The Associated Press
BETHLEHEM, PALESTINIAN TERRITORY –
From Bethlehem and Frankfurt to London and Boston, the emerging coronavirus dampened Christmas Eve for a second year, forcing churches to cancel or reduce services, and disrupting travel plans and family celebrations.
Drummers and bagpipers marched through Bethlehem – the city where Christians believe Jesus was born – to less-than-usual crowds after new Israeli travel restrictions put a brake on the highly contagious variant of the omicron to keep international tourists away.
In Germany, a line wound halfway around the massive Cologne Cathedral, not for midnight mass, but for vaccinations.
The offer of shots is an expression of the « concern of the neighbors », which corresponds to the Christmas message, said Provost Guido Assmann of the dpa news agency.
All over the world, people tired of nearly two years of bans and other restrictions were looking for ways to safely enjoy some of the vacation rituals.
« We cannot let the virus kill us if we are healthy, » said Rosalia Lopes, a retired Portuguese government official who did last-minute shopping in the coastal city of Cascais.
She said she and her family were exhausted from the pandemic and determined to continue their celebrations with the help of vaccines and booster vaccines, home rapid tests, and wearing masks in public.
Across the Atlantic in New York City, where Omicron has become widespread, people waited in long lines to get tested, many as a precaution, before traveling to family.
But vacation travel took a hit when major airlines canceled hundreds of flights, in part due to staff shortages mostly related to Omicron.
In the UK, where the coronavirus variant is penetrating the population, some places of worship were hoping to continue.
At St. Paul’s Old Ford, an Anglican church in East London, priests planned to hold services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
« You may have to cancel the service, but you cannot cancel Christmas, » said Rev. April Keech, an assistant priest. « You can’t stop love. Love still stands. »
Numerous churches in the United States canceled personal services, including the Washington National Cathedral in the country’s capital and the historic Old South Church in Boston. Others planned outdoor celebrations or a mix of online and in-person services.
In Germany, churchgoers were confronted with a thicket of health restrictions and restrictions on participation. Some had to provide proof of vaccination or testing.
The Frankfurt Cathedral, which can hold 1,200 people, only offered 137 socially distant places that were booked every day in advance. Singing was only allowed with masks.
People in the Netherlands tried to make the most of their vacation despite living under one of the strictest locks in Europe.
All non-essential businesses were closed, including bars and restaurants, and house calls were limited to two people a day, four at Christmas.
« We’re only meeting with a few small family groups for the next few days, » said Marloes Jansen, who was waiting in line to buy the traditional Dutch Kerststol, a Christmas bread with fruit and nuts.
A flaw in a computerized appointment system prevented many people from scheduling COVID-19 tests and undermined government efforts to get booster vaccinations in a country that is already lagging behind its neighbors.
In France, some relatives visited the hospital. In the Mediterranean city of Marseille, the intensive care unit of the La Timone hospital has been accepting more and more COVID-19 patients in recent days.
Amelie Khayat visits her husband Ludo, 41, who is recovering from 24 days in a coma and on a ventilator, every day.
They touched their heads as she sat on his bed, and now that he’s strong enough to stand up, he got up to hug her goodbye as a medical worker finally decorated the ICU Christmas tree.
France has seen record numbers of daily COVID-19 infections and hospital admissions have risen, but the government has been reluctant to issue curfews or closings during the holidays.
« It influences our enthusiasm to celebrate Christmas. It makes us a bit sad. But at least we are sure that we are not infected or contaminated. We will all take the test in our family, » said Fabienne Maksimovic, 55, as she Waited in line at a Paris pharmacy to be tested.
In Antwerp, Belgium, Christmas trees were hanging upside down from the windows in protest against the closure of cultural sites.
The scene in Bethlehem was much more festive than it was a year ago, when musicians marched through empty streets. This year, hundreds of people gathered in Manger Square as bagpipes and drums streamed through.
Before the pandemic, Bethlehem was home to thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world. The shortage of visitors has hit the city’s hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops particularly hard.
Associate Press Journalist Danica Kirka in London; Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal; Aritz Parra in Madrid; Daniel Cole in Marseille, France; and Molly Quell in the Netherlands.
Palestinian Boy Scout Band members parade through Manger Square in the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, on Friday, December 24, 2021, during Christmas celebrations in the city of Bethlehem in the West Bank. (AP Photo / Mahmoud Illean)
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