Selectively Saving Christmas?

Written by Ben Davies and Gabriel De Marco

The UK governments in Westminster and the devolved nations (Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) have made a recent about-turn regarding Christmas. Where there were previously plans to relax Covid-related restrictions for five days, they will now be relaxed for only Christmas itself, and not at all in some parts of the country.

The planned relaxations were extensive. And even following the recent changes, Christmas is being treated in a way that is considerably different to other major religious festivals: no relaxation of lockdown was seen for Sikh festival Vaisakhi, Muslim celebration Eid (where more extensive lockdowns were announced just the day before), Jewish Hanukkah, or Hindu Diwali.

Although it has not explicitly been posed as such, it seems reasonable to think that saving Christmas has been a long-term plan.  The timing of the recent ‘second lockdown’ in England is also suggestive. In order to avoid many going into Christmas with infections, and many leaving with new infections, the thought may have been that we needed this “circuit-breaker”; indeed, when Johnson announced the lockdown at the end of October, one hope he expressed was that “taking action” at that point would make Christmas gatherings more likely. And even amid the recent reversal, communal worship can continue even in the new ‘Tier 4’ locations.

So, while adherents of other religious festivals and celebrations had to cancel or significantly limit traditional celebrations, significant preparation went into an – ultimately failed – attempt to make Christmas as normal as possible. Our interest in this blog is whether this could be justified. Clearly, we are not privy to the conversations had by those designing, deciding on, or implementing these policies. So there is a big gap in our knowledge concerning the reasoning behind moves by the government. We can, however, consider some reasons for and against certain policies.

On the face of it, we have a disparity between the way a Christian festival has been treated, and the way that festivals central to other religions are being treated. Our view is that this apparent disparity is in need of significant justification: in a pluralistic democracy, to give special attention or protections to one religion over others is to fail to treat all citizens as equals.

Perhaps the difference in approaches was justified by differences in the facts on the ground. If other religious festivals occurred at times of greater risk, then it might well be justified to treat Christmas differently. Treating Christmas the same as other festivals might send out an egalitarian message, but it seems unfair to deny people a normal Christmas celebration simply because others had to miss out on their religious festivals, if the risks which required the latter restrictions didn’t apply. Indeed, the announcement was welcomed by representatives of other faiths.

However, it is hard to square this suggestion with the degree of planning and preparation that went into attempts to ‘save’ Christmas; no similar attempt seems to have been made around any other festivals. And one can hardly say that the relaxation around Christmas was justified by the pandemic situation when plans to ease restrictions appear to have been made so far in advance, and it was not clear that the situation would have been better by Christmas even if we implemented a lockdown.

A further obvious rejoinder is that although Christmas is a Christian celebration, it is embedded in UK culture and society, and celebrated by a majority who are not Christian in a way that other religions’ festivals are not. For many of us, Christmas is simply a common period for a set of common celebrations, rather than anything explicitly religious. What’s more, individuals of other religions can still use the occasion to meet family, and so will benefit to some extent.

There are two points to make in response to this. First, though Christmas is not only a religious festival, it is still a Christian celebration. Even if the sheer numbers of people who celebrate Christmas gives extra weight to attempts to allow it to happen, this must be weighed against the symbolic message that is sent out by prioritising one religious festival above others; while many of us celebrate Christmas, it is not universal.

Nonetheless, the broader justification of the sheer numbers who celebrate Christmas is not one, we think, which can be dismissed automatically. From a consequentialist point of view, one might argue that there are several reasons to treat Christmas differently given the sheer number of people involved.

The first, we have already alluded to. The changes to everyday life that the pandemic has produced have been significant and gruelling. One view is that Christmas relaxation is justified because we all need a break from the restrictions at some point. And it might be best to do this at a time when most people are taking time off work as well, when universities and schools usually have winter breaks. That it would allow a significant number of people to enjoy a treasured celebration is simply one reason among several pragmatic ones.

We think, however, that this reasoning does not quite fit. First, if New Years’s Eve and Day were a part of this justification, then the easing of restrictions would not have been planned to end a few days earlier, on the 27th. Second, the breaks from Universities and schools are quite wider than the original five-day break. So, even if these were reasons to pick sometime around this to institute a break, it’s not clear that it would get us the five original days.

Furthermore, while it’s certainly plausible that allowing people a break from regulations is a good idea if it could be safely done, it is hard to think of a worse time to do this than right now, when cold weather will mean most celebrate indoors with poor ventilation, and the NHS is already burdened with an increase in seasonal viral illness.

A second reason that relates to the numbers involved is that there may simply be too many people who celebrate Christmas to get in the way of their doing so. After the initial months of the pandemic, governments have faced a difficult challenge in, not only figuring out which policies would be effective and fair, but also, importantly, the sorts of policies that people would comply with. There is a significant worry that the longer and more severe the restrictions that are placed, the less likely that people will comply with them. Thus, the state has to maintain a balance between policies that will be effective if enough people comply, and policies that people will comply with, if put in place.

Failing to allow any leniency for Christmas might make this challenge much more difficult for the government in the future. First, by forcing people to choose between the major holiday of their year and following restrictions, a number of people will simply choose to break the rules. If too many people visibly take this option, others who may have otherwise followed them may be more inclined to break them now. Over time, people may be less likely to follow the rules altogether, perhaps because the sense of legitimacy is weakened and trust has degraded; because they see that there weren’t major adverse consequences for them when they broke the rules; or because once you have significantly broken the rules once, it becomes easier to do so again.

In a sense, this response acknowledges that there is something unfair about treating Christmas differently, but justifies that unfairness with concerns about the potential for dire consequences of insisting on fairness.

One of us (GDM) thinks that there’s something to this, such that not relaxing the rules at all for Christmas may have been an overly risky move. The potential dire consequences of not treating Christmas differently may well outweigh the unfairness in treating it differently. However, a strong conclusion here would need to be supported by claims about how we could expect people to respond to the alternative policies and plans. We are not in a position to evaluate those claims, nor are we in a position to know what experts on these matters were telling policy-makers.

The other (BD) suggests that this could have been avoided. Rather than building up hope for a normal Christmas early on, the Prime Minister could have been more realistic and up front with the nation. While enforcing the rules at Christmas might encourage rule-breaking, the government could do much more to engage with community distrust and fatigue, rather than allowing people to celebrate Christmas in the knowledge that this will require more severe restrictions soon after.

However, we both agree that promising a five-day easing of restrictions and then significantly downgrading that promise, very shortly before the easing was set to begin, was not helpful for public trust.

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