Hopes for a 'normal' Christmas fade as pandemic rages in Europe and North America

The reassurance, after a tough year when many families had already spent special occasions in isolation, served as motivation to put up with short-term restrictions.

But with coronavirus cases surging again as the holiday season approaches, and vaccine rollouts in stages too early to make a dent, hope for a Christmas miracle has come to look like a mirage.

In Germany, where officials spent weeks deciding whether to offer a Christmas reprieve from restrictions, Chancellor announced Sunday that the country would return to strict measures like those it had imposed at the start of the pandemic.

The Dutch government announced Monday that it would install its toughest restrictions yet over the holiday season, through Jan 19. “We realize just how far-reaching this decision is,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte said in an evening address to the nation. “This has been a year of sadness and mourning for many.”

The Italian media has speculated that a similar lockdown is impending, while other European countries, including Greece, have imposed measures ahead of Christmas.

Last week in the United States, California announced its restrictions would run through the holiday.

Many global health experts have welcomed the restrictions and shutdowns. “The festive season is a time to relax and celebrate,” World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Friday, but it “can very quickly turn to sadness.”

Putting a damper on Christmas can be a tough decision. In Canada, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister grew emotional when he announced that strict rules for the province would continue over the holiday season. “I’m the guy who is stealing Christmas to keep you safe,” he said, his voice breaking.

Even restrictive measures might not be enough to keep the rate of transmission down over the holidays. On Tuesday, researchers from Imperial College London released a study suggesting that infections increased in London during the final weeks of the nationwide lockdown Johnson announced in November.

Johnson hasn’t entirely reversed his Christmas pledge, but his government on Monday announced large parts of the country, including most of London, would be placed under the highest level of virus restrictions this week.

Britain’s holiday plan — which calls for people to form a “Christmas bubble” of friends and family they wish to socialize with between Dec. 23 and 27 — will remain in place. But some politicians and experts argue it will come at a high cost.

“Letting down our guard for five days over Christmas could be very dangerous indeed,” Tobias Ellwood, a former British defense secretary, said in Parliament on Monday as he asked the government to review the Christmas bubble rules.

Health experts have been concerned for months about Christmas — especially extended, indoor, intergenerational celebrations that often involve travel. Christmas and Hanukkah are widely celebrated in Europe and the Americas, where the virus has hit hard.

Evidence from Thanksgiving celebrations in the United States and Canada show such gatherings can worsen the spread of the virus. Since the U.S. holiday, new daily confirmed cases have skyrocketed and the seven-day average is above 200,000.

Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a television interview last week that the Christmas season may be worse than Thanksgiving for the spread the virus, as it lasts longer, running through New Year’s.

The middle of January “could be a really dark time for us,” Fauci told CNN last Tuesday.

Germany announced 16,362 new cases on Monday, marking another substantial increase in an outbreak that has led to 21,975 deaths. In the Netherlands, coronavirus cases surged to 9,884 on Sunday — the highest figure seen since late October.

Although daily cases in Britain haven’t reached the level of their November peak, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Monday that the government had identified a new variant of the virus and that it “may be associated with the faster spread in the south of England.”

Some governments have been able to flatten the curve, allowing a degree of normality over the Christmas period. France announced this weekend that it would relax rules for people in long-term care over the holidays.

But for many, this will be a Christmas like no other. In Belgium, where new cases declined steeply after a strict lockdown last month, residents are still advised to host their Christmas parties outside and allow only one guest to use the bathroom.

The restrictions are not limited to North America and Europe. In Brazil and Russia, two hotbeds of the pandemic with large Christian populations, some regional governments have banned Christmas festivities.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said in early November that Christmas festivities, which usually take place on New Year’s Eve in the Russian Orthodox Church, were canceled, as it was “obvious that mass events will not be held.”

This report has been updated.

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