christmas: ‘A ray of light’ in dark Omicron times: World rings in Christmas amid curbs & cancellations – Times of India

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NEW DELHI: World is celebrating yet another pandemic-tinged Christmas, this time all the more amid the rising cases of highly infectious Omicron variant of the Covid-19, with curbs on mass gatherings and cancellations of flights.
In Rome’s St Peter’s Basilica, a mask-less Pope Francis celebrated the Christmas eve Mass before an estimated 2,000 people on Friday — far more than last year’s 200 when Italy was in a full lockdown despite having less weekly cases than this year.
Francis processed down the central aisle as the Sistine Chapel choir sang “Noel”, kicking off the Vatican’s Christmas holiday that commemorates the birth of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem.
In his homily, Francis urged the faithful to focus on the “littleness” of Jesus, and remember that he came into the world poor, without even a proper crib.
“That is where God is, in littleness,” Francis said. “This is the message: God does not rise up in grandeur, but lowers himself into littleness. Littleness is the path that he chose to draw near to us, to touch our hearts, to save us and to bring us back to what really matters.”
This year due to the resurgence in Covid-19 cases, prompting a new vaccine mandate for Vatican employees, attendance on Friday was limited to about 2,000 people, way less than the 20,000 seating capacity of St Peter’s.
The 85-year-old pope began the “Midnight Mass” at 7.30 pm, a hold-over from last year, when the service had to end before Italy’s nationwide Covid-19 curfew.
No curfew, however, is in place this year, but cases this week have surged even beyond 2020 levels. For the second day in a row, Italy on Friday set a new pandemic daily record with 50,599 new cases. Another 141 people died, bringing Italy’s official death toll to 136,386.
Francis is believed to have received the third booster shot, as has emeritus Pope Benedict XVI.
Bethlehem hoteliers disappointed
In Bethlehem, the Palestinian town in the Israeli-occupied West Bank that Christians believe is Jesus’ birthplace, hoteliers have been disappointed.
After a near-total lockdown last year, Israel has again closed its borders.
Celebrations on Friday were subdued as just a few hundred huddled in the city’s Manger Square to watch the Palestinian scouts and bagpipers parade past.
This year, like last, Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve will be reserved for just a small circle of people by invitation only.
For some it was “surreal”. “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,” American student Hudson Harder told AFP.
US first lady takes unexpected guest to children’s hospital
Across the Atlantic, US First Lady Jill Biden took an unexpected guest to a children’s hospital in Washington: her husband Joe who is the first sitting president to accompany his spouse for the traditional Christmas book-reading.
The couple chatted with patients and doctors, showing one boy a photo of “Commander”, their new puppy, before settling into chairs beside a Christmas tree and reading a book inspired by the Disney movie “Frozen”.
The Bidens have planned to spend the Christmas at the White House, an uncommon practice for recent American presidents.
The family normally rings in the New Year in the sunny US Virgin Islands but will instead go to their home in chilly Delaware, a few hours northeast of Washington.
Santa not deterred from doing his rounds
Santa was not deterred from doing his rounds, even as over 2,000 flights were cancelled on the Christmas eve globally.
The bearded spreader of holiday cheer had 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” — had also been given the all clear.
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.”
The joint US-Canadian command, NORAD, on a specialised website offered the public the chance to track Father Christmas’ sleigh as it flies around the globe.
Celebrations amid restrictions in Europe
In Europe, governments are re-imposing 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.
With Britain hitting a record high number of Covid-19 infections again on Friday for a third day in a row, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested getting a vaccine booster shot as a Christmas gift for relatives.
France notched up record positive cases for the second day in a row and its health authorities urged people to get booster shots just three months after initial jabs, down from the current five.
On the other hand, 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.





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