“The bubble, blown too thin, Seems nigh on bursting,” says Robert Browning. Our social solidarity bubble is feeling the strain, not least because of uncertainty over Christmas – it will surely pop if the Government’s arrangements prove too restrictive.
Or to put it another way, people are going to meet their loved ones during the festive period regardless of lockdown levels, R rates and infection numbers.
Nobody expects a bacchanal. Ho-ho-ho is a no-no-no. Revels are off the radar. But to gather with loved ones – yes, that we do anticipate.
We’ll stand outside houses and call greetings through letterboxes if that’s how it has to happen. Wave at the windows of elderly relatives. Dress in thermals, pack our turkey dinners into picnic hampers and eat them collectively on garden benches.
As much caution and common sense as possible will be exercised by the majority of people – we’ll save the Christmas kisses until next year.
But with our own eyes we have to see our families. Not over Zoom, either. We need to spend some time with them. Socially distanced, washing our hands regularly, masks on as much as possible. But being together.
Legal or not, that’s what people will be doing. At the end of an annus horribilis, it’s non-negotiable for many.
People who never laid a bet in their lives, people with a horror of gambling, will stake a roll of the dice on seeing their loved ones. Whatever our heads tell us, our hearts are signalling something else.
So, Christmas gatherings will take place. Consequently, the Government would do well to bow to the inevitable and manage the situation.
Whether or not we are excessively focused on Christmas, it has become a beacon of hope. It is a truth universally acknowledged that people need something to look forward to.
And it’s not because we want the scented candles and novelty sock sets we’ll be exchanging. Nor the annual office parties and seasonal shopping sprees. It’s the human contact we’re starved of.
People keep formulating possible plans. Even though officialdom urges us against making any.
One woman I know who lives in a second-floor apartment is busy constructing a rope and pulley system to lower gifts to her grandchildren, provided they’re able to stand in the car park outside. She came up with the idea after reading about Emily Dickinson, an early adopter of social isolation, who stayed indoors but liked to distribute cakes to neighbourhood children.
Someone else is building a lean-to against the back of his parents’ house so his family can stand there on Christmas morning, come hail or rain. Grandparents indoors, everyone else in the shed – not ideal, but a solution.
Another woman wonders if she could hug her adult children if both parties covered themselves in sheets so they didn’t touch one another’s skin.
What do these plans share in common? Hope. It’s the Christmas message, after all: that 2,000-year-old nativity is a potent symbol of promise.
By this time next year, many of us trust we’ll have our lives back – although those whose businesses have collapsed can’t put much faith in blue skies ahead.
So people are stoical, reconciled to the idea of a different sort of Christmas. It’s particularly hard for anyone with relatives abroad. But it’s harder again to think you may be on the naughty list for meeting loved ones living on this island.
A prolonged period at level five lockdown is not something the community will tolerate indefinitely. Most of us are living like contemplatives in an enclosed order, apart from the odd walk for exercise. And yes, there have been breaches, but they are the exception and account for a tiny minority.
Next week, the Cabinet meets to consider what happens after December 1, when level five is due to end. Whatever tier of restrictions is imposed, it must be based on what the public is prepared to stomach. Too tight, and people will flout the rules.
Once slippage happens it’s going to be extremely challenging to persuade the public back onside, especially if further lockdowns are deemed necessary in January or February.
On a practical level, the Government has to find a way to manage our need to meet those who matter to us over Christmas – that’s its job. No point telling us to assume the position, stay inside our bubbles. Not this year.
Most of us accept the importance of public health decision-making guided by science, despite a strain of anti-intellectualism emboldened by the era of Trump and Brexit whereby “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge,” as I Robot writer Isaac Asimov put it.
But when it comes to Christmas, we vote with our hearts rather than our heads.
Perhaps talk of not one but three promising vaccines is causing people to err on the side of confidence. They may consider some risk is worth taking if vaccination is due on stream next year. On the other hand, Dr Ronan Glynn’s observation is compelling: if you have Covid already a vaccine won’t help you.
But consider. This year has been characterised by loss. In excess of 2,000 deaths are linked to the coronavirus in the Republic, with additional deaths in the North. Some deaths have been almost secret – people disappearing without families given an opportunity to hold their hands and say goodbye. Sometimes, their relatives were returned to them in sealed coffins.
There has been the loss of funeral rituals. The Book of Genesis contains a line saying “that I may bury my dead out of sight.” Too many Covid victims breathed their last and were buried out of sight.
And other losses have occurred. Meeting family and friends has become problematic if not downright impossible – relationships which keep us sane, happy, connected.
Not every employee working from home welcomes the arrangements. Students are experiencing stress from a distance-learning college experience. Some lecturers consider they are only getting their message through about 50pc of the time. As for the people who live alone, they are in a markedly vulnerable situation.
Are we too caught up in Christmas as a society? Do we invest undue significance in the season? On the contrary, it matters greatly from family, wellbeing and worship perspectives, Paschal Donohoe told Áine Lawlor on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland yesterday. So it’s clear that members of the Cabinet understand our need to gather at this time.
The public has been tested in the crucible of lockdown and most of us have done our humble best. Pandemic fatigued, we’re at a limit. Some sort of festive season isn’t too much to expect.
Finally, the pandemic does at least remind us about the spirit of Christmas. It doesn’t, after all, lie in consumerism – it’s grounded in our connection with others.