Christmas arrived around the world on Saturday amid a surge in COVID-19 infections that kept many families apart, overwhelmed hospitals and curbed religious observances as the pandemic was poised to stretch into a third year.
Yet, there were homilies of hope, as vaccines and other treatments become more available.
Pope Francis used his Christmas address to pray for some of those vaccines to reach the poorest countries. While wealthy countries have inoculated as much as 90% of their adult populations, 8.9% of Africa’s people are fully jabbed, making it the world’s least-vaccinated continent.
Only a few thousand well-wishers turned out for his noontime address and blessing, but even that was better than last year, when Italy’s Christmas lockdown forced Francis indoors for the annual “Urbi et Orbi” (“To the city and the world”) speech.
“Grant health to the infirm and inspire all men and women of goodwill to seek the best ways possible to overcome the current health crisis and its effects,” Francis said from the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica. “Open hearts to ensure that necessary medical care — and vaccines in particular — are provided to those peoples who need them most.”
In the United States, many churches canceled in-person services, but for those that did have in-person worship, clerics reported smaller but significant attendance.
“Our hopes for a normal Christmas have been tempered by Omicron this year … still filled with uncertainties and threats that overshadow us,” the Rev. Ken Boller told his parishioners during midnight Mass at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in New York City. “Breakthrough used to be a happy word for us, until it was associated with COVID. And in the midst of it all, we celebrate Christmas.”
In Britain, Queen Elizabeth II noted another year of pain — particularly personal after losing her husband, Prince Philip, in April — and urged people everywhere to celebrate with friends and family, despite the grief caused by the pandemic.
“Although it’s a time of great happiness and good cheer for many, Christmas can be hard for those who have lost loved ones,’’ the queen said in the prerecorded message broadcast when many British families were enjoying their traditional Christmas dinner. “This year, especially, I understand why.’’
Thousands of people across Britain got a vaccine booster shot for Christmas as new cases there hit another daily record of 122,186. The Good Health Pharmacy in north London was one of dozens of vaccination sites that kept their doors open Saturday to administer “jingle jabs” amid a government push to offer booster shots to all adults by the end of the year.
The head of intensive care at a hospital in Marseille, France, said most of the COVID-19 patients there over Christmas were unvaccinated, while his staff members are exhausted or can’t work because they are infected.
“We’re sick of this,” said Dr. Julien Carvelli, the ICU chief at Marseille’s La Timone Hospital, as his team spent another Christmas Eve tending to COVID-19 patients on breathing machines. “We’re afraid we won’t have enough space.”
On the other side of the globe, hundreds of thousands of people in the Philippines, Asia’s largest Roman Catholic nation, spent Christmas without homes, electricity, or adequate food and water after a powerful typhoon left at least 375 people dead last week and devastated mostly central island provinces.
Gov. Arthur Yap of hard-hit Bohol province, where more than 100 people died in the typhoon and about 150,000 houses were damaged or destroyed, asked foreign aid agencies to help provide temporary shelters and water-filtration systems to supplement Philippine government aid.
“There is overwhelming fear. There are no gifts, there were no Christmas Eve dinners. There is none of that today,” Yap said.
Yap said he was happy that many Filipinos could celebrate Christmas more safely after COVID-19 cases dropped, but he pleaded: “Please don’t forget us.”
While some countries in Asia imposed restrictions to try to contain the highly contagious omicron variant, governments in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere preached common sense despite reporting record daily cases this week, advising their citizens to use masks and voluntarily limit the size of holiday gatherings.
Some families were expecting empty chairs at dinner tables this holiday, after airlines around the world canceled hundreds of flights as the omicron variant jumbled schedules and reduced staffing levels.
According to FlightAware, more than 3,900 flights scheduled for Friday and Saturday were canceled, with close to half involving Chinese airlines. About 30% of affected flights — more than 1,100 — were to, from or within the United States.
At a reception center for asylum-seekers on the Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus, Patricia Etoh, a Catholic from Cameroon, said she did not have any special plans because it just did not feel like Christmas without her 6-year-old child, whom she had to leave behind.
But she added: “We’re grateful, we’re alive, and when we’re alive, there’s hope.”
On Fiji, many in the deeply religious nation will celebrate Christmas at traditional church services and family gatherings. The Pacific island has an ongoing outbreak and a pandemic death toll of almost 700, but 92% of the adult population is fully vaccinated.
Health Secretary James Fong, in a Christmas message, urged Fijians to “please celebrate wisely.”
In remote Macuata province, residents of four villages received a special Christmas gift when electricity was connected to their villages for the first time.
Christmas provided no gift for New York City residents seeking a coronavirus test, because most of the city’s 120 testing sites were closed.
The appetite for tests was demonstrated in Brooklyn on Friday when police were summoned to a neighborhood to quell a crowd of angry people who had been expecting to receive free at-home testing kits, only to be disappointed when the supply ran out.
The scene unfolded just a day after the state registered nearly 40,000 new infections from the coronavirus, a roughly 10,000 leap from the record New York state set a day earlier.