It will have to be, Emmanuel Macron said this week, “a Christmas not like others”. Across Europe, governments are grappling with the same question: how to allow a little much-needed seasonal celebration without further fuelling the pandemic?
Some countries have yet to announce their plans, but several have already said tight restrictions can be eased for a short time over the festive period – providing people are responsible, and prepared to put up with tight measures before and after.
In France, which has succeeded in cutting infections to an average of about 13,000 a day from more than 55,000 at the start of its month-long lockdown, non-essential shops are due to reopen on Saturday, allowing Christmas shopping to get under way.
Providing daily new cases have fallen further and intensive care unit occupancy has been brought below a set threshold, lockdown will end on 15 December, with people allowed to leave their homes and travel without proving a need to do so.
But a 9pm to 7am curfew kicks in at that point, and restaurants and bars will stay shut until late January, so – with the exception of Christmas and New Year’s Eve, when the curfew will not apply – gatherings with friends or family will not be straightforward.
The prime minister, Jean Castex, said on Thursday that “we will not be able to celebrate as in previous years … Festive and friendly gatherings are especially risky.” Precise guidelines on guest numbers would be announced before the holiday, he said.
Germany, however, whose daily infection curve is falling more slowly, has extended its “lockdown lite” until 23 December and is tightening its restrictions on gatherings in order to curb the spread of the virus further before the holidays start.
While private meetings were restricted to 10 individuals from two different households for much of November, they are now limited to five people from two households until 23 December – when they will be eased again to allow up to 10 individuals from any number of different households to meet until 1 January.
“We have two messages for the people: firstly, thank you, but secondly, restrictions will not be lifted altogether,” the chancellor, Angela Merkel, said this week, adding that measures would probably continue into the new year. “The exponential rise in infections is broken, but daily cases are still far too high.”
Government officials in Italy, meanwhile, where the contagion rate in some regions seems to be falling, are expected to complete the country’s Christmas plans this weekend.
“It will be a different kind of Christmas,” the prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, said on Thursday. “Sacrifices are still necessary in order not to expose ourselves to a third wave in January with a high number of deaths.”
While the government is not expected to set a legal limit on how many people may attend family Christmas dinner, Italian media reports suggest it will continue to recommend people avoid any kind of gathering at home outside the immediate family, respecting the country’s existing “rule of six”.
Churches will probably remain open, but there is no guarantee Italy’s nationwide 10pm curfew will be lifted to allow the traditional Catholic midnight mass. “Holding mass two hours earlier is not heresy,” one minister, Francesco Boccia, said this week. “Heresy is not noticing the sick, doctors’ difficulties, suffering people.”
Again according to media reports, shops should be allowed to reopen for at least the middle two weeks of December, but travel restrictions between the country’s regions may only be lifted if all are classified yellow, or medium risk, and gatherings in public squares or streets will not be permitted.
“These Christmas holidays will be properly regulated and, unlike during the summer, there will be no exceptions,” said the health secretary, Sandra Zampa. “We cannot risk a third wave.”
In Spain, the regional government of Madrid is proposing to allow groups of up to 10 people to gather on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day and the feast of the Epiphany (6 January), with the number of different households allowed to mix capped at three.
Under the plans, which have been submitted to the central government, the current midnight to 6am curfew would be replaced on those days by one running from 1.30am to 6am. At all other times over the festive period, gatherings would be limited to six people and the 12am to 6am curfew would remain in force.
Christmas mass would be allowed – but without hymns. Central government is consulting with Spain’s 17 autonomous regions over Christmas plans, but has already suggested it would like a Christmas and New Year’s Eve curfew of 1am to 6am, and gatherings not to exceed six people.
“We are working on a specific plan for a Christmas that will be different but safe,” the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, said this week. “This year, we will need to stay at a distance from our loved ones, instead of embracing them.”
In Austria, where a strict lockdown is due to last until 6 December, the government has taken a different approach, announcing a programme of mass testing over the next few weeks, partly to allow more families to reunite over the festive period.
“We know it’s something close to many people’s hearts to be able to celebrate in a half decent way with at least a small number of their loved ones,” said the chancellor, Sebastian Kurz.
“We want to deploy mass tests at the end of the lockdown in order to enable a safe reopening in schools and other areas … and also to make it possible for people to enjoy Christmas in a close family circle.”
In Belgium, which appears to have brought a dramatic second wave of infections under control, officials were meeting on Friday to discuss Christmas measures and were more cautious. “The last thing we want is a Christmas wave,” the prime minister, Alexander De Croo, said. “If we are careless over Christmas, we will all suffer the consequences later.”