Let’s talk about…The 2022 festive season

“This is what happens when a pandemic ends!”

That is how Ryan Tubridy began last Friday’s Late Late Toy Show (after the obligatory opening music number, naturally), speaking in front of – and of course referring to – the first in-person audience to attend the show since the pandemic hit.

Those lucky enough to have nabbed a ticket to the show (and subsequently all the various ‘one-for-everyone-in-the-audience’ treats) provided a welcome atmosphere and return to format for the show that had been missing the past two years – despite their best efforts at virtual alternatives. It really was nice to see an audience back in the studio for the toy show.

Closer to home, we saw the same welcome return to form with the big switching-on of the lights in Roscommon town on Sunday; similarly to the toy show, this year was also the first time the event has taken place in-person since the onset of the pandemic.

In fact, it seems that by and large the festive celebrations taking place all over the country this year will all be able to return to being celebrated as they would’ve been back in 2019, before any restrictions set in. Could this be the long-awaited official ‘return to normality’ we couldn’t escape hearing about for so long? Tubridy evidently believes so, anyways.

Of course, it’s not as if last year’s Covid guidelines were anywhere near as strict as they were during the 2020 holidays, but only this year are we finally functioning essentially restriction-free, which is so significant when talking about the holidays. Spending the holidays under restrictions was such an incredibly difficult thing for so many; whether because it meant not being able to see loved ones, or because of the loss of comfort that comes from adhering to holiday traditions – especially at a time rooted in remembering those who have passed.

Because of how different the past few holidays have been, and considering the fact that we are setting into a cold winter amid an ongoing cost of living crisis, it really does feel like this is something so many people need at this time.

People seem eager to celebrate the holidays at the moment. To be fair, people always are; even when celebrations could only be done virtually or within ‘pods’, the best was made of the situation. That’s because, even with pandemics and a cost of living crisis, since the winter period is often a very tough time for people, the Christmas holiday season can serve as something to look forward to. It represents a time of festivity, celebration and community. A time for family and friends.

Up here in Galway, that festive spirit and general excitement for this year’s holidays is certainly evident. In fact it’s borderline inescapable; between the rows of colourful bulbs and lanterns along the streets, to the bustling lights of the Christmas Markets in Eyre Square with the big Ferris wheel as its brightly-lit centrepiece, Galway is not just a city that looks to have completely forgotten about the energy crisis – it’s also one dripping in festive spirit.

Once again, the winding laneways of Eyre Square are dotted with little wooden stalls, selling everything from trinkets, ornaments, and crafts, to a wide selection of sweet treats and hot foods. The Square is once again decked out in festive displays with reindeer and candy canes, and the beer tent and carnival rides are up and running. It’s well worth a visit.

There’s a warm atmosphere and a tangible excitement for what’s ahead that’s noticeable when walking through Galway’s Christmas Market, a mood that I think is also shared the country over at the moment – not just with the holidays in particular, but also with the return to everyday restriction-free living in general.

It’s a bit of a blanket statement considering we’re still grappling with the many consequences of Covid, but as Tubridy put it, “this is what happens when a pandemic ends” – the lifting of restrictions and ‘return to normal’ has been a boon, allowing us to once more participate in the social events and celebrations in our communities that aid our wellbeing, something we didn’t have access to for so long.

Despite how tough this time of year can be in general, how particularly tough the last two winters have been, and how much is on ordinary people’s plates at the moment as they try to make ends meet, a silver lining has to be found in the fact that, at the very least, we are now able to spend winter uninhibited by restrictions for the first time in years. Here’s hoping the winter bodes well for all of us, and that we make the most of our first unisolated winter since Covid-19 struck.