Thu. Jan 28th, 2021

A look at how Christmas was celebrated under COVID-19’s shadow

“Sad, very sad. Seeing everyone in masks, even the priest and altar servers”, said Kyen Quimpo Mallonga about Christmas celebration in Manila.

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Hundreds of millions across the world celebrated pared-down Christmas celebrations on Friday due to COVID-19 restrictions, as Pope Francis called for vaccines for everyone, describing them as “glimmers of hope in this period of darkness and uncertainty”.

Christmas celebrations during the COVID-19 pandemic

The Pope’s Christmas message

The pandemic has claimed more than 1.7 million lives and is still running rampant in much of the world, but the recent launching of mass vaccine campaigns has boosted hopes that 2021 could bring a respite.

Like so many across the globe, the pope was forced to break with normal Christmas tradition, holding his annual “Urbi et Orbi” speech by video from the apostolic palace, to prevent a crowd from gathering in St Peter’s Square.

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This handout photo taken on December 25, 2020, and released by the Vatican press office, the Vatican Media, shows Pope Francis arriving in the Vatican Blessing hall with a face mask prior to delivering his live-streamed Urbi et Orbi blessing. Photo VATICAN MEDIA/AFP

“I call on everyone, on leaders of states, on businesses, on international organisations, to promote cooperation and not competition, to find a solution for everyone: vaccines for all, especially the most vulnerable and most in need in all regions of the planet,” he said.

The Queen’s speech

In her own annual Christmas speech, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II also spoke of hope during “difficult and unpredictable times”.

“Of course, for many, this time of year will be tinged with sadness: some mourning the loss of those dear to them, and others missing friends and family members distanced for safety, when all they’d really want for Christmas is a simple hug or a squeeze of the hand,” she said.

“If you are among them, you are not alone,” she added, saying she was proud of those in the UK and around the world who have “risen magnificently to the challenges of the year”.

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People walk past a new work by Italian street artist TvBoy depicting Santa Claus carrying the Covid-19 vaccine in his sack, in Barcelona on December 24, 2020. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE – MANDATORY MENTION OF THE ARTIST UPON PUBLICATION – TO ILLUSTRATE THE EVENT AS SPECIFIED IN THE CAPTION

Britain has been through a particularly difficult time after the discovery of a new strain of coronavirus believed to spread much faster.

It had already been one of the hardest countries in Europe, which passed a total of 25 million confirmed cases on Friday.

Last week it became the first global region where more than 500,000 people have died of the virus.

‘A way out of this tragedy’

World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a video message that “vaccines are offering the world a way out of this tragedy” but one that will “take time”.

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Worshippers of Legio Maria wearing face mask as a preventive measure against the spread of COVID-19 attend the Christmas prayer at their church in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, on December 25, 2020. (Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA / AFP)

Tedros hailed the “heart-wrenching sacrifices” millions were making by staying away from loved ones on Christmas Day. He said “we must not squander their sacrifices,” calling for people to keep up infection control measures.

In Asia, churches across South Korea stood largely empty, with worshippers congregating online as the country reported a new daily caseload record.

“It really is heartbreaking to see,” said Park Jae-woo, a member of the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul which would usually expect up to 10 000 worshippers, but on Friday was only able to welcome 15 staff and choir members.

Earthquake in Philippines

And in Catholic-majority Philippines, services were rocked when a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck the country, capping off a troubled yuletide already muted by bans on parties and carol singing.

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Christian devotees wearing facemasks as a preventive measure against the Covid-19 coronavirus attend Christmas prayers at the Holy Family Catholic Church in Rawalpindi on December 25, 2020. (Photo by Farooq NAEEM / AFP)

“Sad, very sad. Seeing everyone in masks, even the priest and altar servers, reminded me that the world as I know it is not the same”.

Manila resident Kyen Quimpo Mallonga

Despite warm weather, the usual picnicking crowds also avoided the sands of Sydney’s Bondi Beach, while the waves were empty of surfing Santas and patrolling police officers enforced social distancing rules.

Thin crowds in Bethlehem

Bethlehem, where Christians believe Jesus was born, prepared for a Christmas unlike any in its recent history.

Christmas Eve mass at the Church of the Nativity is traditionally the highlight of a holiday season that sees hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to the Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank.

The service was held online this year, with only clergy and select individuals allowed inside the basilica.

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Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa (C) leads Christmas morning mass at the Church of the Nativity, the site where Jesus Christ is believed to have been born, in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank on December 25, 2020. Photo by HAZEM BADER/AFP

“Everyone feels darkened, tired, exhausted, oppressed for too long under the heavy burden of this pandemic that besieges our lives,” said the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa.

In war-ravaged northeast Syria, hundreds of residents of a predominantly Christian neighbourhood in the town of Qamishli ditched face masks and donned Santa hats, throwing caution to the wind to celebrate a Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

“We were concerned celebrations would be cancelled this year due to the novel coronavirus, but as you can see everyone is here celebrating and we are happy”.

Maria Danhou, a 36-year-old mother of two

Holiday isolation

Germany has been forced to cancel its famous Christmas markets, while in Kuwait, churches were closed until January 10 despite being home to a large Christian community.

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Christian worshippers sing in a choir during Christmas morning mass at St Matthew’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Sudan’s capital Khartoum on December 25, 2020 during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP)

For many, the isolation that has defined the past year will continue beyond Christmas Day — such as in Belgium, where residents are largely limited to welcoming a single visitor.

Britons, meanwhile, were cut off from swathes of the world due to the emergence of the new Covid-19 strain. Some UK border restrictions have been temporarily relaxed for the holidays, but thousands from other European countries are still stranded in England.

“Home for Christmas? Forget it,” said Laurent Beghin, a French truck driver who delivered his cargo but was still stuck days later.

However more than 1 000 waiting trucks did arrive at the French port of Calais on Friday, with hopes that the bottleneck could be cleared by Saturday.

Catherine Marciano with AFP bureaus © Agence France-Presse

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Twenty-five-year-old student Djordje Pantovic, dressed as Santa Claus, gestures during an online session with kids at his home in Belgrade on December 25, 2020. – Amidst the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, some families in Serbia book online meetings with Santa Claus for their children, to avoid close contacts. (Photo by Andrej ISAKOVIC / AFP)

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