A pandemic Christmas: Services move online, people stay home

Families that usually reunite on Christmas over a hearty, lingering meal stayed home Friday, services were held online, and gift exchanges were low-key in one of the most unusual holiday seasons in decades.

The coronavirus left almost no one unaffected.

Patricia Hager, 60, delivered homemade caramel rolls for breakfast to family and friends in Bismarck, North Dakota, a state that didn’t get hit until later in the pandemic but got hit hard. It seemed every time she opened her door this holiday season, someone had left smoked salmon, baskets of nuts or cookies.

“This year Christmas love is expressed at the door,” she said. “I’m glad that people will probably be with us next year with the vaccines. I can give up anything for that.”

With a child due in February, Song Ju-hyeon of Paju, South Korea, near Seoul, said home is the only place she feels safe. The government reported 1,241 new cases Friday, a new daily record for the country.

“It doesn’t feel like Christmas anyway, there’s no carols being played on the streets,” she said.

“It’s Christmask,” the Daily Nation newspaper declared in Kenya, where a surge in cases led to doctors ending a brief strike Christmas Eve. Celebrations were muted in the East Africa hub as a curfew prevented overnight church vigils.

Pope Francis delivered his Christmas blessing from inside the Vatican, breaking with his traditional speech from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica to tens of thousands in St. Peter’s Square. Tourism in Italy has virtually vanished and the government’s coronavirus restrictions for the holidays foiled any plans by locals to flock to the square.

Citing a cause for optimism, Francis said the invention of COVID-19 vaccines shines “lights of hope” on the world. In a passionate appeal to leaders, businesses and international organizations, he said they must ensure that the most vulnerable and needy in the pandemic be first in line to receive the vaccines.

Bells rang out around Bethlehem as the traditional birthplace of Jesus celebrated. 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.

In Beijing, official churches abruptly canceled Mass after China’s capital was put on high alert following two confirmed COVID-19 cases last week. Two new asymptomatic cases were reported Friday.

With economies reeling around the world, it wasn’t a year of lavish gifts. Robin Sypniewski of Middlesex County, New Jersey, was furloughed twice from her job serving school lunches and is now on reduced hours as her husband retires next week as a trash collector and her daughter wrestles with student debt.

Sypniewski, 58, bought her daughter pajamas, compared to a diamond bracelet last Christmas. Her husband got a $20 plaque describing his Polish heritage, compared to a tablet computer last year.


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