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Una Mullally: How will we handle Christmas, our biggest Covid-19 challenge yet?

We must work out how to enjoy festivities safely without breaking our hearts

Christmas 2020: All of the settings, scenarios and behaviours are a disaster for everything Covid-related. It is a confluence of everything we’ve been told to avoid. Photograph: Francis R Malasig

I have a small Post-It note above my desk that stares back at me every day. It reads: eat the frog. It comes from a quote that’s often attributed to Mark Twain that if you eat a live frog in the morning, chances are nothing worse will happen to you for the rest of the day. So if you’re going to do it, do it first thing.

We’re halfway through September, and the Government has a pretty big frog to eat that very few are talking about publicly. In mentioning this, I ask for forgiveness. But as this is something I’ve been thinking about for months, I’m not sure for how long we can avoid the largest logistical challenge to public health that we’ve had since the pandemic began, a perfect Petri dish for transmission, and something on which a huge amount of emotion hangs. What are we going to do about Christmas? Gulp.

Christmas is Ireland’s largest social event. It’s when an incredible amount of inward-bound travel to the country happens, and it’s when the majority of the population travels internally as well, even if it’s just to a neighbour’s house or a close-by family member. All across Ireland, cars light up motorways like the Christmas lights themselves. Churches, often pretty lacking in punters throughout the year, are packed. It’s the busiest time of year for all kinds of shops, shopping centres, city centres, restaurants, pubs and bars, along with the industry of staff Christmas parties that fill function rooms, hotels and a wide array of venues, with the unseen corporate booking industry keeping a lot of places ticking along and which has now collapsed.

It’s hard to get a handle on how many people travel to Ireland for Christmas (the vast majority being emigrants coming “home”), but it’s the guts of a million people. Last year, Dublin Airport had its busiest Christmas on record, with about 1.2 million people passing through the airport between December 20th and January 3rd. According to research by a credit card company last year, more than one-third of people coming to Ireland for Christmas book their trip home over three months in advance (so, around now.)


Magic of it all

Deals are struck between families who often split their time across a few days in multiple locations, with multiple visits planned across multiple neighbourhoods and counties. Many people leave their own homes and stay with their parents for a few days, repopulating their childhood bedrooms. Many children delight in the magic of it all, the break from school, and populate their grandparents’ homes and lives for the duration. It is an intergenerational event. For those staying put in one location, neighbours knock into each others’ houses, crisscrossing country roads and estates and sitting rooms and kitchens, as we embrace the season and each other. The trains and busses leaving cities for the north, south, east and west are full.

Neighbours knock into each others' houses, crisscrossing country roads and estates and sitting rooms and kitchens, as we embrace the season and each other

It’s usually boom-time for retail. The streets of our cities, towns and villages, not to mention the suburban and outskirt shopping centres and retail parks are heaving. Last December, in Arnotts in Dublin alone, one million people visited the department store. Some 650,000 passed through the doors of Brown Thomas on Grafton Street in the same month.

We’re talking about a time of year where people pack into houses and pubs and everywhere else, all on top of each other, stretching for refills, hugging, singing, toasting and often seeing multiple different groups of people in multiple venues in a single evening.

Christmas spirit

All of these settings, scenarios and behaviours are an absolute disaster for everything Covid-related. It is an almost complete confluence of everything we’ve been told to avoid; loads of inbound travel from every corner of the world, but notably the UK and the US which aren’t exactly covering themselves in glory on the Covid-19 front right now; loads of cross-country travel; an endless number of house visits; house parties; packed pubs and restaurants; and so on. The idea of “limiting contacts” or social distancing feels completely incompatible with festivities. And yet, we’re going to have to get real and figure out how to do Christmas in a way that doesn’t break our hearts and spirits.

The idea of 'limiting contacts' or social distancing feels completely incompatible with festivities

On shopping, a smart solution for queueing systems in shops needs to be figured out now. Unless this happens, allowing customers to queue and shop safely and allowing for distancing, a lot of retail will simply implode, with perhaps one last gasp for shifting stock at knockdown prices during the sales. People are also going to have to make a conscious choice about where they’re spending their money. Each euro is a vote for who you want to survive a bleak winter. Is it Amazon or is it your local bookshop? Is it a giant supermarket or is it your local butcher? Is it Asos or an independent Irish clothes shop?

It’s time for the country to get practical, and for the authorities to be straight with people. We can’t just magically hope that things will be grand by December. Christmas presents government, the National Public Health Emergency Team, the Health Service Executive and all of us with an incredible array of multifaceted challenges. It’s chaos at the best of times. A lot can happen in three months, we know that, but many people’s plans are in train, and we need to know where we stand. Retailers, hoteliers, publicans, restaurateurs, clergy and indeed families need to know what the plan is.

Can we make a new kind of Christmas that is different, but that doesn’t leave us feeling bereft? Who has the bright ideas? Let’s hear them. Because we’re going to have to eat the frog, I’m afraid, and better sooner than later.