The rise of the Omicron variant heralded on Friday another pandemic-tinged Christmas for billions, with Santa’s arrival and longed-for family reunions overshadowed by the prospect of yet more Covid restrictions.
Festive jokes about reindeer having “herd immunity” and millions isolating “Home Alone” may be wearing thin, but the emergence of the ultra-infectious Omicron variant means the pandemic is not going anywhere.
For the second year, surging infections have complicated yuletide plans from Sydney to Seville.
In Bethlehem – the Israeli-occupied Palestinian city Christians believe was Jesus’ birthplace – hoteliers expecting an influx of tourists have been disappointed. After a near-total lockdown last year, Israel’s borders are again closed.
Just several hundred huddled under a grey sky in the city’s Manger Square to watch the Palestinian scouts and bagpipers parade past.
Under heavy police escort, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, arrived at the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where the faithful believe Christ was born.
But this year, like last, midnight mass on Christmas Eve will be reserved for just a small circle of people by invitation only and celebrations on Friday were subdued.
“It is a bit surreal,” American student Hudson Harder told AFP.
“There is a selfish part where it’s like ‘Oh I get to see this place so empty’ but on the other hand you feel for the shops, all the money they are losing, it’s really quite tragic.”
‘Sliver of hope’
In Europe, governments are reimposing misery-inducing safety measures that are draining the fun from Christmas for many.
The Netherlands is back in lockdown while Spain and Italy have made wearing masks compulsory outdoors.
And with Britain hitting a record high number of Covid-19 infections on Thursday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested getting a vaccine booster shot as a Christmas gift for relatives.
In France, the government urged people to get booster shots just three months after initial jabs, down from the current suggestion of five months as it sought to fight off the fast-spreading Omicron.
Still, Christmas gatherings will be easier than a year ago in many other places around the world.
Most Australians are allowed to travel interstate over the festive break for the first time in two years, with Sydney’s Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher saying that Christmas was “a ray of light” in dark times.
Pope Francis is still scheduled to deliver the traditional Christmas Eve midnight mass from St Peter’s Basilica.
In an early Christmas present, the US said it would next week lift the travel ban imposed on several southern African nations when the Omicron variant was first detected.
Millions of Americans are on the move in the run-up to Christmas, even as Covid infections surpass the peak of the previous wave and hospitals run out of beds.
But thousands among them were set to face a grim holiday weekend, with major carrier United cancelling 120 flights because infection numbers had affected flight crews and other operations.
Operation Present Drop
However, angst born from a seemingly interminable crisis, long testing queues, cancelled flights and close contact notifications will not prevent Santa from doing his rounds.
The hirsute spreader of holiday cheer has reportedly been cleared for travel in Canada’s airspace after showing proof of vaccination and a pre-flight negative Covid test, Ottawa’s transport minister said.
Santa’s flight crew – including reindeer Rudolph, whose “nose shone red and bright (but) made sure he had no Covid-19 symptoms before taking off” – have also been given the all clear.
And Australian authorities said they were working round the clock to ensure “Operation Present Drop” goes smoothly.
“Our air traffic controllers will be guiding Santa safely through Australian airspace,” said aviation safety authority Airservices.
“He’s cleared to fly at 500 feet so he can skim the rooftops and deliver his presents quickly and quietly – after all, his magical sleigh isn’t your average aircraft.”