The loneliness of a long distance Christmas

MY wife sometimes accuses me of a ‘bah humbug’ attitude to the festive season but the truth is I enjoy every minute. Time spent with friends and family is quality time and I look forward to my 61st Christmas with the same enthusiasm I had as a happy-go-lucky child. I believed in Santa. I left him a glass of milk, and a carrot for Rudolf, before going to a warm bed with a full belly. I was certain I would not sleep but woke in the morning to boxes of gifts and the smiling faces of loving parents around the breakfast table. I tore open the bright packages and played until it was time to head north where I shared a turkey dinner with my grandparents. Here I was smothered with more love and largesse. The Beatles, James Bond and The Great Escape were always on the TV as I snuggled down around the old Doric Range. That night I fell into bed exhausted and full of lemonade, chocolate and other illicit goods. I remember the year it snowed and my cousins, visiting from Rhodesia, were delighted. They’d never seen a white Christmas. Now they live in Traverse City, Michigan, and have to dig themselves out of their houses several times each winter. 

Christmas with my children was just as much fun, thought I often grumbled about the expense, having to stay up late wrapping gifts and trying to assemble everything from snooker tables to dolls houses. I always forgot to buy batteries. The youngest ones seemed to get as much fun out of playing ‘houses’ with the cardboard boxes as they did from their new toys. One year my youngest presented me with a long list for Santa which included ‘a horse’ hidden among the smaller items. Santa was not fooled. After Christmas day drinks with neighbours we would head back to cook an enormous bird. I think our record was 19 people at the table. The after dinner games of charades and ‘Fickey Dickey’ always ended in gales of laughter. The arrival of grandchildren added an extra layer of fun to the whole occasion. This year the youngest is just two. She loves to watch Peppa Pig with her ‘Bampa.’

The Irish diaspora is estimated to be around 70 million people. According to Dublin Airports Authority at least 1.2 million people returned home to during the holiday period last year. But the Covid Christmas of 2020 will go down in history as a lonely one for many. The government in the Republic has advised citizens not to return and Taoiseach Michael Martin has warned residents ‘there will be no going on the lash.’ Stormont continues to squabble over guidance, though hospitals are still struggling to cope, and there is little real progress toward an All-Ireland approach to the problem. Christmas 2020 will bring much sadness in homes from Bantry to Belfast as families are kept apart by this deadly disease which has swept around the globe like an evil cloud. Others will face real hardship because they have lost their jobs or will have to get by with reduced incomes. I am lucky because I am largely retired on a modest but secure income and most of my family live in Northern Ireland.  I hope we can at least see one another in small groups to exchange ‘Secret Santa’ gifts and seasonal goodwill. I have one daughter and two grandchildren in London. The oldest member of the clan is 93 and recovering from a broken leg in a residential home in Ballymena. I will miss them greatly. Pulling crackers long distance by Zoom is no substitute for the real thing.

Governments on both sides of the border and in Scotland moved quickly as infection rates began to rise again in October and there is some evidence lengthy ‘firebreak’ measures are having an impact, though there has been much understandable grumbling. The economic and social costs are high, and state financial support is running out, but the politicians’ intention is to get some control of the Coronovirus figures in time for the festive season. This will provide a much needed boost to the economy, bring some relief to hard-pressed workers in health and social care and do much for the many people who have been deprived of human company for much of the year, especially those who have lost loved ones. There is a possible end in sight to this nightmare. The American company drug Pfizer, which employs 3,700 people at six locations in Ireland, has announced a breakthrough in partnership with a German firm BioNTech and the vaccine could be available as early as the New Year. Another has been developed by US biotech business Moderna. Inoculation of this island’s seven million inhabitants, and containment of any new strains of the virus, presents a fresh set of challenges both logistical and political. Protection must surely be given to the most vulnerable and the oldest citizens first. Though everyone must participate in the programme, there will always be those misguided people who believe conspiracy theories and reject scientific evidence. There is no effective test and trace regime on either side of the border and lockdown tactics continue to divide the politicians. Solving these puzzles is the key to a lasting solution.

In our house we are never short of food and drink and everybody goes home with a gift at Christmas. But this year especially I remember that even more families are not as fortunate. I am not a religious man but I try to remember the true meaning of this holiday. I will give some new toys to charity and put something extra in the food bank. I will make a special effort to contact all friends and family who face the prospect of spending this special day alone, especially those who have lost loved ones during this Biblical plague.

A few words to show you care is often the greatest gift of all.



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