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Two people on a mobile phone video call with a Christmas tree in the background

How to share Christmas with your family in lockdown

With more lockdown restrictions in place, you may be wondering what Christmas is going to look like in 2020. David Ludlow explains how you can still enjoy the day with your family, even if you're apart.

It's time to prove the song wrong: it’s not going to be lonely this Christmas, even with COVID-19 restrictions getting tighter and reducing the chance that we'll get to spend time with family and friends.

Although we may not be able to see each other in person this Christmas, we just need to be a little more inventive in our use of technology to deliver something as close as possible to the fun experience we'd normally have.

How will coronavirus affect Christmas?

There's no doubt that coronavirus will change Christmas and how we experience it. It's going to be different for everyone, in no small part due to different rules for different parts of the country, and regulations that are changing all the time.

Before you plan anything, it's important to understand how the rules differ between the four nations.

Coronavirus rules across the UK

UK map showing component countries

England

Now that lockdown has been lifted, we have gone back to the old tier system, which differs by area. However, between December 23 and 27, people in England can form a Christmas bubble – a bubble of people from up to three households (you can only be in one Christmas bubble).

You can travel between tiers to form this bubble, but can only meet in private homes or gardens, or public outdoor spaces.

Before December 23 and after December 27, people must continue to follow the tier system. At COVID alert level Medium (also known as Tier 1), you have to follow the rule of six: you can't gather inside or outside in groups larger than six. So, a family of four could have two grandparents at their house, or vice versa.

Things change as restrictions increase. At COVID alert level High (Tier 2), you can't socialise outside your household or support bubble indoors; you can still meet in groups of up to six outdoors, including in your garden. This lets you entertain outside, although you'll probably need some kind of heater or firepit and something to keep the rain off.

People in both of these tiers can continue to travel around the country, but you can't mix rules between tiers. For example, grandparents travelling from a tier one area could go to see their family (up to four people) in a different tier one area and be entertained inside. However, a family in a tier two area can travel to see grandparents in a tier one area, but they're not allowed to go into the house and must stay outside.

At COVID alert level Very High (Tier 3), there are greater restrictions, and you can't socialise with other groups of up to six inside or in other private gardens. You should also avoid travelling or staying overnight in other areas.

Scotland

In Scotland, there is now a five-tier system. Tier 0 lets up to eight people meet indoors, from up to three separate households (children under 12 do not count towards this number); outdoors, up to 15 people from five households can meet.

At Tiers 1, 2, 3 and 4, you are not allowed to meet other people in their homes, but up to six people from two households can meet indoors in a public space; the same rules apply to meeting outside, but only private gardens are included. In all cases, children under 12 are not included in the count. Increasing tiers largely restrict which businesses are open and the times they can open.

However, as in England, between December 23 and 27, people in England can form a Christmas bubble – a bubble of people from up to three households of up to eight people (you can only be in one Christmas bubble). You can travel between tiers to form this bubble, but can only meet in private homes or gardens, or public outdoor spaces.

Wales

Wales recently completed a 'firebreak lockdown', and is in the next phase of restrictions. Businesses that had to close during the lockdown can now open, and there is a new set of restrictions.

The Welsh Government is asking people to stay out of each other's homes, with the exception that two households can form a bubble, and visit each other or even stay overnight. People are also being asked to limit the times they leave home, reduce the distance they travel, and to work at home where possible.

Again, between December 23 and 27, people in Wales can form an exclusive Christmas bubble of no more than three households.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, households are not allowed to mix inside in private homes, and up to 15 people can meet in gardens. Children under 12 are not counted in the total. However, you can also form a bubble with one other household, joining two households of any size together, although indoor meetings within a bubble are limited to a maximum of 10 people including children.

Between December 23 and 27, people in Northern Ireland can also form a three-household Christmas bubble. Those who need to travel outside Northern Ireland to form this bubble are allowed to travel on December 22 and 28.

Rules are changing quickly, particularly as local restrictions come into effect, so you'll need to check what the current restrictions are, both where you live and where you want to travel.

Will coronavirus cancel Christmas?

Realistically, all these complex rules mean that Christmas for many of us is going to be spent at home without all our family around us. That doesn't mean that Christmas is cancelled; we just need to approach how we celebrate in a different way. Here's where tech can help. We've looked at some of the ways that you can replicate the fun that you’d normally have.

What will COVID Christmas look like?

Inevitably, you'll need to use some kind of video chat service to see the other people who aren't in your Christmas bubble. Rather than having a video call on all day, which is distracting and is nothing like having other people in the room with you, video chats work better when there's a purpose to them.

Start by picking the right video call service for you, which you can do by reading our guide to the best tech to keep in touch with loved ones.

Next, you need to think about the activities that you can do, as over-long video calls without purpose can be draining. Here are some examples.

