The annual anticipation of Christmas normally is like having a slow cooking stew in the oven; for a while there is no sign of much activity but slowly the evidence of the cooking builds from a vague hint to a mixture of appetising aromas that whet the appetite. With our children, Christmas started at the beginning of Advent. On Advent Sunday the Christingle was reassembled on the dinner table and one candle lit and three spaces vacant. On each successive Sunday, a further candle was added, so that the angels revolved faster on each addition. They also enjoyed opening up one door of their Advent Calendar each day. In those days the Advent calendars were fairly simple pictures of the Nativity story with the wise men from the east, the shepherds etc. and there were two larger doors for the 24th and 25th. Nowadays the choice is much greater: elves bearing chocolates, wooden snowmen, reindeer, Christmas trees, craft calendars, etc. There are calendars with pockets for treats and ones with large wooden boxes (like the drawers in an apothecary’s cabinet) that can be used year on year.
The run up to Christmas in Edinburgh is usually great fun with market stalls in the street, Princes Street gardens hosting a big market where smells of mulled wine, sausages and cheese entice the visitor to browse the craft stalls. There are craft fairs in various locations within and around the city with fair attractions such as the Big Wheel and the Star Flyer providing laughter and lights. This year the display of festive lights in the city centre is muted with a few trees lit in Princes Street but the gardens below the castle eerily dark.
Unsurprisingly with Edinburgh under tier 3 restrictions, where even outdoors no more than 6 people from two different households can meet, most of the usual events are cancelled. It is still possible to book tickets for lights displays in the Botanic Gardens and the Zoo.
However, the big decision for each of us is not whether to go shopping locally or to meet a friend in a café; it is a choice of whether to spend Christmas alone at home or to enjoy the grace permitted to visit family or friends, locally or further afield. Those with family a distance away have to balance the hazards of travelling, particularly if going by train or plane and the “covid circumstances” of the people they are visiting. By covid circumstances I mean whether their routine is one where they are coming into daily contact with a wide variety of people through work, school or activity and their likelihood of meeting people who could pass on the virus. Despite all the precautions, restrictions and lockdowns that have been in place during the autumn, over the last 7 days the number of cases in the UK has been increasing with an average of 174 cases per 100, 000 people.
For months we have been living with safety messages from the UK Government at Westminster that have been difficult to understand and with wrangling between different regions. The rules and restrictions have depended first on the country you live in (England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland), second on the region and in which tier it is currently placed, and thirdly with time as the tiering changes with the rise and fall of coronaviruses cases and other factors. One of many examples of inter-region rivalry is that northern regions feel London is getting preferential treatment as it is currently only in Tier 2, though the number of coronavirus cases “merit tier 3 classification”, while Conservative MPs argue that this would be “catastrophic” and cause “untold damage”. Since this blog was started it has been announced that London will finally move into Tier 3 on December 16th.
The assiduous can look at the restrictions on the national websites using the postcode checker but most rely on the latest update from their mobile. So, it was a temporary relief when the four nations agreed a joint plan to allow families to form Christmas bubbles of not more than three households from December 23th to 27th.
However, this seems to have been devised merely as a strategic plan to allow activity that would have occurred anyway and to attempt to limit its scope. No sooner had the rules been explained following their release on November 24th than a stream of advice not to travel and not to mix followed. On November 30th, Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland confirmed that she will not be seeing her parents indoors over Christmas and advised people to “think carefully “about meeting up with loved ones at Christmas. Radio programmes brought in health experts with advice about not passing plates around, keeping windows open and not playing family board games. The SAGE committee suggested that children should avoid close contact with their grandparents or sleeping in the same room as children from other households, a rule almost impractical to implement. Strategic advice has given way to advice and warnings based on safety considerations. SAGE member Dr Hilary Jones, argued that the Christmas rules were illogical and thought Christmas gatherings will result in increased transmission of Covid -19 , a rise in the R-factor, and a possible third wave in January and February . This view has been echoed by Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health at Edinburgh University , who labelled the relaxing of covid restrictions at Christmas “a mistake” and expressed concerns about people travelling from “high to low prevalence areas”, thereby enhancing transmission of the virus. The chief of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson wroteto the Prime Minister arguing that the Christmas rules may need urgent review within a few days and other medical experts have also expressed their fears that a surge in covid cases will result due to relaxation of rules over the Christmas period. This has led in the last 48 hours to reassessment by the politicians and varying degrees of adjustment and tightening of the rules.
