Christmas tree with coronaviruses as baubles
(featured image: based on an original photo by Maciej326)

The Great Christmas trade-off

Do we need to choose between outcomes, or between values, this Christmas?

Koen Smets
6 min readNov 27, 2020


This is the time when, traditionally, ubiquitous is the most fitting term for Slade’s Noddy Holder’s voice, yelling “It’s Christmas!” on the radio, in the shops and on the streets. True, but it won’t be a Christmas like the ones we are used to, and not only because there is rather less of Mr Holder’s dulcet tones around.

Much of Europe is currently still under some form of lockdown, and with the festive season approaching, people are anxious. On the one hand, we crave the social contact with loved ones which, at best, has been patchy for the last nine months, while, on the other, attending a large family gathering will raise the chance that we contract COVID-19.

One the hand, on the other hand… if that isn’t economic language! And there is indeed a trade-off to be made between the joys of traditional Christmas and New Year celebrations on the one hand, and the risk of becoming infected.

To complicate matters a little, the trade-off does not just affect us personally. As we have snuck into economics land, let’s unashamedly call on another apt economic term: our behaviour may cause externalities — others who have no say in the choices we make will still be affected by them. We may not be in a vulnerable group and the likely consequences of contracting the disease may be limited, with the chance of requiring intensive care, let alone dying, very small for us. But we may still directly or indirectly infect other people who are much more at risk and who might clog up the healthcare system, and go on to infect others. This is the nature of a pandemic. All that is needed for a post-Christmas third wave is enough traditional Christmas celebrations with extended families.

Split, but not down the middle

How do people respond to this trade-off? In Belgium, researchers at Ghent University have been conducting a motivation barometer survey since the end of March, and its latest report has just been published. It presented the nearly 6,000 participants with four scenarios featuring increasing degrees of freedom: from the currently prevailing lockdown measures (a household can have just one visitor), with intermediate…



Koen Smets

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius