Virus weighs again on Christmas festivities in Bethlehem

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Palestinian scout bands parade through Manger Square at the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, during Christmas celebrations, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Friday, Dec. 24, 2021. The biblical town of Bethlehem is gearing up for its second straight Christmas Eve hit by the coronavirus with small crowds and gray, gloomy weather dampening celebrations Friday in the traditional birthplace of Jesus. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Musicians banging drums and playing bagpipes marched through the biblical town of Bethlehem on Friday to the delight of smaller than usual crowds — a mix of conviviality and restraint reflected in celebrations around the world on a Christmas Eve dampened once again by the coronavirus.

Travel restrictions imposed by Israel — the main entry point for foreign visitors heading to the occupied West Bank, home to the traditional birthplace of Jesus — kept international tourists away for a second year. The ban on nearly all non-Israeli travelers is meant to slow the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant.

Instead, authorities were counting on the Holy Land’s small Christian community to lift spirits.

It was a theme seen around the world as revelers, weary from nearly two years of lockdowns and safety restrictions, searched for ways to return to rituals that were called off last year, while still celebrating safely at a time of surging cases.

“We can’t let the virus take our lives from us when we’re healthy,” said Rosalia Lopes, a retired Portuguese government worker who was doing some last-minute shopping in the coastal town of Cascais.

She said she and her family were exhausted by the pandemic and determined to go ahead with their celebrations with the help of safety measures like vaccines and booster shots, rapid home tests and wearing masks in public. She planned a traditional Portuguese Christmas Eve dinner of baked cod.

“We have to take precautions, of course, but we’re really looking forward to it,” she said.

But holiday travel was dealt a blow when three major airlines, Lufthansa, United and Delta, canceled dozens of flights due to staff shortages largely tied to the omicron variant. And church services were scaled back in Germany and the United States.

In the United Kingdom, where omicron is ripping through the population, some houses of worship hoped to press on.

At St. Paul’s Old Ford, an Anglican church in East London, priests planned to hold services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, though that decision will be kept under constant review. The clergy were regularly testing themselves for COVID-19 and limiting the number at each service to make sure others can go ahead even if one tests positive.

But to protect parishioners, the church ditched its nativity play.

“You might have to cancel the service, but you can’t cancel Christmas,’’ said the Rev. April Keech, an associate priest. “You can’t stop love. Love still stands.”

That spirit was also alive in Bethlehem, where Mayor Anton Salman said the town was optimistic that 2021 would be better than last year’s Christmas, when even local residents stayed home due to lockdown restrictions, and marching bands paraded through empty streets.

This year, hundreds of people gathered in the town’s central Manger Square as a line of bagpipe-and-drum-playing bands streamed through the area. Later, Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, waved to well-wishers as his motorcade made its way through town.

“This year we see a lot of people, very crowded, and a lot of joy,” he said, before entering the Church of the Nativity to prepare for Midnight Mass. The church is built on the grotto where Christians believe Jesus was born.

Before the pandemic, Bethlehem would host thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world, bringing a strong dose of holiday spirit to town and a huge jolt to the local economy.

In early November, Israel lifted a year and a half ban that had kept most foreign tourists out of the area. But weeks later, it was forced to re-impose the restrictions as the omicron variant began to spread worldwide.

Tourism is the lifeblood of Bethlehem’s economy, and the lack of visitors has hit hotels, restaurants and gift shops especially hard.

“Under normal conditions for this time of year, I usually have a 20-meter (20-yard) queue outside,” said Adil Abu Nayaf, owner of an empty food stall in Manger Square.

Those who attended tried to make the best of a difficult situation. Billy Stuart, an employee at the British Consulate in Jerusalem, said his experience in Bethlehem was uplifting, despite the small crowds.

“The parade is amazing and I did not realize there were so many Palestinian bagpipers,” he said.

Celebrations in Europe, where infections are surging in many countries, were also more subdued — but forging ahead.

Parisians lined up at chocolate shops, farmers’ markets — and testing centers — across the French capital. France has recorded record numbers of daily COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations have been rising, but the government has held off on imposing curfews, closures or other restrictions for the holidays.

Fabienne Maksimovic, 55, stood in line at a Paris pharmacy waiting to get tested. “It does affect our enthusiasm to celebrate Christmas, it does makes us a bit sad. But at least we are sure not to contaminate or get contaminated. We will all do the test in our family,” she said.

As Spain returned Friday to mandatory face-covering outdoors, 19-year-old student Andrés Pérez and a group of volunteers headed out to offer homeless people masks and a warm breakfast.

“It’s hard to do it (wear the mask), but it’s better for all of us,” said Pérez, whose group brought a guitar to serenade homeless people with Christmas carols.

In Germany, churchgoers faced a thicket of health restrictions and limits on attendance.

Frankfurt’s cathedral, which can hold 1,200 people, offered only 137 distanced spaces, which were booked up days in advance. Singing was allowed only through masks. In some regions, churches required proof of vaccination or testing on top of strict capacity limits and masking.

A line wound halfway around Cologne’s massive cathedral, not for midnight Mass but for vaccinations in an adjacent church hall, the DPA news agency reported. The offer of shots was a sign of “care for one’s neighbor” that was consistent with the message of Christmas, cathedral provost Guido Assmann said.

Numerous churches in the U.S. canceled in-person services, including Washington National Cathedral in the nation’s capital and the historic Old South Church in Boston, while others planned outdoor celebrations or mix of online and in-person worship.

In France, some celebrated by visiting loved ones who are in the hospital. In the Mediterranean city of Marseille, the intensive care unit at La Timone Hospital has been taking in more and more COVID-19 patients in recent days.

Amelie Khayat has been paying daily visits to her husband Ludo, 41, who is recovering from spending 24 days in a coma and on a breathing machine. They touched their heads together as she sat on his bed, and now that he’s strong enough to stand, he got up to give her a farewell hug.

Outside, a medical worker put final decorations on the ICU Christmas tree.

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Associated Press journalists Danica Kirka in London, Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Aritz Parra in Madrid, David McHugh in Frankfurt, Germany, Daniel Cole in Marseille, France, and David Crary in New York contributed.

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