2020 is fast coming to its end. It started well for the first two months and we all enjoyed the brisk air and savoured memories of office parties and driving to our favourite restaurants with family and friends.
This came to an abrupt halt in mid-March, when the health authorities gave us a severe shock of a three-month complete lockdown. Prior to the lockdown, we saw scenes of shoppers madly buying anything that came useful, sweeping clean shelves of pasta, sugar, crackers, baking materials and toilet rolls – all by the dozen. Shelves in many stores were laid bare and soon cars were driven out of garages to make space for emergency stocks.
Nine months on and we were regaled with daily TV appearances of medical officers announcing the increasing number of victims and mortality numbers (mostly vulnerable persons). Now, in the holy month of December, there is little feeling to mingling together in staff parties (which are banned) or visiting clubs, gyms, cinemas and other places where social distancing rules cannot be upheld.
Many have an urge for the past glory of Christmas which was a time for exchanging heartfelt wishes to their neighbours and staff members. Deep in our subconscious, we still clamour for the good times when Christmas was a time of giving and sharing with those around us. And that sharing is not limited to those that we love and care for, it is also for those we have never met and will never meet (as is evident during the Strina fundraiser each year)
Now, no more seasonal cheer from meeting extended families for fear of contracting COVID-19. While family traditions carry a special significance for many Maltese, we need to limit ourselves to basic activities that are necessary to keep the family unit functioning.
For now, we can no longer risk the occasional family dinner on Friday night at a favourite restaurant where family members and friends share jokes and relax. Such simple gatherings generate fond memories that everyone cherishes. We hold fond memories of traditional habits such as going to hear Mass after the family dinner on Christmas Eve.
Few this year will hear the sermon of the child (Il-Priedka tat-Tifel), which dates back to 1883, is the oldest and one of the most important traditions at Christmas. The sermon is, unusually, not given by the priest but by a small boy or girl aged between 7 and 10, who tells the story of nativity whilst standing at the main altar.
In the mid-1980s in every town, after the Midnight Mass, children’s processions were organised. Hot chocolate drinks laced with a touch of brandy greet the adults after the midnight vigil. Again, this year many will not bother to indulge baking the traditional Christmas log, made with lots of chocolate, cherries, nuts, biscuits and a bit of whisky – face masks and social distancing dictate caution.
On a good note, a publication by a government department responsible for poverty reduction and social exclusion reported hefty progress. It warms our heart to hear that there has been a decrease in the rate of severe material deprivation, referring to situations when a person struggles to pay for at least four of nine basic items and can’t cope with unexpected expenses.
To give an example, in 2013 7.1 per cent of pensioners were in this bracket. Since then, the number has decreased significantly to 2.6 per cent. Simply put, the proportion of people at risk of poverty has dropped from 24.6 per cent in 2013 to 20.1 per cent last year. Even better is that the number of children at risk of poverty or social exclusion has also decreased; from 33 per cent in 2013 to 23.6 per cent in 2019.
That was a result of the major change in demographics during the past seven years as more liberal laws were introduced to have a more inclusive yet diverse society. Now, we have more families with single parents, families headed by two unmarried partners, either of the opposite sex or the same sex, households that include one or more family members from a generation; adoptive families; foster families; and families where children are raised by their grandparents or other relatives.
We moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which in the mid-1970s helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children or the new combinations listed earlier).
Now this pandemic has led us to restrict the family group to the bare minimum so as to protect ourselves from infection. This has automatically given birth to the nuclear family structure. It is an intense unique set of relationships among, say, four people. If one relationship breaks down, there are no shock absorbers. In a nuclear family, the end of the marriage means the end of the family as it was previously understood.
But while extended families have strengths, they can also be exhausting and stifling. They allow little privacy; you are forced to be in daily intimate contact with people you didn’t choose. There’s more stability but less mobility. Family bonds are thicker, but the individual choice is diminished. You have less space to make your own way in life.
The pandemic is the Grinch that stole our traditional Christmas traditions. In the COVID scenario, during lockdown mothers spent a lot of time trapped inside their home raising their children and overseeing their online schooling.
COVID, the Grinch, forced us to live through the most rapid change in the family’s structure. The causes are economic, cultural, and institutional all at once. In conclusion, this year has extenuated the focus on the digital age where people growing up in a nuclear family tend to have a more individualistic mindset, galvanised by the dictates of social media. People with this mindset tend to be less willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the family, and the result can be more family disruption.
A merry Christmas to all.