Opening presents

Having a short call when you open Christmas presents can work, but why not organise something shorter and more focused, such as a secret Santa?

DrawNames has a free online tool to keep the draw secret: just fill out the names of the people that you want to include, stick in their email addresses, and the site will take care of the rest. Then, on Christmas Day, you can have your secret Santa event over a Zoom call.

Screenshot of the set up for Draw Names

Organise an online Secret Santa easily with a free online tool

If you don't like the idea of opening presents together, why not record video messages to say thank you in WhatsApp? That way, everyone can view their messages at their own pace.

Christmas Eve drinks

This is traditionally a social time, which often means drinks on Christmas Eve. Just because those of us in more restricted areas can't go out doesn't mean we have to miss out.

Simple Zoom drinks are one way of doing things, but you can up your game with a cocktail-making session. Ask everyone to get the same ingredients, then you can all try and make the same drink at the same time. Get someone to lead the session or, if you can get a slot, there are plenty of online cocktail-making classes you can book.

If you're feeling generous, you can buy cocktail kits online for everyone, which will get them a box with the alcohol and ingredients for the session.

Watching TV and going to church

Christmas is a lot about shared experiences, such as watching a film in the afternoon, tuning into the Queen’s speech or visiting church. You might not be able to physically share these occasions, but there are ways to experience them together.

For live broadcasts (the Queen’s speech or the Christmas Day church service) you can simply get everyone to start watching on their own TVs and then have a Zoom (audio-only makes sense) or WhatsApp call, so you can talk and enjoy them together.

There are also ways that you can perfectly synchronise what you're watching with other remote viewers. BBC Together lets you watch, via a browser, any iPlayer or BBC Sounds content, although it doesn’t currently work with live TV.

Screenshot of how to set up BBC Together

Synchronise iPlayer watching with friends and family with BBC Together

The Teleparty add-on for Chrome and Microsoft Edge lets you synchronise playback for Netflix and Disney+, giving you group chat in the mix. If you'd rather not have to use a browser, then the new Disney+ Group Watch feature works across most apps and smart TVs that have the video-streaming service.

Amazon has launched its own Watch Party for Prime Video, which lets you share content, provided everyone is watching via a browser on a desktop computer.

See a pantomime

Other traditional events should be available online, too. Peter Duncan, of Blue Peter fame, is running a streamed version of Jack and the Beanstalk, with tickets from £20. There are bound to be other streamed events, too, so keep an eye out on the local theatres to see what they're offering.

Playing games

Playing games is a Christmas staple, and you can replicate this online. There are a few different services that you can use.

If you want to hold a special Christmas Quiz, then Kahoot! is a great starting point. It costs $10 a month to let someone create a quiz, but then up to 10 people can play using their smartphones, with correct answers winning points and those that answer fastest getting the most points. Kahoot! is best played using Zoom, with the host sharing their screen to show the questions.

If board games are more your thing, then there are many options. Tabletop Simulator (£14.99 for PC or Mac) is rather complicated, but it gives you a virtual 3D desktop that lets you play many common games. The base package gets you chess, poker, jigsaw puzzles and more, and you can download loads of community-created games, too.

Instant setup takes a lot of hassle out of configuring many games, but Tabletop Simulator isn’t easy to pick up and learn. And, in many cases, it doesn’t enforce rules (Tabletop Simulator will let you make invalid chess moves, for example). Not one for everyone, then, but if you master it, Tabletop Simulator is the closest that you can get to playing games on a real table.

Screenshot of interactive game Tabletop simulator

Tabletop Simulator is the closest you'll get to playing a physical boardgame on your computer

Tabletopia and Boardgame Arena are two services that give you thousands of games to play online. You'll need one subscription to invite guests to play. You can also get some standalone games to play online, although each guest has to buy their own version. These include Ticket To Ride, Catan, Monopoly and pretty much any game you can think of.

Online games make setup easy, as the computer takes care of the hard work, but the main advice we can give is to pick titles that you already know how to play. Trying to learn new games with remote players adds complexity and will take the fun out of the process.

If you're a jigsaw fan, there are online jigsaw sites that let multiple people work together. JigsawPuzzles.io lets you create a free account and complete puzzles with people that you invite. Just be careful how many pieces you set yourself, as the system can get confusing with hundreds of bits on screen.

A screenshot of an online Jigsaw puzzle

Jigsaw puzzles over the internet are easy with JigsawPuzzles.io

Even COVID can’t stop us having fun at Christmas and enjoying the things we want to do. This Christmas may be different, but we can still all come together and do the things we love.

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

David Ludlow is a journalist and editor specialising in technology. He has more than 22 years' experience of writing for UK publications including TrustedReviews, Expert Reviews, The-Ambient and Homes and Gardens.

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.