Coronavirus has led to Christmas in 2020 taking on a different appearance around the world – from subdued scenes in Bethlehem to an early start to Midnight Mass.
A strict lockdown dampened celebrations in the traditional birthplace of Jesus in the West Bank with few worshippers on hand to see marching bands.
And the absence of the faithful was also seen in the Holy Land, where Christmas vigil Mass in St Peter’s Basilica was held at 7.30pm to ensure compliance with Italy’s 10pm curfew.
Midnight Mass started as early as a couple hours after dark in some churches, and Pope Francis, who has said people “must obey” civil authorities’ measures to fight the spread of Covid-19, fell in line.
Normally seats at the vigil Mass are quickly snapped up, by Romans and by tourists, but the pandemic has reduced tourists in Italy to a trickle.
In keeping with social distancing measures, barely 200 faithful – instead of several thousand – spaced out in the basilica’s pews and wearing masks, attended Francis’ celebration of the Mass.
In his homily, Francis offered reflections on the significance of Christmas.
“We often hear it said that the greatest joy in life is the birth of a child. It is something extraordinary and it changes everything,” he said.
“God was born a child in order to encourage us to care for others,” said Francis, who has made attention to the poor and unjustly treated a key theme of his papacy.
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.”
Rainy weather added to the gloomy atmosphere, as several dozen people gathered in the central Manger Square to greet Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa.
Youth marching bands playing Christmas carols on bagpipes, accompanied by pounding drummers, led a joyous procession ahead of the patriarch’s arrival early in the afternoon.
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.