Bethlehem 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 on Thursday 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 10 p.m. curfew prompted pastors to move up services, with Midnight Mass starting 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 9:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
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. A row of fiery red poinsettia plants warmly contrasted with the sumptuous cold marble of the basilica.
Francis in his homily offered reflections on Christmas’ significance. We often hear it said that the greatest joy in life is the birth of a child. It is something extraordinary and it changes everything, he said. A child makes us feel loved but can also teach us how to love.” God was born a child in order to encourage us to care for others, said Francis, who has made attention to the poor and unjustly treated a key theme of his papacy.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
In Colombia, thousands of Venezuelan migrants are spending Christmas away from their families in precarious conditions. In previous years, many Venezuelans have gone back home for the holidays to visit their relatives. But Colombia’s government has shut down border crossings with Venezuela in a bid to slow down COVID-19 infections.