Coronavirus diminishes the joy of Christmas in Belém and elsewhere

On Christmas Eve in Italy, church bells rang earlier than usual. The Italian government’s curfew at 10 pm prompted pastors to change services, with the “midnight” mass beginning Thursday night in some churches a few hours after dark. Pope Francis, who said people “must obey” civilian authorities’ measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, fell on the line. This year, the Mass for Christmas Eve at St. Peter’s Basilica was moved from 9:30 pm to 7:30 pm.

Normally, vigil mass seats are quickly snapped up, by the Romans and tourists, but the pandemic has reduced tourists in Italy to a drop. In accordance with the social distance measures, only 200 faithful – instead of several thousand – scattered on the pews of the basilica and wearing masks, attended the celebration of Francis’ mass. A row of fiery red peanut plants contrasted warmly with the sumptuous cold marble of the basilica.

Francis in his homily offered reflections on the meaning of Christmas. “We often hear that the greatest joy in life is the birth of a child. It is something extraordinary and changes everything ”, he said. A child “makes us feel loved, but it can also teach us how to love”.

“God was born a child to encourage us to care for others,” said Francisco, who drew attention to the poor and treated unfairly a key theme of his papacy.

Celebrations in other parts of Europe have been canceled or greatly reduced as virus infections have increased across the continent and a new variant that could be more contagious has been detected.

In Athens, Christmas Eve was eerily silent. In normal times, children’s voices singing Christmas carols while metal triangles tinkle can be heard all day. The custom of decades, in which children go from house to house and receive small gifts, has been banned this year. Groups of children were able to honor the tradition by singing to Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis via video link – including students at a school for hearing impaired children who performed in sign language.

During the pandemic, one of the churches hardest hit in New York City was the Lutheran Church of St. Peter in Manhattan. Church leaders say that more than 60 members of the congregation – which were about 800 before the pandemic – died of COVID-19, almost all of whom were part of the community of about 400 who attended Spanish services.

Despite their own sadness, members of the congregation – many of them immigrants – donated jackets, scarves and other winter clothing to more than 100 minor migrants at a detention center in Manhattan.

Although many other New York City churches have resumed personal worship, St. Peter’s Church continues to offer masses online only. The Christmas Eve and Christmas program included masses in English and Spanish and bilingual jazz eve service.

In Belém, the authorities tried to make the most of a bad situation.

“Christmas is a holiday that renews hope in souls,” said Mayor Anton Salman. “Despite all the obstacles and challenges due to the corona and the lack of tourism, the city of Belém still looks with optimism for the future.”

The cold and rainy climate contributed to the gloomy atmosphere, when several dozen people gathered in the central square of Manger to greet the Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa. Bands of young people playing Christmas songs on bagpipes, accompanied by drummers, led a joyful procession before the patriarch’s arrival in the early afternoon.

“Despite the restrictions and limitations, we want to celebrate as much as possible, with family, community and joy,” said Pizzaballa, who would lead a small midnight mass at the end of the night. “We want to offer hope.”

Thousands of foreign pilgrims usually gather in Belém for the celebrations. But the closure of Israel’s international airport to foreign tourists, along with Palestinian restrictions that prohibit intercity travel in the areas they administer in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, have kept visitors at bay.

The restrictions limited attendance to residents and a small entourage of religious officials. Evening celebrations, when pilgrims usually gather around the Christmas tree, have been canceled and the Midnight Mass has been limited to the clergy.

The coronavirus has dealt a severe blow to the tourism sector in Belém, the lifeblood of the local economy. Restaurants, hotels and gift shops were closed.

Rio de Janeiro’s iconic beaches remained open, but a city hall decree aimed at limiting crowds prevented drivers from parking along the coast. The rain also kept bathers at home.

Thomas Azevedo and his 9-year-old son faced bad weather to set up a small stall, selling beer and fresh fruit caipirinhas. In the early afternoon, he hadn’t sold anything.

“It is not so much the rain; in previous years, it was full of tourists at Christmas. This year there is no one ”, said Azevedo, 28 years old.

Until recently, Australians were looking forward to a relatively COVID-19-free Christmas, after travel restrictions across state borders relaxed in recent weeks, in the absence of any evidence of transmission in the community. But after new cases were detected last week, states again closed their borders.

While many places around the world maintained or increased restrictions for Christmas, Lebanon was an exception. With its economy in shambles and parts of its capital destroyed by a massive port explosion on August 4, Lebanon suspended most virus measures before the holiday, hoping to encourage spending. Tens of thousands of Lebanese expatriates arrived home for the holiday, leading to fears of an inevitable increase in cases during the festive season.

Lebanon has the highest percentage of Christians in the Middle East – about a third of its 5 million inhabitants – and traditionally celebrates Christmas with much fanfare.

“The people around us were tired, depressed and exhausted, so we said we are going to plant a drop of joy and love,” said Sevine Ariss, one of the organizers of a Christmas fair on the road by the sea where the explosion caused more damage. .