BELÉM, Cisjordânia (AP) – Belém inaugurated Christmas Eve on Thursday with a series of cheerful martial bands and the triumphant arrival of the main Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, but few people were there to greet them as the coronavirus pandemic and a strict blockade dampened celebrations at Jesus’ traditional birthplace.
Similar submissive scenes have been repeated all over the world while festive family reunions and packaged prayers that normally mark the holiday have been reduced or canceled altogether due to the coronavirus.
In Australia, worshipers had to book tickets online to participate in socially distant religious services. The Philippines has banned mass meetings and banned extended families from holding traditional Christmas Eve dinners. Traditional door-to-door children’s songs have been canceled in Greece.
Pope Francis was supposed to celebrate Mass in an almost empty Vatican service in the early evening, when the new strict curfew rules were taking effect.
Italians lined up at bakeries, fishmongers and grocery stores in search of the items needed to prepare Christmas Eve dinners, even when government officials begged families to limit their “cenone” meetings to no more than two people outside the family unit main. The government earlier this week banned travel between regions, and the police left on Thursday to enforce restrictions.
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.
The government of North Macedonia has banned open-air celebrations and meetings of more than four people at home. Hotels and restaurants are not allowed to organize New Year’s celebrations, and bars and restaurants must close at 6 pm until January 20.
“The parties can wait, health cannot,” Health Minister Venko Flipce said in a Facebook post.
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, with dozens of people gathering in the central square of Manger to greet the Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa. Youth bands playing Christmas songs on bagpipes, accompanied by drummers, led a 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 dozens of 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.
Elsewhere, there has been little holiday cheer for Thailand, which is dependent on tourism, as the country faces an unexpected increase in cases of viruses, despite strict border controls that effectively prevented travelers from entering the kingdom.
The Christmas and New Year holidays are typically peak season for hotels, restaurants, bars and entertainment venues that are generally more naughty than pleasant. Many of these companies have closed their doors or decided that it is worth opening.
Malls that cater to foreign tourists have built huge artificial Christmas trees. Some hotels that have remained open are offering their usual buffets to resident expats and members of Thailand’s wealthy elite.
But any hope of a return to normalcy has been dashed in recent days, when the country registered a new cluster of more than 1,000 cases. The authorities responded by announcing new restrictions to Bangkok and other areas, including canceling New Year’s Eve celebrations.
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 vacation plans were thrown into chaos when three cases detected on December 17 exposed a new cluster in northern Sydney. As additional cases were detected, states closed their borders again.
Peta Johnson, a resident of northern Queensland, was preparing to receive her widowed father from Sydney. Travel restrictions suspended the trip until February.
“He’s absolutely heartbroken because he wants to spend time with us and take a break from Sydney and everything that’s going on,” she said.
The churches demanded that the faithful reserve tickets to religious services. Brett Mendez, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Perth, said that St. Mary’s Catholic Cathedral would limit worship to 650 worshipers, just over half the normal level.
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.
A gigantic Christmas tree in the center of Beirut is decorated with uniforms of fire fighters to honor those who died in the port explosion. Another tree represents the old Beirut houses destroyed in the explosion.
“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. .
Federman reported from Jerusalem. Nicole Winfield in Rome, Adam Schreck in Bangkok, Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Zeina Karam in Beirut, Konstantin Testorides in Skopje, North Macedonia and Nicholas Paphitis in Athens contributed to the report.