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Ray PenningsIf mommy kisses Santa Claus this Christmas, hopefully they’ll be in the same household bubble.

After all, COVID-19 means this is going to be a holiday like no other we’ve experienced before.

Canadians’ plans for the holiday season are a reminder to all of us – but especially to those making decisions about lockdowns and public health measures – that life has more than just a physical dimension to it.

There are spiritual and social dimensions that matter, and there are physical and mental health dominoes that fall when those aspects of our needs go unmet for too long.

Most of us are ready to hunker down for the holidays, according to a new Angus Reid Institute (ARI) survey in partnership with the think-tank Cardus.


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At the same time, the poll suggests we’re as anxious as ever.

In fact, 81 per cent of those surveyed are concerned about family and friends contracting COVID-19 and 84 per cent of us say that the economic “worst is yet to come.”

For the most part, we’re following the rules: 85 per cent say that in the last few weeks, we’ve socialized or spent time with fewer than five people outside of our own households.

On the other hand, when we think about what this all means for Christmas celebrations, a bit more of a mixed picture emerges.

Even though most political leaders and health authorities are urging us to celebrate within just our own households, almost a third of us plan to meet friends or family locally.

Ten per cent of Canadians plan to travel to a different community or province to visit friends or family.

While normally that would account for about half of Canadians, it reflects an angst that perhaps the COVID rules may not totally suit the season.

Separate from any debate on whether such seeming defiance is justified, and without implying such justification, the desire for community and connection after nine months of soul-sucking pandemic restrictions is understandable.

No government program, no bureaucrat and no cheque can meet the needs of the human spirit.

Those are needs Canadians often seek to meet in religious ways, which the drive to protect physical health has hampered.

With many churches closed in parts of Canada and crowd sizes limited in many others, Christmas-related church attendance – as well as in-person observances for Hanukkah or other non-Christian holidays in this season – will be down this year.

According to the latest polling, just 11 per cent of us plan on in-person religious attendance for Christmas or other holidays this year. That’s down from 26 per cent in 2019.

Just as we saw at Easter, technology will be a partial solution.

Of those who consider Christmas a religious holiday, not just a fun and festive time, 45 per cent will take in some kind of online service – many supplementing it with other forms of at-home religious observance.

The last time Cardus partnered with ARI to survey Canadians about a major holiday – around Easter, Passover and Ramadan last spring – we found religion to be a more significant part of social well-being that many realize.

At the start of COVID-19’s first wave with all houses of worship closed, one in five Canadians said either they or someone they knew had received help from a faith community since the start of the outbreak.

We also detected Canadians praying or reading sacred texts more than usual.

Decision-makers need to know that virtual meetings and greetings only go so far.

Again, that’s not to say that pandemic restrictions are unnecessary. Clearly, they are necessary.

The vast majority of Canadian religious institutions and adherents are scrupulously observing public health rules. (I even know of one Ottawa church asking anyone driving to a service to leave an empty parking spot on either side of their car in order to maintain social distancing as folks come and go.)

But authorities also need to keep in mind that restrictions come with a cost.

And the longer the pandemic and the necessity of restrictions drags on, the costlier it becomes for our inner selves.

We can do without many of the external trappings of the Christmas holidays. Indeed, many of us are.

Workplace parties? Putting up lights? Hanging stockings or sending out cards?

All those activities are down, according to the latest survey.

But the activities that feed our spirits?

We still need those, including what happens under the mistletoe.

We’re all better off when authorities recognize and account for those needs.

Ray Pennings is executive vice-president of the think-tank Cardus.

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