Coronavirus dampens Christmas joy in Bethlehem and elsewhere

Josef Federman and Jalal Hassan
Associated Press

Bethlehem, West Bank — 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.

Palestinian scout bands parade through Manger Square at the Church of the Nativity, traditionally recognized by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, ahead of the midnight Mass, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Thursday. Few people were there to greet them as the coronavirus pandemic and a strict lockdown dampened Christmas Eve celebrations.

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 this week barred travel between regions, and police were out Thursday enforcing the restrictions.

Italian Carabinieri officers check vehicles in front of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Thursday.

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.

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 center 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."

Palestinian children look at the Nativity scene in Manger Square, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, ahead of Christmas, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Wednesday.

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.

“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.”

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.

People wearing Christmas costumes and protective masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus, walk at the waterfront of Victoria Harbour,  in Hong Kong, Thursday.

The restrictions limited attendance to 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.

It was not the usual raucous Christmas eve in Mexico City. The big celebration was a ceremony where the country’s first coronavirus vaccine shots were administered.

On Christmas Eve, parents usually take their kids to a downtown plaza where actors dress up as the Three Wise Men or Santa Claus and pose in front of elaborate backdrops resembling the sets of popular children’s movies.

But this year, the Wise Men and Santas were banned. Mexico's other grand tradition, Midnight Mass, was canceled in many parishes.

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

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.

Carolyn Ellis, left, creator of the hug glove hugs her mother Susan Watts, 74, in her backyard on Christmas Eve during the COVID-19 pandemic in Guelph, Ont., Thursday. Watts is a retired nurse who lives in an apartment near by and gets to come over outside and hug her daughter's family.

“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 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.

“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.

Federman reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers from around the world contributed.