BETHLEHEM, Palestinian Territories — 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 away anytime soon.
For the second year, surging infections have complicated yuletide plans from Sydney to Seville.
In Bethlehem — the Palestinian town in the Israeli-occupied West Bank that Christians believe was Jesus’ birthplace — hoteliers have been disappointed.
After a near-total lockdown last year, Israel has again closed its borders.
Just several hundred huddled under a grey sky in the city’s Manger Square to watch the Palestinian scouts and bagpipers parade past.
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 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.
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.
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 their 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”.
Biden and his wife plan to stay at the White House for Christmas — 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.
‘Operation Present Drop’
Millions of Americans were on the move to see loved ones for Christmas, even as Covid infections surpass the peak of the previous wave and hospitals run out of beds.
Thousands could face a grim holiday weekend, with major carrier United cancelling 120 flights because infection numbers had affected flight crews and other operations.
But angst born from a seemingly interminable crisis, long testing queues, cancelled flights and close contact notifications was not going to prevent Santa from doing his rounds.
The hirsute 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.
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.”
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