You could say that Christmas as we know it was invented by Charles Dickens. Scenes of glorious over-indulgence are highlights in his novels, putting pork pies, plum pudding and port wine at the heart of the celebrations, along with generosity and good cheer. In Great Expectations, however, it is a far from happy event. Young Pip spends the day in a state of guilt and panic. Even the arrival of guests like Uncle Pumblechook, with their usual gifts and greetings, in his case sherry and wine, offers only a temporary respite: “Every Christmas Day he presented himself, as a profound novelty, with exactly the same words, and carrying the two bottles like dumb-bells.”

Repetition and tradition are part of the seasonal joy, but Pip finds no fun in any of it. He is worried that his sister will notice he had stolen food from the pantry for the escaped convict Magwitch. That, and a file to remove his leg-iron. Only a search party of soldiers saves him from being found out.

Come Christmas Day, British festivities will be as unfettered as our lieges will allow, but I suspect some will feel almost as uneasy as Pip when they congregate around the tree. As turkey is carved and crackers pulled, how many will be wondering if Covid, rather than the army, will soon be knocking on the door?

As yet, details of the promised brief armistice to allow family gatherings over the period are unknown. Boris’s notion of a five-day dispensation for up to three households has already been dismissed by the First Minister. Her somewhat tight-lipped response to this proposal has been, if not exactly Scrooge-like, certainly far from inviting. “It will be a small number of days and a small number of households,” she said, when asked what we could expect. She also added that people should not feel under pressure to take advantage of the relaxation of rules. Nobody, her expression suggested, should be cajoled or coerced into company if they are not comfortable at the idea. Even Boris, the greatest pantomime dame ever to occupy Number 10, felt obliged to urge caution. “’Tis the season to be jolly,” he said, “but ’tis also the season to be jolly careful.” For once, I almost cheered him.

It is not difficult to imagine what those trying to contain the contagion feel at the prospect of the four nations criss-crossing these isles and spending days in the bosom of their family. Assembling over a convivial lunch or dinner is worrying enough, but staying overnight ratchets up the risks.

To help people decide how far they are prepared to push their luck, scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology have created a Covid risk assessment map showing the odds of someone catching the disease in a gathering of 10. Those in Orkney and Shetland have a less than 1% chance. In Dudley, Stoke on Trent and Hartlepool it is 29%. The rest of us lie somewhere in between. 

The problem is, nobody – well, almost nobody – wants to cancel Christmas. Epidemiologists and NHS managers might happily keep us on a leash, to protect the nation and hospital beds, but politicians know that to clamp us all in chains, like Magwitch, is untenable. Not only would thousands break the rules regardless, but it would poison voters’ opinion of their leaders. Getting between the electorate and their families would never be forgiven.

Yet it now seems almost inevitable that, by allowing people to be with their nearest and dearest for a short spell, there will be a third spike in cases in January. This, at hospitals’ busiest period even in the best of times. Added to which is the almost guaranteed flouting of social distancing rules over New Year in some households. Just as A&E medics dread the Hogmanay shift, so this year police on duty as 2021 arrives will be braced for a hotline inundated with callers reporting unlawful revelry.

Already I feel wistful at the thought of an entirely unsociable Yuletide. Even so, I cannot understand why people feel they must be given the leeway to mix, when it puts so many in danger. It might be justifiable if there was no hope of a vaccine on the horizon. Faced with the likelihood of never-ending separation, an argument could be made for a limited truce in the fight against Covid, to offer a glimmer of light and companionship in an otherwise exceedingly bleak midwinter. But at this very moment, with talk of life returning to something close to normality around Easter – news we have been longing for these past nine months – it seems little short of madness to loosen the ties that bind us for the sake of a few weeks’ extra endurance.

This is not to say that Christmas doesn’t matter. Of course it does. Only the flintiest are untouched by it. But does it matter more than people’s lives or health?

Would you be willing to risk introducing the virus to an elderly relative  or friend who might, as a result, not live to see the spring, or enjoy several more good years?

Given how close we are to the finishing line, can’t we all just calm down? It’s only Christmas after all. For Christians, none of the season’s significance will be lost. This year’s sorrows and privations might even enhance its meaning, allowing more time for contemplation and compassion and less for commercialism and consumer bingeing. All the more reason, too, to make a splash on Easter Sunday, which some consider more meaningful. For others, caught up as we usually are in the enjoyably fraught business of buying gifts, stocking the fridge, and entertaining friends and family, these are postponable pleasures. Regardless of whether we meet or not, online shopping will boom, as will the Royal Mail. I picture carol singing from the safety of everyone’s doorsteps on Christmas Eve, with some half-frozen keyboard player belting out Silent Night from as far into the street as the electric cord will stretch.

What matters most is that children will still have a ball. Meanwhile, the rest of us can get by, this once, without all the social trimmings. It won’t kill us or those we love. The same, alas, cannot be said of Covid.