Saturday, 19 December 2020

A Quaker Covid Christmas

Visualisation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus - a grey sphere, looking almost like it is made of yarn, with small orange blocks and larger flared red spikes on its surface.
Your latest Christmas Tree decoration?
(visualisation of SARS-CoV-2 virus by US CDC)

It’s Christmas time. It’s a pandemic. It seems to have quite a lot of people in something of a tizzy.

Our friends across the Atlantic have already negotiated this with their Thanksgiving holidays, when it is common – even traditional – for families to come together, even if they live far apart. Many families here in Britain are in the habit of doing the same at Christmas, and certainly families who do live near one another often get together in larger family gatherings than is their habit at other times of year. The fact it has become a secular holiday, as well as a sacred festival for most Christians, means that this extends over more of the population than one might think by looking at religious demographics.

To an awful lot of people, Christmas isn’t Christmas without household mixing. For the religiously observant, busy services on Christmas Eve bring many households into close proximity. For lots of people, religious or otherwise, Christmas is when family comes together, even if normally spread out. Students return to the family home for Christmas, and even those children who are grown and settled in new lives often do the same. Where the next generation has brought forth their own new generation, the older generation might be hosted by their children, and see their grandchildren. This is normal, expected even – to the extent that childless people who spend Christmas alone, even as a couple, are sometimes pitied at best, thought strange at worst. Charities put a lot of effort into making sure people who don’t want to spend Christmas alone – or who other people think oughtn’t to spend Christmas alone – don’t have to do so.

But we’re living through a pandemic. Health services are stretched. Winter isn’t primarily a peak season for flu because of the weather – at least not directly. Our behaviour changes, with more of our time with other people spent indoors, with poor ventilation as windows and vents are closed against the cold outside. The reasons that this is better for spreading flu apply just as much to Covid-19. Many grandparents and great-grandparents see more of their family at Christmas, and these are often some of the people most vulnerable to complications – potentially deadly complications – of both flu and Covid.

Bringing together parts of a family that is usually geographically dispersed, while undoubtedly a joy (albeit not always an unbridled one), is a chance to mix germs, and we are already seeing new strains of Covid emerge in different regions – always with the possibility that acquired or vaccine-derived immunity to one might not be fully effective against the other. Less speculatively, it may bring together people who have been living and functioning relatively safely in a low-incidence area, where less caution has been required or advised, with those who have been living under greater restrictions due to more cases in the community. But unless those in the higher-incidence area have been restricting themselves even more drastically than advised, they are more likely to be bringing an unwelcome guest to the party, which those in the lower-incidence areas may then spread through the freer contact in their own community.

So much anyone might talk about, and I hope plenty of people are. But is there any particular way that Quakers should respond?

One could talk about times and seasons – a traditional Quaker testimony, albeit less honoured than it once was, against the holding of particular days or times of year to have special significance. I think that is a bit of a red herring. As observed above, the nature of Christmas as a holiday, as a festive time, and many of the practices around it are now observed among the most thoroughly secular. For a great many, we gather together at Christmas not because of any sacred nature of the season, but because it is habitual – and because it is habitual for so many, it is also convenient, as society bends over backwards to facilitate, even encourage it. The loosening of legal restrictions in the UK, restrictions intended to impede the spread of Covid-19, is a prime example of this.

It is also demonstrable that cultures that developed in parts of the world with pronounced seasons tend to have a big festival around the start of winter – a pattern that makes sense given the dominance of agriculture in our not-too-distant cultural past. There is little work to do, it is a good time to slaughter animals that you do not wish to keep alive through winter, and eating those parts that preserve least well gives enough for a feast. The brewing of alcohol from the produce of summer and autumn is complete, so festivities can be well lubricated. Those with much more knowledge and study than I in this area have certainly written about this pattern, for both learned and popular publications.

No, the proper Quaker approach is, I would argue, rooted in a much more fundamental principle. To be a Quaker is not to be entirely selfless – we do not expect one another to be living saints. But to be a Quaker is to make a commitment to bettering the world, in accordance with our discernment and leadings. We do this through small acts in our own lives, the corporate action of our Meetings and other organisations, through financial or other contributions to worthwhile causes. I would hope it requires no deep discernment to see how small acts in our own lives will contribute to the better state of our whole community in this instance.

Of course there are factors to be balanced. Harm done, even to small numbers, due to isolation has to be considered, and that is the reason for the relaxation of restrictions over Christmas – if we are to assume for the sake of argument that the Government is making these decisions primarily on the balance of goods and arms to the population at large. That may take some more careful personal discernment to see the right way. But the very fact that it makes good sense in terms of public health to minimise extra travel and mixing over Christmas also means that, considering other factors where relevant, it is also the Quakerly thing to do.

I do not propose a miserable Christmas, all cut off from one another. Loneliness at Christmas is not a problem to be minimised in our considerations. We have, however, learned over the course of this year how to better stay close to people without seeing them in person. People may have looked forward to Christmas as a time to stop relying on these other means, however briefly, but that is not a reason in itself to throw caution to the wind. If we want Christmas to be special, we can be creative about it. We can have more contact, we can share Christmas dinner at a distance – eating different food in a different place, but still in company and fellowship. And for those most at need of contact and comfort, we can minimise the risk that stems from them getting what they need by not insisting on our own gratification.

And even if you’re inclined to think about it more selfishly, don’t forget that you minimise the risk to yourself and your family by keeping contact to a minimum.

I do not say, “stay away, at all costs”. I do say, “think before you feast”. The factors will be different for each of us, and for each family, but there are ample reasons to be cautious – reasons that speak to our spiritual foundations as well as to science.

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