Christmas joy dampened in Bethlehem, worldwide amid coronavirus pandemic

A Palestinian scouts band parades in front of the Church of the Nativity during Christmas celebrations in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, on December 24, 2020. - In a normal year hundreds of thousands of visitors flood the Palestinian city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. But with coronavirus restrictions making travel to Bethlehem all but impossible for foreign worshippers, the Church of the Nativity has been eerily calm in the days before Christmas. (Photo by HAZEM BADER / AFP) (Photo by HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images)

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 canceled altogether due to the coronavirus.

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 canceled in Greece.

Pope Francis was set to celebrate Mass in a near-empty Vatican service early in the evening as strict new curfew rules were going into effect.

Italians lined up at bakeries, fish markets and grocery stores for items needed to prepare Christmas Eve dinners, even as government officials begged families to limit their “cenone” gatherings to no more than two people outside the main family unit. The government earlier this week barred travel between regions, and police were out Thursday enforcing the restrictions.

Celebrations elsewhere in Europe were canceled 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 honor 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.

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North Macedonia’s government banned outdoor celebrations and gatherings 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 p.m. through Jan. 20.

“Parties can wait, health cannot,” Health Minister Venko Flipce said in a Facebook post.

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 dozens of 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 procession ahead of the patriarch’s arrival early in the afternoon.

“Despite the restrictions and limitations we want to celebrate as much as possible, with family, community and joy,” said Pizzaballa, who was to lead a small Midnight Mass gathering later in the evening. “We want to offer hope.”

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Thousands of foreign pilgrims usually flock to Bethlehem for the celebrations. But the closure of Israel’s international airport to foreign tourists, along with Palestinian restrictions banning intercity travel in the areas they administer in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, kept visitors away.

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The restrictions limited attendance to dozens of residents and a small entourage of religious officials. Evening celebrations, when pilgrims normally congregate around the Christmas tree, were canceled, 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.

Elsewhere, there was little holiday cheer for tourism-dependent Thailand, as the country grapples with an unexpected spike in virus cases, despite strict border controls that have effectively blocked travelers from entering the kingdom.

The Christmas and New Year’s holidays are typically peak season for the tropical country’s hotels, restaurants, bars and often naughtier-than-nice entertainment venues. Many of those businesses have either gone out of business or decided it’s even worth opening.

Shopping malls that cater heavily to foreign tourists built towering artificial Christmas trees. Some hotels that remained open are putting on their usual buffets for resident expats and members of Thailand’s moneyed elite.

But any hopes of a return to normalcy were dashed in recent days as the country recorded a new cluster of more than 1,000 cases. Authorities responded by announcing fresh restrictions on Bangkok and other areas that included canceling New Year’s Eve celebrations.

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 holiday plans were thrown into chaos when three cases detected on Dec. 17 exposed a new cluster in northern Sydney. As additional cases were detected, states again closed their borders.

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Peta Johnson, a resident of northern Queensland, had been preparing to welcome her recently widowed father from Sydney. Travel restrictions have put the trip on hold until February.

“He is absolutely heartbroken because he wants to have some time with us and have a break from Sydney and everything that has been going on,” she said.

Churches were requiring worshippers to reserve tickets for services. Brett Mendez, spokesman for the Perth Archdiocese, said St. Mary’s Catholic Cathedral would limit services to 650 worshippers, just over half the normal level.

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 Aug. 4 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.

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

A giant Christmas tree in downtown Beirut is decorated with the uniforms of firefighters to commemorate those who died in the port explosion. Another tree represents Beirut’s ancient houses destroyed in the blast.

“People around us were tired, depressed and depleted, so we said let’s just plant a drop of joy and love,” said Sevine Ariss, one of the organizers of a Christmas fair along the seaside road where the explosion caused the most damage.

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