Traditionally, the festive season has been about squeezing into overcrowded bars and ordering overpriced drinks, but not this year. The recent Covid-19 announcement of national restrictions saw London move to Tier 3 and was received with disappointed resignation and howls of despair. We might be bubbling in households of three, with our own immediate kin or alone, but Christmas won’t be the same in 2020. All those grating things about the customary family get together, the insensitive aunt, bad-tempered uncle or whining of other people’s children, will be regarded with yearning nostalgia.
It feels like we’ve been indoors for a long time staring at four walls or a screen with pixelated or frozen faces staring back. Although technology has saved us in these unprecedented times, we crave human closeness. “We’re creatures of togetherness and are hard wired to connect,” says Noreena Hertz, author of The Lonely Century: Coming Together in a World That’s Pulling Apart. Hertz believes a breakdown of community, exacerbated by widespread migration, more single person households, the rise of social media and right wing populism, have contributed to another silent pandemic. Loneliness. One in five UK adults report feeling lonely some or all the time as do half of 18 -30 year olds. For two in five pensioners, the TV or a pet is their main source of company. Alongside our regular virus news bulletins, we’ve seen a slew of ‘loneliness’ media stories. “If we can take any positives from the last few months, it’s that loneliness has come into the open and is less stigmatised.”
Hertz’s compelling theory chimes a sad solitary bell at this time of year which is typically about the gathering of family and friends. Seasonal advertising depicts happy, laughing groups usually focused around tempting food or the unwrapping of gifts, but these are merely the rituals and tokens of intimacy which is the whole point of Christmas. Slipping into the mutual companionship of old friends, having a swift sherry with neighbours, or cosying up with loved ones is what makes the festive season valuable. To connect with others, blood relatives, likeminded folks or soul mates, nourishes and lifts us. It’s is a time for laughing, sharing stories, thoughts, dreams and fears.
With Covid-19 at large, the temptation is to barricade ourselves indoors and adopt a bunker mentality, especially as the temperature drops and the appeal of walking around with friends in the cold has long since worn off. But perhaps, this will be the one year when we need to embrace more constitutional hardiness; to continue to put on our thermals, warmest hat and gloves and ensure that we still see our friends under the rule of six guidelines. Admittedly, it’s not collapsing under a pile of cushions with a box of Quality Street and classic movie, but this will be a different Christmas which will require different approaches - and, as Hertz says, interacting with others is crucial for our wellbeing.
We might not be able to hug or kiss, but socialising releases a burst of neurotransmitters that regulate our response to stress and anxiety. From calming us to extending our life expectancy, staying connected face to face, makes a difference to how we feel and cope. Hertz tells me that “being with others is our natural state. We must respect that even in these challenging times. By seeking out others, we are not only helping ourselves but alleviating the loneliness of others.” Australians gather for festive barbecues on the beach and in balmier pockets of Europe and the Mediterranean, an after dinner walk along the promenade or esplanade is common. We might not have the weather but we do have great parks, beaches and countryside, all permissible meeting places.
My own experience, advanced by lockdown, is that I’m walking more with more friends and family. This has involved an exploration of most of London’s parks, many of its canals and rivers and sometimes specific outings to discover unseen parts of the city: a piece of public art, fading street sign, hidden garden or a surprise plaque. The walk is always purposeful with a clear destination but the journey, from the first step, is just as important. It’s a chance to convene with nature, spot some wildlife or identify some avian friends. We might stop for some food to share or tea in a flask – and as it’s Christmas – this may extend to a celebratory tipple. Walking means talking about big things and small, domestic trivia and hopes for tomorrow. We share stories of spouses, children and pets. Sometimes we fret and often we laugh. To draw on a well-worn cliché, laughter is the best medicine; a vaccine all its own.
If we tear away all the wrapping and fancy decorations of Christmas, what we find underneath that is people and friendship are the greatest gifts of all.
The Lonely Century by Noreena Hertz is out now, published by Sceptre
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