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How to celebrate Christmas safely, according to scientists

The key could be embracing the outdoors, whatever the weather

Ellie Walker-Arnott
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Ellie Walker-Arnott
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Christmas is going to be, well, totally different this year. Whether you celebrate it for religious reasons or purely for the festive snacks and jolly atmosphere, the December holiday won’t look like it normally does, thanks to the ongoing pandemic and restrictions around socialising. 

Restrictions on December 25 will differ depending on where you are: in some places, it remains unclear whether you’ll be allowed to meet loved ones during the festive period. In other countries, guidance will limit the number of people who are allowed to socialise indoors. But even if you’re free to see your nearest and dearest, it’s important to know how to keep everyone safe during the festivities.

Luckily, leading scientists from a number of countries – including the USA’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and  the group of UK scientists known as Independent Sage (nothing to do with stuffing) – have compiled some recommendations for how to celebrate safely this winter.

So how can we celebrate Christmas safely this year? 

As transmission in indoor and enclosed spaces is known to play a large part in infection, the scientists say, ‘the first, and most effective, way is to avoid indoor mixing – either by meeting virtually or outdoors.’

Events like weddings, birthdays and even funerals have been taking place online all year, so why not add Christmas to that list? Sadly, virtual festivities are the safest of all. (And the silver lining is one year without hectic Christmas travel plans.)

What if you can’t face another Zoom call?

If celebrating online just isn’t going to work for you, there’s always the great outdoors. Of course, the appeal will depend on where you are in the world. Partying alfresco in Australia, where it’s the height of summer, isn’t going to be a challenge. But it’ll be tricker in the Northern Hemisphere, where Christmas takes place in the middle of winter.

Despite the potential for chilly weather, Independent Sage recommend ‘communal outdoor celebrations’ – a focus on local communities, many of which already rallied to support one another earlier in 2020. ‘One advantage of developing communal celebrations is that these can involve those who are socially isolated and would otherwise have no opportunity to celebrate at home. In this way the celebrations can be made better for millions for whom this can be the worst period of the year,’ they add. 

The CDC agrees. It suggests you should ‘host outdoor rather than indoor gatherings as much as possible... [and] even outdoors, require guests to wear masks when not eating or drinking.’

Ideas could include socially-distant street parties or community events where people bring their own festive food and drink to a local green space. Festive walks with your pals get a big thumbs up too.

You could even think about setting up a tent outside to make socialising in inclement weather more appealing. ‘If setting up outdoor seating under a pop-up open-air tent, ensure guests are still seated with physical distancing in mind,’ warns the CDC. ‘Enclosed four-wall tents will have less air circulation than open-air tents.’

Can we share a meal? 

The CDC recommends that if you’re eating together you should encourage guests to bring their own food and drink.

If that won’t work, you should ‘have one person who is wearing a mask serve all the food so that multiple people are not handling the serving utensils.’

What if it’s too cold to congregate outside? 

If you absolutely have to socialise inside (and are allowed to), the scientists recommend that the focus should be on ‘distancing, ventilation [and] hygiene’. That means maintaining social distancing, keeping your home and your hands super-clean, and leaving windows open. Yes, even if there is a serious icy breeze.

The CDC’s guidance adds that keeping indoors gatherings short can help prevent transmission. You should also avoid singing Christmas carols or doing any festive karaoke. ‘Encourage guests to avoid singing or shouting, especially indoors. Keep music levels down so people don’t have to shout or speak loudly to be heard,’ recommend the CDC. 

You could also consider having an bevvy-free festive celebration, as the CDC states that drinking alcohol can stop us from effectively social distancing.

Preparing ahead could make your get-together safer too. You could ‘ask guests to avoid contact with people outside of their households for 14 days before the gathering’, for example. 

And even with all this in place, touching or hugging anyone not in your household should, sadly, be off the menu this Christmas. All we can say is: roll on 2021, the year of the epic hug.

And if you do have to travel for Christmas, make sure to check out an epidemiologist’s guide to staying safe when you fly.

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