This time last year, bringing together a big room of people to sing Christmas carols and kiss under the mistletoe seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Now, however, we are looking at a strictly five-day festive ‘season’ where just three households can meet indoors between December 23 and 27.
In the run up to those dates, almost everything will be different: belting out Good King Wenceslas doesn’t seem like a good idea, those in the top tier might not be able to pick up a turkey, and children are making gift requests to Father Christmas on Zoom.
The government has also warned that even if we can get together, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we should. “Even where it is within the rules, meeting with friends and family over Christmas will be a personal judgment for individuals to take, mindful of the risks to themselves and others, particularly those who are vulnerable,” said the leaders of the four nations of the UK in a joint statement, where they urged people to first think about “alternative approaches such as the use of technology or meeting outside”.
So how are the experts planning to navigate a pandemic Christmas? We ask Professor Lucy Yardley, professor of health psychology at the universities of Bristol and Southampton, Dr Mike Holmes, a GP and vice chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, and Julia Marryat, director of event organiser Mirage Parties.
The three-household rule
Yardley: We’re skipping [a big Christmas get together] because some of the people we usually have it with are very high risk and there are too many households. My husband and I will have a little Christmas dinner together instead. Try to keep visits to other households short and high-quality – restricting the amount of virus you share with others can be the difference between getting mildly and seriously ill.
Holmes: We’ll just be our household, but for many it’s important to come together at Christmas for mental health and wellbeing, so they can get through the next few months. If you do mix households, be aware that it’s an unusual situation and try to socially distance.
Marryat: Christmas Day is going to be just my husband and I and our children. Possibly there will be dog walks with one other person, but socialising has gone for me and most of my friends, to be honest.
Yardley: Do it in advance – you don’t want to bring all the germs from a supermarket queue just before you go to see your relatives. We’re very organised and get all our gifts in advance anyway.
Holmes: We will get most of the presents online, but we will go into town to the shops depending on what tier we’re in. A bit of forward planning is worth doing, particularly if you’ll travel around Christmas.
Marryat: I hate shopping so I’ll do it online for presents, but for love nor money you can’t get an online food delivery. Even in September the Waitrose slots had gone. I’ll go to the supermarket armed with a really good shopping list – you can’t go unprepared to Waitrose for your Christmas shop.
Yardley: There is a risk when it comes to shared surfaces, like if you cough on the parcel when wrapping it then you immediately give it to someone to unwrap. Wrap everything up a week beforehand and put them away, so by the time you give them out any germs should have died.
Holmes: I’m not sure if it’s necessary to quarantine presents. As long as we wash our hands and use alcohol gels then I think the risk around that is pretty low. Do you quarantine letters you get through the post or sanitise your groceries when you bring them home? It’s all about balance.
Marryat: I will get the gifts for extended family delivered, wrap them and then use a delivery service to send them out again, which will create a bit of a delay before they open them.
Sharing out the chores
Yardley: Do this based on risk. Collecting the plates and doing the washing up after Christmas dinner is high risk because you’re touching things other people have touched and put in their mouths. Don’t make your granny wash up.
Holmes: It’s all hands on deck here with my two teenage children.
Marryat: Involve the extended family who are coming and give them a couple of tasks to do so it’s not all down to one person. If your family are arriving on December 23, leave a few decorations for them to put up so they feel involved. You could ask guests to bring decorations too – maybe 10 oranges dried out in the oven, or some paper chains. People want to help, even if it might need to be shepherded by the matriarch of the family.
Yardley: Ventilation is really important. If you have a visitor, air the room while they’re there and after they’ve left. We have a room with a big patio door so it’s almost like being outside, but with a plug-in radiator. When friends come over, we’ll sit two metres apart in there with the door open and the heater on.
Holmes: [If you have people over] have the windows open or maybe go outside – although of course I understand that this might not be possible for vulnerable or older people. What I’ve missed most in the pandemic is the ability to socialise with people, so I may well go for a drink or meal with friends and family if we’re allowed.
Marryat: I think all of us will be airing our homes a bit more. On Christmas morning we’ll be blasting everything through, but I won’t be eating my Christmas lunch in the cold with my coat on.
Seeing vulnerable friends and family
Yardley: If you can safely get the vulnerable person to come to you, then that’s better than lots of you going to them, otherwise they’ll be in their house with your virus lingering in the air for long after you’ve gone. Try to self-isolate as much as possible before meeting vulnerable people. If you want to go to the pub with friends you haven’t seen for ages, then do it after you’ve seen your grandparents, not before. Hugging is the best way to give someone the virus, so if you want to show how much you love someone, do it by not hugging them.
Holmes: My parents are in their mid-70s and both have long-term health conditions, as do my in-laws, so we probably won’t see them. It feels like a vaccine is coming and people are talking about the beginning of the end, so let’s just stick it out until it’s genuinely safe. We will call them on Christmas Day instead.
Marryat: We won’t be seeing my elderly parents, but we’re doing a family Zoom with however many of us can hop on that. We’ll just be chatting – getting the older family members on Zoom is challenge enough, so doing any kind of drinking game might be confusing. We might open presents on it though.
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