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.
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.
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.
“It is a bit surreal,” American student Hudson Harder told AFP.
– ‘Sliver of hope’ –
The Netherlands is back in lockdown while Spain and Italy have made wearing masks compulsory outdoors.
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.
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.
In an early Christmas present, the United States said it would next week lift the travel ban imposed on several southern African nations when the Omicron variant was first detected.
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.
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.
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.
“Our air traffic controllers will be guiding Santa safely through Australian airspace,” said aviation safety authority Airservices.