Jennifer O'Connell: We applaud those who stayed away this Christmas
Worrying about getting together on Christmas Day is both beside the point and the only point
There will be a lot of empty chairs at Christmas dinner tables this year. Photograph: iStock
So here it is, merry Christmas. Everybody’s having fun, or some paler, safer, rough approximation of “fun”. Are you waiting for the family to arrive? Are you sure you’ve got the room to spare inside? Really? Enough room so that you can all keep your 2m apart, masks on and a window cracked for good measure?
In truth, not everybody is having fun this year. We’re not all waiting for the family to arrive. Dublin airport passenger numbers will be down 88 per cent over the holidays. Between Monday, December 21st and January 4th, 127,000 people will fly in and out. Last year, it was 1.2 million. About 13,000 passengers will pass through Cork Airport; slightly over a tenth of last year’s traffic.
In place of all those furloughed traditions, we’ll be forging new, more fretful ones. We’re buying more lights and more Christmas trees, as though we can keep the darkness at bay with flashing LED bulbs and dancing Santas in gold velvet
Many more who live in Ireland won’t travel to see family in other counties either, because they’re worried about the pathogens that might be lurking in their nasal passages, ready to pounce and cause a mild sniffle, a catastrophic cytokine storm, or something in between. They’re heeding the warning by Prof Martin Cormican that, if they’ve been living it up this weekend and they go to see older relatives, they’re “putting their lives at risk”.
It all adds up to a lot of empty chairs at Christmas dinner tables this year. A lot of graves that won’t be visited, a lot of grannies who won’t be eaten out of house and home.
In place of all those furloughed traditions, we’ll be forging new, more fretful ones. We’re buying more lights and more Christmas trees, as though we can keep the darkness at bay with flashing LED bulbs and dancing Santas in gold velvet.
If this is your first Christmas abroad, the other new traditions you can look forward to – and I speak with the weary knowledge of an ex-emigrant here – include juggling time zones to try to organise a mutually compatible Skype slot, discreetly coaxing the grandchildren to perform for the camera. A lot of telling yourself that it’s only a day. A few episodes of slipping into the bathroom for a quiet, shuddery sob.
The infantilising and, as it turns out, far too optimistic messaging from public health officials was that if people “managed to keep up the very high standards of behaviour for the full six weeks”, they would get to reward themselves with a “normal Christmas” or a “meaningful Christmas”. Many of us did our best, but the ghost town out in Santry and the R number creeping up to 1.3 this week shows it hasn’t really worked out like that. This can still be a meaningful Christmas, but it won’t be a normal one.
Given the grief experienced by so many this year, the faces and hands pressed against nursing home windows, the “Back Soon” signs, the terrorised women who crept to the bathroom in the middle of the night to message Women’s Aid, the children who fell through the cracks when schools were closed, the livelihoods that evaporated, fretting over one dull Christmas seems self-indulgent.
I was thinking about this when I heard actor Rob Delaney on BBC Radio 4. The station had asked well-known people to share “moments of light”. At the end of a year like this, he thought, nobody needs to hear “some mid-tier celebrity’s musings on lemon curd or parakeets”.
Instead, he wanted to talk about something more meaningful: his own death, and how it will bring him closer to his son Henry. Just under three years ago, Henry died of a brain tumour. “I don’t know if Henry made me love his brothers more, but it certainly made me love them better. Because when I hold them now, I know what they really are,” he said.
We’re all just temporary gatherings of stardust, trying to make the most of these too-fleeting moments
“They’re temporary gatherings of stardust, just like Henry. They won’t be here forever. They’re here now, and it is my staggering privilege to get to hold them and smell them and stare at them.”
It was a timely reminder that worrying about getting together on Christmas Day, in a year like this, is both beside the point, and the only point. The knowledge, deeply understood but seldom articulated, that we are all just temporary gatherings of stardust suspended, as Delaney hauntingly puts it “between the magnetic push of life and the pull of death’s gravity” is why this year has been so hard.
It’s why social distancing is anathema to our very humanity. Christmas is not, after all, only a day: it is one of a very finite number of such days. Writing about her decision not to travel home in the New Statesman, the Irish writer Megan Nolan wondered, “How many more will I have? And how many more with all the members of my family, in the place I was born and grew up?”
This year has been full of unsung heroes, and for one day next Friday, it will be the people who weighed it all up and stayed away. The emigrants who decided to settle for the watered-down Christmas of Zoom Kris Kindles and slightly crushed Taytos that came in the parcels from home, because they couldn’t, in all conscience, come. Or maybe they just couldn’t face the curtains twitching – their motivation doesn’t matter. They didn’t descend in their hordes and for that, we should be clapping them on the doorstep.
Some people have come home anyway, maybe because they have reason to be especially aware of the finite nature of these days. Or because they needed respite from the sadness of this year. Or they’ve managed to buy the entire stock of antigen tests on Amazon or hire an island to quarantine on. That’s okay too. They’ll get no judgment here. We’re all just temporary gatherings of stardust, trying to make the most of these too-fleeting moments.