Why are we so obsessed with saving Christmas?

26th November, 2020

We said our goodbyes to my mother on Christmas Eve 1996. She had died earlier in December after a long and painful illness, but when the end came it was sudden. It can’t have been straightforward to arrange a funeral service on Christmas Eve, the churches being put to other uses, but somehow my father managed it; the children’s stockings were filled as well.

I think I speak with some knowledge of what does or does not ruin Christmas.

It has been baffling, then, to watch the speculation in the British press about whether Boris Johnson will “save Christmas”, as though he were some over-promoted elf in a seasonal movie. (It is, admittedly, a role he is better qualified to play than that of prime minister.) Apparently, the thinking is that if the country is still in lockdown in late December, Christmas is ruined. If lockdown is lifted, as expected, in early December, Christmas is saved.

Given how desperate Boris Johnson is to be liked, my money is on the latter scenario. What makes this so absurd is that in the big scheme of things, Christmas doesn’t matter. Don’t get me wrong: I love Christmas as much as the next man, even if the next man is a reformed Ebenezer Scrooge. But when it comes to catching up with my family, I’d rather not risk giving everyone the unintended gift of Covid-19, whether or not it is legal to do so.

As for the economy, the Christmas boom is smaller than you might think. Joel Waldfogel, author of Scroogenomics, estimates that for every £100 we spend across a typical year in the UK, just over 50 pence is part of the December Christmas boom.

Of course, some retailers and restaurants will be badly hit if Christmas spending is prevented by lockdown rules. But we should be honest about the situation: large sections of the economy have already been devastated, and that would be true with or without legal restrictions. Few people want to attend pantomimes in a pandemic.

Covid-19 is a public health disaster; lockdowns are an extremely crude and costly response. Both those facts are true regardless of the time of year. There is an honest case both for and against lockdowns, and whether a lockdown hits Christmas, Halloween or Valentine’s Day is barely relevant.

Consider what makes Christmas fun: the gifts, the feasting, the carols, the family reunions and the tiny tots with their eyes all aglow. The carols are going to have to be outdoors this year, lockdown or no lockdown — Covid-19, it turns out, is unsentimental about such things. Some of the gifts and the feasting will happen anyway, within family bubbles. Other festivities can be postponed until safe. As for the tots, I predict that Father Christmas will be filling stockings come what may.

No, the reason Christmas looms large politically is not that it presents a unique opportunity to enjoy ourselves, but that it presents a unique opportunity for us all to enjoy ourselves at the same time. “All” is an exaggeration; I am aware that some people do not enjoy Christmas, others celebrate Diwali or Hanukkah or Eid, and still others mark Christmas on January 7. Nevertheless, it is a collective celebration.

Christmas, indeed, produces one of the few outbursts of mass happiness big enough to be viewed through sentiment analysis on Twitter. At hedonometer.org, a team of academics plot positive and negative emotions around the world, as measured by the words used in tweets. Christmas Day regularly stands out. That is partly because the researchers code the word “Christmas” as happy. We should not leap to the erroneous conclusion that Christmas is a time of unparalleled joy. Instead, the point is that at Christmas, the joy is collective, or at least simultaneous.

If you are over the age of nine, it is unlikely that Christmas Day is going to be the best day of your year. But it has a good shout of being in the top 10. That is why the newspapers are paying attention; that is why the government is desperate not to “ruin” Christmas.

But it is also something for each one of us to keep in proportion. It is perfectly possible to savour many of the joys of Christmas — the feasting, the family and the fun — at any time of the year. But this time we might not be doing so simultaneously — and can you imagine the resulting headlines if we could not? Each of us should be thinking about what we really value about Christmas and how to sustain those values regardless of circumstances. And, in any case, there will be other Christmases.

Of course, for some people that is not true. Some people will not see another Christmas and may be desperate to see and hug their families one last time. Others are isolated in nursing homes, unable to see friends. Dementia sufferers, perfectly capable of enjoying a friendly face-to-face visit, often struggle to interact through Skype or a closed window, or with someone in a mask. But let’s keep Christmas out of that debate. The isolation of people in nursing homes is intolerable. It is also intolerable to expose everyone in a home to a high risk of a Covid-19 outbreak. This is yet another of the painful choices we are making as a society. It is not clear to me that we are getting it right. But I am confident of one fact: for this dilemma, Christmas is a sideshow.

My mother’s death hit us all hard. She was young, and so were we. Maybe it would have been easier to bear if she had died instead in November or, suffering terribly, endured until January. But I do not think so.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 13 November 2020.

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