It's a not so merry Christmas across Europe
With restrictions on family gatherings, instructions not to hug and a polite request to St Nicholas to keep his distance and wear a mask, Europe is preparing for its first COVID-19 Christmas.
Governments across the continent, which accounts for a quarter of reported global infections and deaths, are trying to fine-tune restrictions on public life to allow families to celebrate Christmas without super-spreading the coronavirus.
Most are due to unveil plans this week and many are thinking along similar lines: restricted family gatherings, with festive traditions — like German Christmas markets and Wise Men parades in Spain — widely canceled.
In Belgium, one of the hardest hit countries in Europe, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo is worried about a third wave of infections just as the second starts to flatten.
“Either we break a third wave at Christmas or we make a third wave at Christmas,” De Croo, who plans to celebrate only with his wife and two children, said on Sunday.
Underlining its message, the Belgian government has written to St Nicholas, whose December 6 visit with presents for children is a national festive highlight, urging him to: “Keep your distance, wash your hands regularly and wear a mask when necessary.”
In Italy, which has the second highest toll in Europe after Britain, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte warned last week: “We will have to spend the festivities in a more sober way. Big parties, kisses and hugs will not be possible.”
Paris will forgo its ice rinks and Christmas market this year and Moscow has canceled big public celebrations, instead encouraging people to take a stroll to enjoy the city’s lights and decorations.
Faced with restrictions, Europeans are getting innovative.
One Bavarian innkeeper has opened a drive-through Christmas market.
And in the Netherlands children are enjoying a drive-in, distanced meeting with Saint Nicholas.
Avoiding family gatherings ‘safest bet’
The World Health Organization said on Monday avoiding family gatherings would be “the safest bet” over Christmas, insisting there is no zero-risk option for traditional holiday merry-making during the coronavirus pandemic.
Officials said it was down to governments to weigh up the economic and social benefits of loosening pandemic restrictions over the festive period, while individuals would have to decide whether they might be putting more vulnerable relatives at risk.
“There’s lower risk or higher risk — but there is a risk,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead.
“This is incredibly difficult because especially during holidays ... we really want to be with family but in some situations, the difficult decision not to have that family gathering is the safest bet.”
Instead, Van Kerkhove suggested that connecting virtually might be the way to go.