WE are reaching the end of a year that has challenged us in ways we could barely have imagined when the clock struck midnight at the start of 2020.

For most of us, this week would normally be busy with last-minute present buying, coordinating family travel plans, or digging out the pasting table and fold-up chairs for a cramped, but lively, Christmas dinner.

Instead, many of us are preparing for what will be a Christmas like no other. And some, who would normally be with loved ones, will be alone. I know how hard that is going to be.

After the stresses and strains of this year, I am as desperate as everyone else to spend time with my family over Christmas but sadly, with the virus still posing such a threat - and a new, faster spreading strain having been identified - we are all having to plan differently.

And, just as has been the case in recent months, the best way for us to show love for one another is to stay physically apart. It is, by far, the safest way.

As a result of the new strain of Covid, even the limited flexibilities we had planned for Christmas have had to be scaled back.

While our advice is to spend Christmas in your own home with your own household - and see others outdoors only - for those who feel they must meet indoors with someone in another household, that will now only be possible on Christmas Day itself.

And if you are making plans to meet other indoors on Christmas Day, please remember to keep to a maximum of 8 people from no more than 3 households. And keep a safe distance, wash your hands and surfaces, and keep the windows open.

And if you can, avoid it altogether, or meet outdoors instead.

For all that the last ten months have been really difficult, I know that for many of us - me included - the Christmas period is likely to be the toughest part of this whole experience so far.

But as we are missing loved ones, we should remember that we are helping to keep them safe.

And, hopefully, by this time next year, all of this will already be fading into a bad memory and we will be looking forward to a much more normal Christmas.

I know that as many of us look forward to Christmas, even with all it means this year, it can be a very difficult time for some, with financial worries and feelings of loneliness and isolation. One of the most uplifting aspects of the initial response to the pandemic was the way communities gathered around those who needed some extra support.

It’s my hope that even as we stay apart, people will reach out to neighbours and loved ones by phone, catch up online, or put a note or card through someone’s door.

Sometimes it’s the smallest things that bring the biggest smiles.

There are of course a number of people for whom Christmas will be another working day at the end of an exhausting year – for example those working in our health and care services.

I know I speak for the entire country when I say how grateful we are for the expertise, compassion and dedication of all those working so hard at a time when most others are preparing to enjoy some time off.

Whist that dedication has never been truer than this year, I recently read an article which reminded me of the huge impact our doctors and nurses make to people’s lives each and every day.

Oscar Edgar is only five years old and he has been a patient at the Royal Hospital for Children here in Glasgow since the day he was born.

His mum spoke of the very difficult days they have faced, and the expectation that he would never leave hospital.

Well, last week Oscar got to leave hospital, and I am delighted he will be spending his very first Christmas at home with his family.

It apparently took 2 hours to go around everyone and say goodbye - a sign that in so many ways our doctors, nurses, cleaners and all those working or volunteering in hospitals, go above and beyond for their patients and their families every day.

I hope Oscar and his family have a very special Christmas together. Oscar’s is a truly wonderful story and it reminded me that even in the darkest of times, we can always find hope.

So for Christmas, this year especially, I hope we can all enjoy the gift of hope.

Let’s hold in our hearts the hope that 2021 will allow us to reunite with and hug our loved ones, and return to the many things we enjoy doing in life that coronavirus has robbed us of this year.

That’s what everyone in Scotland deserves. My thanks to all of you for all your sacrifices this year. They have been tough but they have saved lives.

I wish you all a happy and peaceful Christmas and, most of all, a brighter new year ahead.