Bethlehem on Thursday ushered in Christmas Eve with a stream of joyous marching bands and the triumphant arrival of the top Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, but few people were there to greet them as the coronavirus pandemic and a strict lockdown dampened celebrations in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
Similar subdued scenes were repeated across the world as the festive family gatherings and packed prayers that typically mark the holiday were scaled back or cancelled altogether.
In Australia, worshippers had to book tickets online to attend socially distanced church services. The Philippines prohibited mass gatherings and barred extended families from holding traditional Christmas Eve dinners. Traditional door-to-door children’s carols were cancelled in Greece.
On Christmas Eve in Italy, church bells rang earlier than usual. The Italian government’s 10pm curfew prompted pastors to move up services, with “Midnight” Mass starting on Thursday evening in some churches as early as a couple hours after dark. Pope Francis, who has said people “must obey” civil authorities’ measures to fight the spread of Covid-19, fell in line. This year, the Christmas vigil Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica was moved up from 9.30pm to 7.30pm.
Normally, seats at the vigil Mass are quickly snapped up, by Romans and by tourists, but the pandemic has reduced tourists in Italy to a trickle. In keeping with social distancing measures, barely 200 faithful — instead of several thousand — spaced out in the basilica’s pews and wearing masks, attended Francis’ celebration of the Mass.
Celebrations elsewhere in Europe were cancelled or greatly scaled back as virus infections surge across the continent and a new variant that may be more contagious has been detected.
In Athens, Christmas Eve was eerily silent. In normal times, voices of children singing carols while tinkling metal triangles can be heard all day. The decades-old custom, in which children go house to house and receive small gifts, was banned this year. Groups of children managed to honour the tradition by singing to Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis by video link —including students from a school for children with hearing difficulty who performed in sign language.
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 — which numbered about 800 before the pandemic — have died of COVID-19, almost all of them part of the community of some 400 who attended services in Spanish.
Despite their own heartbreaks, congregation members — many of them immigrants — donated coats, scarves and other winter clothes for more than 100 migrant minors at a detention centre in Manhattan.
While many other New York City churches have resumed in-person services, Saint Peter’s continues to offer its Masses only online. The schedule for Christmas Eve and Christmas day included Masses in English and Spanish, and a bilingual jazz vespers service.
In Bethlehem, officials tried to make the most out 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 corona and due to the lack of tourism, the city of Bethlehem is still looking forward to the future with optimism.”
Raw, rainy weather added to the gloomy atmosphere, as several dozen people gathered in the central Manger Square to greet Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa. Youth marching bands playing Christmas carols on bagpipes, accompanied by pounding drummers, led a joyous procession ahead of the patriarch’s arrival early in the afternoon.
Thousands of foreign pilgrims usually flock to Bethlehem for the celebrations. The restrictions limited attendance to residents and a small entourage of religious officials. Evening celebrations, when pilgrims normally congregate around the Christmas tree, were cancelled, and Midnight Mass was limited to clergy.
The coronavirus has dealt a heavy blow to Bethlehem’s tourism sector, the lifeblood of the local economy. Restaurants, hotels and gift shops have been shuttered.
Rio de Janeiro’s iconic beaches remained open, but a City Hall decree aimed at limiting gatherings prevented drivers from parking along the shore. Rain also kept beachgoers at home.
Thomas Azevedo and his 9-year-old son braved the bad weather to set up a small stand, selling beer and caipirinhas made from fresh fruit. By early afternoon, he hadn’t sold a thing.
“It’s not so much the rain; in previous years it was full of tourists at Christmas. This year there’s no one,” said Azevedo, 28.
Australians had until recently been 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 community transmission. But after new cases were detected over the past week, states again closed their borders.
While many places around the globe were keeping or increasing restrictions for Christmas, Lebanon was an exception. With its economy in tatters and parts of its capital destroyed by a massive port explosion, Lebanon has lifted most virus measures ahead of the holidays, hoping to encourage spending. Tens of thousands of Lebanese expatriates have arrived home for the holidays, leading to fears of an inevitable surge in cases during the festive season.