With large gatherings impossible, shopping restricted and Santa’s lap an illegal destination, what will Christmas look like this year?
Despite the recent vaccine announcements, we will all be living with restrictions until well into 2021. Even if the current spike in cases can be blunted, the seasonal rise in flu will add to the testing burden. Older people may need to isolate again, as the risk increases. It doesn't mean that Christmas is cancelled, but we may have to use a bit of imagination and focus on the important stuff.
Family Gatherings: Christmas is traditionally a time to get the whole family together. That seemed unlikely this year, but then the recent announcement about a five-day relaxation of rules mean that some form of Christmas gathering will now be possible. As things stand, up to three households will be able to meet over the period of 23-27 December. See our article for further details and exceptions.
Christmas Shopping: Shops will almost certainly retain tight controls on the number of shoppers allowed inside, with face masks still mandatory. Expect long queues outside the most popular shops. It might be wise to get the gifts in early this year. Online sales will no doubt benefit from the challenging high street conditions. With so many people relying on deliveries, it would again be wise to plan and order early.
Carol Singing: Rules on outdoor singing had been relaxed a little before the November lockdown, but we’re not going to see tightly packed groups of carol singers this Christmas. Singing and shouting are more likely to send aerosols (spittle) into the air than talking. Any performance will have to guard against that, with social distancing and perhaps face shields. The audience would also have to be socially distanced, and asked not to join in a singalong. So, it’s do-able, but the experience will be much less intimate.
Religious Observation: For Christians, of course, the festive period holds a deeper meaning. Church services were severely disrupted by the pandemic, but are once again possible under the tier system. Assuming no drastic changes to policy, Christmas services will go ahead with similar precautions to regular services.
School Plays: Right now, it seems unlikely that we’ll all be sat watching our kids dressed as shepherds and angels come December -- at least not in person. While limited indoor performances are now legal (outside of lockdown), holding a nativity or other play in a school is problematic. Perhaps we’ll see them broadcast live over Zoom or other remote viewing software instead.
Pantomimes: Again, indoor performances are now legal (outside lockdown), but only to a small, distanced audience. That’s going to be challenging for pantomimes, which thrive on rowdiness and audience participation. Even so, a handful of pantomimes are going ahead (“The pandemic’s behind us… oh no it isn’t!”). You can even see seven pantos in one at the Potted Panto.
Christmas Lights: Many towns and cities mark the start of the Christmas period with a “switching on of the lights”. Oxford Street and Regent Street in London are particularly famous examples. We can expect plenty of illuminations as usual, but not a big hoo-ha about the switch on. Making an event out of it would draw in large crowds, which would be irresponsible. Many councils have already announced that this year’s switch-on ceremonies have been cancelled.
Light Trails: Large parks and outdoor venues like to create their own light trails over winter, as a way of attracting visitors during the colder months. Kew Gardens has already announced that its after-dark illuminations will return, as has Blenheim Palace. Such events are among the safer ways of marking Christmas -- outdoors, and well spaced-out.
Christmas Markets: We’ve all now had plenty of practice at shopping with restrictions. There’s no obvious reason (if lockdown lifts) that outdoor Christmas markets can’t go ahead, so long as strict controls on numbers, hygiene and social distancing are put in place. Expect fewer stalls, though, as the reduced footfall will make large-scale markets uneconomical.
Santa’s Grotto: It’s possible to imagine a socially distanced and disinfected Santa’s Grotto… but could it still be fun? Certainly, there’d be no sitting on Santa’s lap. And would his ho-ho-holiness have to wear a mask over that beard? Some are planning to go ahead with a grotto, even so. Expect to see lots of elf and safety notices.
Winter Wonderland: The annual mega-fair in Hyde Park has been cancelled. This huge gathering of stalls, rides and ice sculptures proved too expensive to run without the vast crowds it usually draws.
A Better Christmas? Even if all the above are cancelled or limited, many of the most cherished elements of Christmas will remain intact. Freed from its commercial trappings, the spirit of Christmas may burn brighter than ever this year. A celebration of love, peace and goodwill to all humankind never felt so important.
Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.