Special Report
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Coronavirus: Will we know it’s Christmas time at all?

Coronavirus has forced us to cancel a lot of things. What will it mean for Christmas?

Covid-19 has forced us all to have conversations we didn’t think we would ever have. Conversations around whether we can travel or take holidays, or whether our children will be able to go back to school. Other conversations – most revolving around whether we can return to normal life in 2021 – we can defer for now. But there’s one conversation we know we can’t put off for much longer. It’s the reindeer in the room, the tinsel-covered topic we’re all trying to avoid. Sooner rather than later, we’re going to have to talk about Christmas.

Covid-19 has disrupted pretty much every aspect of our lives, but somehow, there’s a tiny, childlike part of us that still believes Christmas can be preserved in aspic, and that somehow the magic of the season will exempt it from restrictions, lockdowns and cancellations. We won’t need to worry, because Santa will save Christmas from the virus.

But are we just fooling ourselves? With the festive season fast approaching, we need to start thinking of the practicalities of celebrating Christmas in the year of coronavirus 2020.

Whether we like it or not, Christmas will have a very different flavour this year. A lot of the things we take for granted at this time of the year will have changed, and a lot of the activities we normally associate with the season will be either curtailed or completely off the agenda.


Luckily, Santa is not afraid of catching Covid-19, and he’ll still be able to get on his sleigh on Christmas Eve without so much as a sniffle. After all, he’s been delivering presents in the midst of the flu season since time immemorial, so this new bug won’t knock a feather off him. Besides, Mrs Claus always makes sure Santa gets plenty of hot meals and hot drinks to protect him from colds during his busiest time. And Santa’s beard works far better than a face mask at warding off germs. You might just want to leave a small hand sanitiser out for him to use along with the carrot for Rudolph.

But what about all the other seasonal reliables? Will it be business as usual, or will coronavirus mean Christmas is cancelled?

Christmas shopping

The retail trade is looking forward to Christmas with a certain trepidation, and there’s a worry that the usual seasonal uplift won’t happen this year. Retailers have been hammered by Covid-19 over the past few months, with many stores having to close for weeks on end, and, when they reopened, having to reconfigure their premises and introduce all sorts of protocols to ensure the safety of staff and customers. We’ve become used to queuing up outside shops waiting for the green light to go in, and we’ve grown accustomed to wearing our masks while shopping.

But what happens when and if the Christmas shopping season kicks off? In our desperation to find those last-minute presents, will all regard for personal safety be thrown out the shop window? During the festive season, crowds flock to shopping centres and main streets, and on December 8th, it’s a tradition for people to visit Dublin from the country to do their Christmas shopping. It’s a recipe for overcrowding, and a potential social-distancing disaster.

Although major department stores such as Arnotts and Brown Thomas haven't put in their seasonal crowd-management plans as yet, they have decided to hold back on getting the Christmas frenzy started, mindful that people may not yet be in the mood to think about the season just yet. That's good news for those of us who are sick of seeing Christmas stock magically appear on the shelves before the summer holiday has even been cleared out. Arnotts is delaying the opening of its Christmas Shop until early October, while Brown Thomas waited until the middle of September to deck its halls; it usually opens its Christmas shop as early as August.

It’s a different story in the UK, though. Covid-19 seems to have sparked a rush to get the Christmas season started, and John Lewis opened its online Christmas shop during the last week in August, citing a fourfold surge in searches for festive products compared with last year. According to the retailer, British shoppers are so sick of lockdown and Covid restrictions, they’re looking to the magic of Christmas to sweep all their coronavirus worries away.

It’s safe to surmise, though, that the internet is going to be where you’ll find the crowds this Christmas, so if you want to avoid disappointment on December 25th, you’d better start getting your online orders in now.

Carol services

What is Christmas without carols and cheesy seasonal tunes? Eerily quiet. We’re used to the constant hum of music when the festive season comes around, from the Christmas pop hits of yesteryear pumping out of the department store PA, to the warm, comforting sounds of carol singers wafting from the rafters of the cathedral. But this year could well strike a very different tone in the music department. We will not be able to crowd into a candlelit venue to hear Once in Royal David’s City, In the Bleak Midwinter or To Us a Child Is Born, but will we get a chance to hear any heavenly choir this Christmas?

“The Christmas Mass would be the key event, but we really haven’t given any thought to it at this stage,” says a spokeswoman for the Dublin Diocese. “There’s new guidance coming out every few weeks, and we’re following that guidance, but we won’t be making firm plans for Advent until near the end of October.

