Virus dampens Christmas joy in Bethlehem, worldwide

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Photo credit Palestinian scout bands parade through Manger Square at the Church of the Nativity, traditionally recognized by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, ahead of the midnight Mass, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Thursday, Dec. 24, 2020. Few people were there to greet them as the coronavirus pandemic and a strict lockdown dampened Christmas Eve celebrations. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Bethlehem on Thursday ushered in Christmas Eve with a stream of joyous marching bands and the triumphant arrival of the top Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, but few people were there to greet them as the coronavirus pandemic and a strict lockdown dampened celebrations in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

Similar subdued scenes were repeated across the world as the festive family gatherings and packed prayers that typically mark the holiday were scaled back or canceled altogether.

In Australia, worshippers had to book tickets online to attend socially distanced church services. The Philippines prohibited mass gatherings and barred extended families from holding traditional Christmas Eve dinners. Traditional door-to-door children's carols were canceled in Greece.

On Christmas Eve in Italy, church bells rang earlier than usual. The Italian government’s 10 p.m. curfew prompted pastors to move up services, with “Midnight” Mass starting Thursday evening in some churches as early as a couple hours after dark. Pope Francis, who has said people “must obey” civil authorities’ measures to fight the spread of COVID-19, fell in line. This year, the Christmas vigil Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica was moved up from 9:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

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. A row of fiery red poinsettia plants warmly contrasted with the sumptuous cold marble of the basilica.

Francis in his homily offered reflections on Christmas’ significance. “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. A child “makes us feel loved but can also teach us how to love."

“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.

Celebrations elsewhere in Europe were canceled or greatly scaled back as virus infections surge across the continent and a new variant that may be more contagious has been detected.

In Athens, Christmas Eve was eerily silent. In normal times, voices of children singing carols while tinkling metal triangles can be heard all day. The decades-old custom, in which children go house to house and receive small gifts, was banned this year. Groups of children managed to honor the tradition by singing to Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis by video link —including students from a school for children with hearing difficulty who performed in sign language.

Throughout the pandemic, one of the hardest-hit churches in New York City has been Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church in Manhattan. Church leaders say more than 60 members of the congregation — which numbered about 800 before the pandemic — have died of COVID-19, almost all of them part of the community of some 400 who attended services in Spanish.

Despite their own heartbreaks, congregation members — many of them immigrants — dona