In an article criticising the notion that the government will be determining the scope of permissible private gatherings this Christmas, Lord Jonathan Sumption claimed that ‘For Christians, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of a redeemer. For everyone, it is a celebration of life.’ This is not an uncommon attempt to universalise and, in the process, secularise Christmas. Doing so is then used by Lord Sumption to bolster an argument aiming to protect majority rights, or preferences. This elision – of the religious and the secular – is particularly problematic when appraising what constitutes appropriate public health responses to the Covid-19 pandemic and skews the required cost-benefit analysis.
The public calendar in the UK is designed around Christian festivals, as is the case in other countries where the majority population are either practising or nominal Christians. Members of minority faiths are often accommodated when they have religious or cultural festivals, but no other faith has its holidays recognised as part of the collective, public calendar. Indeed, unlike other (Christian) countries, Britain lacks civic public holidays which are imbued with a meaning that can bind together its entire population. In a country where religious influence has arguably waned in recent times, a serious blind-spot has arisen in the public psyche: since only Christian festivals feature in the British public calendar, there is a common misperception that they are universally celebrated by those of other faiths. Anecdotally, yesterday, I was offered Christmas goods at a food shop. Explaining that, as a Jew, I do not celebrate Christmas, the attendant exclaimed: ‘but Christmas is for everyone’. That illusion spans across British society.
Self-evidently, for religious Christians, Christmas has spiritual significance. For those from a Christian background who are non-practising, it has become an important time to spend with their loved ones. However, it is not, and indeed cannot, become a festival with universal significance: for members of other faith communities in Britain, Christmas is a public holiday that represents the cultural traditions of the majority of the polity of which they are members and which they deeply respect but with which they do not identify.
Understanding that Christmas is not a universally celebrated festival is critically important in gaining a clear picture of the relative harms of national lockdowns for communal life. British Jews marked Passover, ordinarily characterised by large family gatherings where the exodus story is read and discussed, in the middle of April. British Muslims marked Eid al-Fitr in late May which, similarly, involves large convivial celebrations marking the end of Ramadan. The same is true of Hindus who celebrated Diwali, a festival of lights, in the middle of November. On all three occasions, the UK was in national lockdown: no exemptions were made to allow families to gather in order to mark their religious festivals – and, to their credit, none were demanded by the leaders of the relevant faith communities. No one should fail to recognise the massive curtailment of religious and cultural life that these lockdown measures entailed for these faith communities.
It is also important to recognise that, the smaller the faith community, the lesser any (adverse) effect on national infection rates if they were to be exempt from national lockdown measures. It follows, logically, that it would be far more costly – for the entire society – to relax restrictions for the benefit of the majority than it would have been to do so for the benefit of minority faiths. An interesting comparison can be drawn with Israel, a majority Jewish country where Jewish festivals make up the national calendar: there, conscious of public health implications, far stricter restrictions were imposed nationally during Passover and indeed throughout the Jewish high holidays period than during Eid, which its minority Muslim population celebrates.
The relaxation of restrictions around Christmas will enable a much larger segment of the British population to realise their religious and cultural preferences. Yet it is wrong to suggest that the benefits of doing so are evenly spread across the whole UK population. Understanding that Christmas is a holiday of (and for) the majority allows us to paint a more accurate and honest picture of the decision that leaders of the four nations have made: whereas the costs of three households socialising indoors over Christmas will be borne by the entire population, the benefits will be mostly accrued by the majority.