, many parents like to add to those, and this year organisation and advance planning will be essential.

Smyth's Toys is gearing up for a Christmas like no other. Spokeswoman Lisa Carey says people are already stocking up. "We have seen some bigger box items purchased, and anecdotally from store managers we have seen more trolleys in-store than usual for this time of year," she says.

Carey says “for popular lines people will shop earlier or where they have younger children who can be guided as to what they like they may purchase earlier”. Parents with children of school age meanwhile usually tend to wait until the Santa letters are signed, sealed and delivered before buying anything.

Echoing O'Reilly's comments about the growth in online sales, she says Smyths has already seen a significant shift to the virtual space since March, and that trend is only likely to grow in the weeks ahead.

Smyth’s has free same-day click-and-collect service at all its stores, which Carey says “is a safe and quick way to shop at our stores also for our older customers who may be nervous”. The toy retailer is also planning to extend its opening hours from November 18th and open Monday to Friday until 11pm right up until December 23rd.

Then of course there are the Christmas parties and the meals out. Many Irish restaurants depend on the Christmas season to survive with as much as 40 per cent of income coming in the last two months of the year.

The head of the Restaurants Association of Ireland Adrian Cummins is downbeat about the prospects of a happy Christmas this year. "We don't think there is going to be a Christmas in the manner and fashion of the past," he says.

It is hard to imagine that when a maximum of six people will allowed at any table and people will need to be conscious of all the other public health rules in place.

But will people still have fun? "I don't know is the answer," Cummins says. "I would say people will be pretty cautious this Christmas."

He says time limits will be more strictly implemented in restaurants, and all night sessions will not feature this year. There will be no night clubs or late pubs, and all the pubs that can open will have to have a strict closing time of 11.30pm.

There are options though, and if people manage their evenings carefully they should be able to move from a restaurant to a pub to another pub and then maybe another pub. “It will have to be controlled and if we all play by the rules it will be okay,” Cummins says.

It is a different story when it comes to New Year’s Eve. It is hard to think of ways to avoid this being a damp squib. For a start pubs will close at 11:30pm, and there is not likely to be any hugging or kissing of strangers. And house parties are off the table.

Valentine’s Day

By contrast Valentine’s Day may be a delight because for the first time in a generation restaurants won’t be able to shoehorn in as many tables as they can in an attempt to cater for all the loved-up couples. Not only that but people won’t be going out in groups, so contact tracing and crowd control will be a doddle.

“The Valentine’s experience will be ideal for the medics because you will just have your couples and that will be it,” Cummins says. “It will be utopia for the doctors with no mingling.”

While things will be different, Tony Bates is optimistic. “We mark the transition into winter in different ways because it is hard. And because we are facing into the darkness and the cold we have always sought these special moments when we see people.

“Many of those moments are probably not going to be there,” he says. “It could be a long and lonely time or it could be a gorgeous time, and we could be kinder to each other.

“Now is the time to focus on what is not around this Christmas and to make a choice. We can concentrate on what is missing or we can wipe the slate clean and focus on a new type of Christmas and make something of it. It will be different but that does not mean it will not be joyful; it can still be joyful.

“In fact, maybe it will feel more like Christmas than other Christmases because we will have that sense of community, that sense of solidarity. This might be the most traditional Christmas than we have seen for many years.”