It’s a day like any other. So why have the Christmas Covid rules brought me to tears?

Getting the family together this year has been fraught with confusion and misunderstandings – much like the run up to Brexit

A family gathered round the Christmas dinner table
Guess who’s coming to Christmas dinner? There are far too many unknowns this year. Photograph: Nikada/Getty Images
Guess who’s coming to Christmas dinner? There are far too many unknowns this year. Photograph: Nikada/Getty Images
Zoe Williams

Last modified on Mon 14 Dec 2020 05.05 EST

In my head, Christmas was completely sorted. Four households (except one was already bubbling with another, so there would be three), alike in dignity (well, I could probably draw up a dignity hierarchy, but that would be crossing the road to start a fight), all in the same tier (as of this moment, but there are rumours that London will soon be segregated into sectors, like postwar, pre-wall Berlin), would spend Christmas Day together. I should have written all that down a week ago. The sheer number of brackets would have been a clue that it might not be that simple. It all hinged on my mother and whether or not she would be well enough to leave her house at all. She changes her mind at least twice a day, like Scottish weather.

I filed this under “Yes, she’s coming”; my sister filed this under “Oh no, she isn’t”. It turns out, if you misunderstand one another enough on the simple things, you don’t need panto. We didn’t discuss it, because we are sisters, right, and therefore totally telepathic, except for all the times each week when we get the wrong end of the stick in so many ways that there is no right end, it is just the wrong stick.

If my mother would leave her house, we would all be at mine; if she wouldn’t, we would visit her separately and have lunch apart, with our in-laws. So my sister and I have, for weeks, been discussing catering options for what I thought was one event, occurring in one house, and she thought was two separate events, in different houses. At no point did she say: “Who cares if you have a ham? What are you gonna do, teleport the ham?” But she is probably in her house right now, going: “Why didn’t she ask why I’d bought a ham when she’d bought a ham? Who has ever eaten any ham, let alone two hams?” Obviously, in a normal year, we could just merge the Christmases and make the children eat on the floor, but that would add up to six households and a combined age among the older generation of 330.

In the sense that it is not possible to resolve it, it doesn’t really matter how the confusion arose; but if not being able to change a situation were enough to stop me maundering on about it, the past four years would have looked totally different.

I don’t think it helped that Mr Z and Mr-My-Sister have the same name, or that their mothers have the same name. This makes us sound like twins who married twins, or minor royals in a fairytale living under an obscure curse. In fact, it is just coincidence. There must have been a ton of times when we were talking at cross-purposes, about two different people. Has ever a homophone been so consequential? Well, probably the multiple times when US newscasters pronounced “mask debate” and it sounded like masturbate. But that wasn’t consequential for me.

Freud would say that it was deliberate. The government has decreed these Christmas rules, but scientists broadly counsel against them. You stay within the borders of what you are allowed only when you have faith in the authority. When you have no faith at all, you are like cattle with an electric fence. Is it really electrified, you think, nudging up to it. Holy shit, yes! Just because the farmer is an idiot doesn’t mean electricity doesn’t exist. So we are conflicted, which, rather than throwing up a mature conversation about collective anxieties, produces a series of unconscious derailments.

“You know you’re allowed to start crying?” said Mr Z, when the misunderstanding emerged. “You look like you want to start crying.”

“Fool!” I raged. “Don’t be ridiculous – I’m not eight years old. Why would I start crying over a day that’s just like any other day?”

Truthfully, I really wanted to start crying. Instead, I took a load of cardboard to the dump, where you are not allowed to cry, even if you remain in your vehicle. Everyone thinks you are recently bereaved, or you just got divorced – and a lot of people at any given dump are, or have. There is a danger of setting off a chain reaction. Imagine if you made everybody cry at the dump, when the only reason you were upset was about a day that was just like any other. It would be like lighting a fag in a petrol station when you don’t smoke.

In the end, I spoke to a friend, who is Irish and training to be a life coach. She said: “Will we not just accept that this is a shit Christmas at the end of a shit year?”

“This is some top-quality emotional coaching,” I said. “Should I pay you or is it pro bono?”

“Will we not just?” she reiterated, ignoring me. There is something more dynamic and more comforting about the Irish formulation (“Will we not just?”) than the English (“Why don’t we?”). It somehow makes it sound as if whatever it is has already happened. If we had sent an Irish person to negotiate with the EU, things could have been so different. But one disaster at a time, eh?