Covid-19 mutes cheers in Bethlehem and beyond

Bethlehem began Christmas Eve on Thursday with a stream of happy marching bands and the triumphant arrival of the Catholic priest in the Holy Land, but few people were there to visit them as the coronavirus pandemic and a strict lockdown dampened the celebration in the traditional birthplace. of Jesus.

Similar subdued scenes were repeated around the world when the festive family gatherings and packed prayers that usually mark the holiday were reduced or interrupted altogether.

In Australia, worshipers had to book tickets online to attend the socially distant church. The Philippines banned mass gatherings and prevented extended families from holding traditional dinners on Christmas Eve. Traditional door-to-door children’s songs were interrupted in Greece.

Pope Francis was to celebrate Mass in an almost empty Vatican service early in the evening when strict new rules of procedure came into force.

Italians lined up at bakeries, fish markets and grocery stores for items needed to prepare dinners on Christmas Eve, although government officials asked families to limit their “cenone” collections to no more than two people outside the main family. The government this week banned travel between regions, and police were out on Thursday to implement the restrictions.

Celebrations elsewhere in Europe were interrupted or sharply reduced as Covid-19 infections increased across the continent and a new variant that could be more contagious was discovered.

In Athens, Christmas Eve was eerily quiet. In normal times, the voices of children singing songs are heard as they tip metal triangles throughout the day. Decades-old custom, where children go from house to house and receive small gifts, was banned this year. Children’s groups managed to honor the tradition by singing to Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis via video link.

Throughout the pandemic, one of the hardest hit churches in New York City has been Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church in Manhattan. Church leaders say more than 60 members of the congregation – who were about 800 before the pandemic – have died of COVID-19, almost all of the community of about 400 who attended services in Spanish.

Despite their own heartbeats, parishioners – many of them immigrants – donated coats, scarves and other winter clothing for more than 100 migrating minors at a detention center in Manhattan.

While many other New York City churches have resumed personal services, Saint Peter’s continues to offer its Masses only online. The schedule for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day included fairs in English and Spanish and a bilingual jazz vespers service.

In Bethlehem, officials tried to take advantage of a bad situation.

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

Raw, rainy weather contributed to the gloomy atmosphere as several dozen people gathered in central Manger Square to greet the Latin patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa. Youth marching bands playing Christmas carols on bagpipes, along with thumping drummers, led a joyous procession before the patriarch’s arrival in the early afternoon.

“Despite the limitations and limitations, we want to celebrate as much as possible with family, community and joy,” says Pizzaballa, who would lead a small midnight mass later in the evening. “We want to offer hope.”

Thousands of foreign pilgrims flock to Bethlehem for the celebration. But the closure of Israel’s international airport for foreign tourists, along with Palestinian restrictions banning travel between cities in the areas it administers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, kept visitors away.

The restrictions limited the presence of the inhabitants and a small entourage of religious officials. The evening celebration, when pilgrims normally gather around the Christmas tree, was interrupted and the midnight mass was limited to priests.

Coronavirus has hit Bethlehem’s tourism sector hard, the lifeblood of the local economy. Restaurants, hotels and gift shops have been closed.

It was not the usual unfortunate Christmas Eve in Mexico City. The big celebration was a ceremony where the country’s first coronavirus vaccine shot was administered.

On Christmas Eve, parents usually take their children to a square in the center where actors dress up as the three wise men or Santa Claus and pose in front of detailed backgrounds similar to the sets of popular children’s films.

But this year, the wise men and Santa Claus were banned. Mexico’s second great tradition, the Midnight Mass, was interrupted in many congregations.

Still, Zoé Robledo, head of Mexico’s social security system, said the launch of the country’s COVID-19 vaccine program made it an “unforgettable Christmas.”

Rio de Janeiro’s iconic beaches remained open, but a town hall decision aimed at restricting gatherings prevented drivers from parking along the beach. Rain also kept the beach guests at home.

Thomas Azevedo and his 9-year-old son believed the bad weather to set up a small booth and sell beer and caipirinhas made from fresh fruit. Early in the afternoon he had not sold anything.

“It’s not so much rain; in previous years it was full of tourists at Christmas. This year there is no one, says Azevedo, 28.

Until recently, Australians had been looking forward to a relatively COVID-19-free Christmas after cross-border travel restrictions relaxed in recent weeks in the absence of evidence of transfer of society. But after new cases were discovered in the past week, states closed their borders again.

While many places around the world maintained or increased restrictions for Christmas, Lebanon was an exception. With its economy in disrepair and parts of the capital destroyed by a massive port explosion on August 4, Lebanon has removed most viral measures before the holiday in hopes of encouraging spending. Tens of thousands of Lebanese foreigners have returned home for the holidays, leading to fears of an inevitable rise in cases during the festive period.

Lebanon has the largest proportion of Christians in the Middle East – about a third of its 5 million people – and traditionally celebrates Christmas with much fanfare.

“The people around us were tired, depressed and impoverished, so we said we were just planting a drop of joy and love,” said Sevine Ariss, one of the organizers of a Christmas fair along the beach road where the explosion caused the most damage.

(AP)