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Christmas in the time of Coronavirus

Coronavirus has changed the way we live and socialise and, despite our best hopes, life won't be back to 'normal' by Christmas. Here Dr. Meg Arroll explains how you can still have a joyous festive season despite the difficulties.

We're living in an unprecedented time, with the only real certainly being more uncertainty. This can be an uncomfortable feeling, both on an emotional and practical level, particularly when it comes to planning for Christmas. But we can use some psychological techniques and down-to-earth preparation to make sure that we all still have a joyous and fulfilling festive season in the time of COVID-19.

Make decisions now

It's tempting to hope that somehow we'll have a handle on the coronavirus by Christmas and life will be back to normal, but this is looking increasingly unlikely. Therefore, take a pragmatic approach to this year's Christmas celebrations and talk to loved ones about how the festivities will work best for everyone this year.

Focus first on those most vulnerable. For instance, if someone is shielding, consider whether another member of the family can join into a support bubble so that no one is on their own over Christmas and New Year.

Although these conversations may make you feel uneasy and perhaps rather sad, it's much better to be open and honest with loved ones now, so that you can decide what is feasible. As we don't know exactly what restrictions will be in place in December, it would be sensible to take a 'plan for the worst, hope for the best' approach that allows some flexibility.

Anxiety comes when there's uncertainty, so if you have a plan now, everyone will have time to become accustomed to this quite different festive period.

Embrace simplicity

A quieter and simpler Christmas is not necessarily a negative turn of events, however – every year I'm asked in clinic about how to cope with the stresses and unrealistically high expectations of Christmas. I see people struggling before and after the big day with a type of festive burn-out that can last long into the New Year. Therefore, 2020 is a real chance to make significant changes to our usual manic schedule and streamline the Christmas period.

Ask yourself "what do I want this Christmas to be remembered for?" Would you like memories of only the negative aspects of 2020, or rather can you shift your perspective and try a new way of celebrating this year so that you'll have happy recollections? Visualise this adjusted Christmas now and see in your mind's eye the delight, comfort and joy that can still be achieved.

Build new traditions

Many of us are already feeling a sense of melancholy and frustration as we most likely won't be able to enjoy much-loved traditions such as meeting dear friends in the pub on Christmas Eve or Boxing Day turkey sandwiches with cherished neighbours.

However, this is the perfect time to build new traditions. We rarely think about starting a fresh family Christmas ritual, but all these practices must begin at some point in time. Look forward to future generations and how they will retell the story of this tradition, which by then will feel like a much-loved custom for the family.

Inspiration can be taken from other religious festivals that have already taken place during the pandemic and under tough social restrictions. For example, during Ramadan many Muslims moved their nightly breaking of fast to online platforms, and for Eid traditional children's activities via virtual channels also brought people together.

Perhaps everyone in the family can watch the Queen's speech together on a video call to engage in a shared experience, or why not start a Christmas 'telephone wreath' whereby one household calls another in the family, gathers their news and then passes it to the next household to form a virtual family circle.

Most of us have loved ones who live hundreds, if not thousands of miles away, so this could be the start of togetherness at Christmas online.

Young boy video calling older woman in front of Christmas tree

Involving far-away friends and family in Christmas celebrations could become a tradition that continues after the threat of COVID has passed

Reconnect with the true meaning of Christmas

Although in the strictest sense Christmas is a Christian holiday, many people join in with the festivities to celebrate a secular Christmas. Therefore, the holiday season can mean different thing to all of us, but the common thread this time of year is reconnecting with a spirit of peace, goodwill and kindness.

Now more than almost ever before, we need to offer care and support to one another, so think about how you can support your fellow man, woman and children in a wider manner – for instance shopping at local stores that have struggled during the pandemic, donating to nearby food banks and checking in on neighbours that live on their own (in person or on the phone).

Take stock

Finally, Christmas is the perfect time to reflect and count our blessings. Millions of people have lost loved ones, and for these families, the first Christmas undoubtedly will be hard. Many others have also been affected, either directly by infection, or indirectly by the fear and trauma of the pandemic. Now is time to take stock, honour those who we've lost and proceed into the New Year with gratitude and open hearts.

Regardless of religious background, the Christmas tree symbolises the everlasting hope and endurance of humankind, as its fir needles remain green all year round, pointing upwards towards the future. Use this emblem to draw your mind back to the spirit of Christmas if you do start to feel down or overwhelmed this year – and know that better times are to come.

Always follow the Government's guidelines on self-isolation and social distancing – see gov.uk/coronavirus for more information and the latest updates.

Dr Meg Arroll PhD CPsychol AFBPsS is a chartered psychologist, scientist and academic researcher with a specialist focus on health and stress, integrative medicine and wellbeing.

Find out more at Dr. Meg Arroll's website, or read more about Healthspan's health experts.

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn't possible, supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.