This all leaves individual members of the public to discuss the pros and cons of mixing at Christmas with family and friends and to reach their own decisions. With a heavy heart we made the decision not to travel to visit family a couple of weeks ago; all the information coming out since then has made the decision seem logical but not any easier emotionally. At our age (over 70), it seems too great a risk to take and although we shall miss the family enormously, particularly the grandchildren, hopefully we will be around next year to make up for it. With vaccines not just on the horizon but the first already being rolled out in the UK it seems foolish to take a short-term risk.
So, are there any lights twinkling on the horizon to help us survive the winter and provide hope for the future and a truly better New Year? I think there are plenty and certainly enough to sustain us through the difficult weeks ahead. For the present we have some physical lights to cheer us in the streets and in our homes. The Christmas lights are lit up along Princes Street, the tall Christmas tree is in place as usual on the Mound and many homes with outside displays together provide reassuring continuances of the Christmas spirit. The tradition of the tree on the Mound dates back to 1949 when Norway gifted Scotland a tree in thanks for the assistance rendered during the Second World War. But it is the mental lighting up of our hearts and minds that is most needed.
Mental health advisors speak of the importance of having something to look forward to, and thanks to the prospects of various vaccines in development there are messages of optimism (mingled with calls for patience) that transmission will be brought under control. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is already being administered in hospitals and care homes in Scotland and there is optimism that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine may receive approval either at the end of December or in January. The formal request by the government to the regulatory agency, MHRA, for the vaccine to be licensed and authorised for wider use has already been submitted. Currently there are 6 vaccines approved in different countries and at least another 46 in development .
Although the news on the vaccines is undoubtedly the most significant area for hope and cheer, we – the human race – need a mixture of mental sustenance to keep us going. In our little bubble of two, we have been actively trying to create a sense of well-being and relaxation amidst the semi-isolated life we currently lead. One feel-good factor comes from communicating with close family and friends, another comes from making the most of the music, films, stories, dramas and entertainment on offer. I have particularly enjoyed Sunday mornings on Radio 4: news, Sunday worship with a mixture of music, reflections and narration of individuals’ experiences, A Point of View, and tweet for the day providing a little cameo about somebody’s favourite bird. It is refreshing and invigorating whether you are religious or not.
However probably the greatest benefit has come from getting involved in small activities. The long autumn allowed many opportunities for photography and with Christmas approaching cooking and baking has provided a lot of fun. The jellies, chutneys and preserves made earlier can now be wrapped in paper as small presents for friends. The most sustaining activities have been two that we do each week regardless of the weather and that provide two oases of tranquillity, no matter what else is going on at home or in the outside world. These have become increasingly important in keeping both our spirits up and for maintaining a sense of equanimity as the months of semi-lockdown continue. The first has been our weekly walk; just a couple of hours somewhere different within our permitted area of travel.
For example this week we did two short walks on the same day: the first in Roslin Glen, which lies about 8 miles from Edinburgh, through which the North Esk flows amidst scenery that has been admired by poets and writers for many centuries. Hawthornden Castle lies at the northern end of the glen with Rosslyn Castle at the other end and close to the famous Roslin Chapel. After a picnic in the open we headed for Straiton Pond, which lies close to the busy Edinburgh City bypass and a large, popular retail area. It was formerly an industrial blue clay pit but is now a small nature reserve with ducks (mallard, tufted, goldeneye, goosander), swans, coots and moorhens. In winter neither location was at its best but both were tranquil and refreshing.
Our other relaxation has been 9-holes of golf on a country course the other side of Roslin Glen. On a Friday afternoon we are often the only ones on the course in winter. it is easy to unwind any tensions there and to enjoy the company of our friends. Often, we are heading back to the car park in the gloaming with the lights of the surrounding houses twinkling in the twilight. As well as playing golf we can admire the fields and woods surrounding the course and the view of the Pentland Hills provide a wonderful, if sometimes windy, backdrop. In autumn, flocks of geese fly across on their way back to their roosting spots.
We may need to make a special trip on Monday 21st December, because weather permitting there will be a very special and unusual light in the evening sky. For the first time since 1426 there will be a very close conjunction of two planets, Jupiter and Saturn, visible low in the west. They may look like one shining star to the naked eye even though they are in reality 450 million miles apart but with a telescope they will look like a double planet, separated by only 1/5th the diameter of the full moon. Whether we take this as a special omen for 2021 or not, this is surely a light on the horizon worth observing. If we allow it to provide a beacon of hope, so much the better.
Written 12-16th December