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4 November 2020

The double standard of the national mission to “save Christmas”

Unlike Christmas, festivals for religious minorities have been ignored by the government throughout the pandemic.

By Alona Ferber

On the evening of 30 October, when newspapers began reporting that a new national lockdown was looming, a running theme – like some kitsch film one might watch on TV on Christmas Day – was the government’s mission to “save Christmas”. 

“National Lockdown ‘could save Christmas’,” the Guardian declared on its front page. The newspaper reported that “scientists and public health advisers said imposing new national measures could ‘save Christmas from the coronavirus’ and allow families to meet during the festive season.”

“Summit to save Christmas”, was the i’s front page. The Prime Minister, the paper reported, had “summoned the leaders of Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish governments to a four-nations summit to agree a ‘common approach’ to reducing cases before Christmas.” Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey tweeted: “If the government wants to save Christmas for families across England – the PM needs to act now.”

And on Monday, after Michael Gove admitted that lockdown could be extended beyond 2 December, the Daily Mirror’s front page rang the alarm. “Christmas is hanging in the balance,” the paper warned. 

These “save Christmas” noises had been percolating for a while. In late October, a spokesman for the Prime Minister said that it was Johnson’s “ambition” for people to be able to celebrate Christmas with their families. Earlier that month Johnson insisted in an interview with ITV Anglia – leaning forward, eyes wide, gesturing with both hands in emphasis – that the government would do “everything we can, everything we can to make sure that Christmas for everybody is as normal as possible.” 

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Whether the messaging was aimed at making lockdown more palatable, or whether the “save Christmas” objective is genuine, for some minority groups, these rumblings have highlighted how differently the government has approached their celebrations. They have been a reminder of what it means to be a minority.  

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Muslims, for instance, celebrated two Eids this year under strict restrictions, with little attempt by Westminster to safeguard their traditions. At 9pm on a Thursday night at the end of July, the day before Eid al-Adha, the government announced new Covid-19 rules in parts of northern England. Gatherings of separate households were banned, though pubs and restaurants remained open. 

At the time, the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock denied that the measures were targeting Muslims specifically. “No, my heart goes out to the Muslim communities in these areas because I know how important the Eid celebrations are,” he told the Today programme the day after the rules were announced. “I’m very grateful to the local Muslim leaders, the imams in fact, across the country who’ve been working so hard to find a way to have Covid-secure celebrations.”

But as one Colin Burne of Cumbria wrote in a letter to the Independent that week: “We have all known that this was a potential problem for weeks and, other than a few cautionary words hidden among the plethora of advice being churned out on a daily basis, the government at all levels did nothing about it until they introduced the nuclear option three hours before Eid began.” 

Jews have also had to adapt to last-minute announcements. In September, the government announced the “rule of six” just days ahead of Jewish New Year and before the High Holy Day period, which includes Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. In my family’s case, the rules at least helped us put an end to days of tortuous wrangling over where to have our meal. Our larger-than-six family split into two. My parents ate with my sister’s family, and joined mine and my eldest sister for dessert.

I remember hearing a segment on the Today programme at the time about how Jews were celebrating the new year in Covid-safe ways. There was an interview with someone from a Reform congregation that held the new year’s synagogue service outside in cars, with each family isolated in their vehicle, blowing the car horn instead of the traditional shofar, a ram’s horn. There were other reports, too, of synagogue services held on Zoom. The implication was that Jews were doing their bit to keep the country safe from the virus.

In April, Jews celebrated Passover under full lockdown. We read the Haggadah – the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt – over Zoom. My parents and siblings and partners, my nephews, all in their separate households, eating their separate meals. My phone leaned precariously against something on the table, constantly slipping, while my daughter, two at the time, grew loudly impatient with the proceedings. It seemed remiss of us not to dress for the occasion, so we did (digging out clothes we haven’t had much occasion to wear again). 

To my ears, the “saving Christmas” message has a ring of populism to it, echoing the cadence of Brexit-era phrases such as “getting our country back”. Of course, Christmas is an important and special time of year for most in the UK, and indeed it is also celebrated by members of religious minority groups. The national focus on the poor and the vulnerable over the festive season, meanwhile, is a vital safeguard against hunger, loneliness and more serious mental illness.

But the sentiment implies that Christmas is a non-negotiable part of Britishness, the one red line, the one thing that must be protected in order to save ourselves at this time of national crisis. Christmas is on a par with “our NHS”, whereas the festivals my family and I, all British, have celebrated throughout our lives, are an optional extra. Those who celebrate them must find a way to make them work. For the vulnerable in these communities, being alone at such times of year will also have taken its toll.

The possibility of Johnson insisting that the government would do “everything we can” to make sure Muslim families can celebrate Eid or that Jewish families can be together for Jewish New Year resembles fiction. Indeed, this year, Diwali, the festival of lights celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and some Buddhists, starts on 13 November. It’s too late now for this lockdown to “save Diwali”.

A New Statesman poll in September found that 53 per cent of people supported the rule of six being in place over Christmas. And yet, alongside this, there are indications of the arrogance that being part of the majority can afford. BBC presenter Victoria Derbyshire’s recent Radio Times interview was a prime example. Derbyshire was forced to apologise after remarking that “if the rule of six is still in place [at Christmas]… we’re breaking it to have the rule of seven. We just are.”

Derbyshire’s attitude is not one most members of a minority can adopt. In a minority, you feel like you have to toe the line, play by the rules, not demand too much, lest you appear ungrateful for your status. Just play your part in the national effort against coronavirus and try not to make the others look bad. When the government announced last-minute restrictions that affected major celebrations, most Muslims and Jews made the sacrifice without asking for more consideration.

After last weekend’s lockdown announcement, social media was filled with users echoing these sentiments. One wrote on Twitter, “As a non-Christian, it feels we are being told to lockdown so there can be a nationwide super spreader over Christmas, whereas …. our festivals saw no lifting of the rules or even targeted restrictions.. It was obvious it was going to happen but it still makes me angry how Eid celebrations in the North or Yom Kippur prayers in Stanford Hill [sic] were seen as a threat to be quashed, whereas people travelling hundreds of miles to see elderly relatives at Christmas is a necessity,”

During a crisis such as this, when we are all meant to be “in it together”, one is reminded of how easily the majority can forget the minority – of how easy it is to exclude.