BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — A stream of marching bands joyously paraded through Bethlehem on Thursday, but few people were there to greet them as the coronavirus pandemic and a strict lockdown dampened Christmas Eve 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. In Australia, worshippers had to book tickets online to attend socially distanced church services.
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 in force 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. Thousands of truck drivers and travelers were trapped in mass gridlock at Britain’s Dover port on Christmas Eve, held up from crossing to France by the slow delivery of coronavirus tests demanded by French authorities.
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 and will celebrate Christmas in all its human and religious meanings.”
Raw, rainy weather added to the gloomy atmosphere, as dozens of people gathered in the central Manger Square to greet the Latin Patriarch, the top Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land. 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 Latin Patriarch Pierbattista 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 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 85-year-old Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who usually attends the solemn occasion, said he would not participate.
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 decided it’s not even worth opening or have gone out of business.
Shopping malls that cater heavily to foreign tourists are putting on a brave face, erecting 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.
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 across the country 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.
In Indonesia, which is experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases, church services were capped at 50 people. About 10% of the country's 270 million people are Christian.
The Rev. Jacklevyn Frits Manuputty, a local Christian leader, said many churches were holding online prayer services. “We did all we can do to keep people connected with God during this Christmas Eve,” he said.
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.
But even with restrictions relaxed, a severe economic crisis was pouring gloom over the holidays this year. The streets of Beirut, traditionally lit with Christmas lights, are more subdued. Shops may have new products, but few people are buying
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.
Federman reported from Jerusalem. Nicole Winfield in Rome, Adam Schreck in Bangkok, Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia; Niniek Karmini in Jakarta and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed reporting.