“The guidance for choirs is that they have to social distance and keep as far back from the congregation as possible. In many cases, churches are using just one cantor rather than a choir, to minimise the number of people in the church outside of the congregation.”

According to guidance by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, performances by choirs and musical ensembles have been associated with the spread of Covid-19. Epidemiological studies have suggested that singing – which requires you to project your voice – can send aerosols across a greater distance, increasing the chances of spreading the virus. However, the centre also acknowledges the importance of choral music within the faith tradition. It advises choirs and musical groups to adhere carefully to social distancing and hand hygiene protocols, and to be aware of the potential risk for vulnerable members.

Currently, churches are allowed no more than 50 people in the congregation, but larger churches can have larger congregations as long as they can be separated in pods of no more than 50 worshippers. Webcams have been the saving grace of many churches during lockdown, with parishioners able to watch Mass online from their homes, and this is likely to continue until people feel it’s safe to come back into their local church.

Many look forward to Christmas Day Mass in the Pro Cathedral in Dublin city centre, when the Palestrina Choir performs. The diocese is waiting for updated guidance to see if it’s possible for the choir to perform at Christmas Mass, possibly in a pared-down version.

“If I know the Palestrina choir, they’ll find a way to get the music across.”

Christmas lights and cribs

You know Christmas is near when the festive lights start going up in Grafton Street, O’Connell Street and other public places. Traditionally, crowds would flock to a town centre to watch a Jedward or a Goggleboxer officially switching on the Christmas lights, but that will have to be rethought in light of public health guidelines on outdoor gatherings.

One programme that may escape the effects of Covid is Dublin City Council’s Winter Lights Festival. For the past three years, illuminated projections have lit up such city landmarks as City Hall, the Custom House, the GPO, the Mansion House and the Samuel Beckett Bridge, bathing them in massive moving images with a magical Christmas theme.

The council is holding discussions and drawing up feasibility studies to make sure it can safely light up our season this year, from December 1st to New Year's Day. The council will work closely (but not too closely) with local artists and communities to develop the content for this year's Winter Lights, and will be following all Department of Health and HSE guidelines for public health and safety, as well as carrying out risk assessments with help from HSE, Dublin Fire Brigade and An Garda Síochána.

Another gathering point for people at Christmas time is the crib, and one of the most popular is the Live Animal Crib at the Mansion House, which goes up on December 8th, and many families visiting the city centre make a point of popping by the crib after they've cleaned out the Disney Store. The crib is a collaboration between Dublin City Council and the Irish Farmers' Association, and this year the council and IFA are putting their heads together (though not physically together) to come up with a plan to stage the crib for 2020, in conjunction with the current Government Covid-19 regulations. Let's hope we'll be able to see those cute lambs and donkeys – and of course the baby Jesus – again this year.

Visiting Santa

Every good boy and girl knows what they want for Christmas, and they can’t wait to tell Santa what’s on their list. But will the kids be able to safely visit Santa’s grotto this Christmas, or will they have to just email Santa with their request? At the Santa School run by the Ministry of Fun in the UK, the faculty is working hard to ensure that visits to Santa this year are safe and stress-free for both kids and parents. In fact, classes are starting earlier this year to ensure that the student Kris Kringles are fully trained and ready to do their seasonal duty even in the midst of a pandemic.

The Santa School, in Southwark, claims to be the only professional Santa school in the UK, and the Father Christmas class of 2020 will learn all about setting up their grottoes to maximise space and ventilation, how to manage queues outside the grotto and how to make sure the elves maintain social distance. The Santas themselves will wear special red masks to go with their red suits, and instead of handing presents to the kids, Santa will be leaving them on a sleigh for the kids to pick up on the way out.

All well and good, but what if you're planning on making the trip to visit the real Santa at his home in Lapland? Because this will entail flights, accommodation and transport to and from Santa's workshop, the logistics are a bit more challenging. Sunway run trips to Lapland every Christmas, and this year the trips are going ahead, and teams in Dublin and Finland are busy planning the programme for 2020. Trips are selling well considering the economic and health crisis, says Sunway chief executive Mary Denton, although sales are not at pre-Covid levels, reflecting a general caution among the public around making foreign trips. This year's Lapland trips are flying out of only one airport, Dublin, as a precautionary measure, but capacity at regional airports is available should demand increase coming closer to December, says Denton. "It's early in the season for Lapland so it's all still evolving, but Sunway is still making Christmas memories for lots of Irish families."

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times