A pandemic Christmas: Churches shut, borders complicated

An online Christmas service is held at the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul on Friday.
(Associated Press)

Curfews, quarantines and even border closings complicated Christmas celebrations Friday for countless people around the globe, but ingenuity, determination and imagination helped keep the day special for many.

In Beijing, official churches abruptly canceled Mass on Christmas Day. China’s capital was put on high alert after confirmation of two COVID-19 cases last week, and two new asymptomatic cases were reported Friday. One of several notices was posted at Beijing’s St. Joseph’s Church, which was built by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century.

Border crossing closures kept thousands of migrants from economically devastated Venezuela who live in Colombia from going home for Christmas. Colombia’s government shut the crossings in a bid to slow the spread of coronavirus infections. Those trying to return home for the holidays this year had to turn to smugglers.

Yakelin Tamaure, a nurse who left Venezuela two years ago, won’t be going home and said there will be no gifts or new clothes for her children, ages 10 and 15. Tamaure said that she hasn’t been able to find work as a nurse because she still doesn’t have a Colombia residence permit. Her parents are still in Venezuela.


“My mother broke her foot and can’t walk properly, so I’m worried about her,” Tamaure said. “I try to send her money, but it’s not the same as being there.”

Rosa Otero is one of a countless number of elderly, mostly poor and hidden away indoors, who feel even more isolated than usual on the night before Christmas.

Others successfully crossed borders elsewhere only to find themselves in quarantine. For their first Christmas since getting married in March, Nattasuda Anusonadisai and Patrick Kaplin are cooped up in quarantine in a Bangkok hotel room. It wasn’t great fun, but they did make sure to get a Christmas tree.

They returned earlier this month from a 4½-month trip to Canada and the United States, making a 32-hour journey from Montreal via Doha in Qatar. One condition of entering Thailand is a 14-day quarantine upon arrival. Thai citizens can stay at state facilities for free, but foreigners like Kaplin, from Canada, must pay to stay at an approved hotel, the option the couple took so they could stay together.

“The hotel was surprised that we ordered a full-sized Christmas tree but didn’t give us too much trouble to bring it in,” Anusonadisai said. But they hadn’t ordered enough ornaments, so they added items collected on their travels, like an eagle feather and, of course, masks.

“We will continue this tradition now, since it’s nice to see so many personal memories on the tree,” Kaplin said.

Churches in South Korea have ignited clusters of coronavirus infections in densely populated Seoul, along with hospitals, nursing homes, restaurants and prisons. The 1,241 new daily cases reported Friday by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency represented a record for the country.

Song Ju-hyeon, a resident in Paju, near Seoul, who is expecting a child in February, said home is the only place she feels safe now.

“It doesn’t feel like Christmas anyway, there’s no carols being played on the streets,” she said.

It’s Christmask,” the Daily Nation newspaper declared in Kenya, where a second surge in cases has eased and a brief doctors’ strike ended on Christmas Eve. Celebrations were muted in East Africa’s commercial hub as overnight church vigils could not be held because of a curfew. Fewer people also reportedly headed home to see families, which could help limit the spread of the virus to rural communities, which are even less equipped to handle COVID-19 than cities.

Bethlehem has ushered in Christmas Eve with a stream of joyous marching bands and the triumphant arrival of the top Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land.


In Paris, members of Notre Dame Cathedral’s choir, wearing hard hats and protective suits — not against COVID-19 but for construction conditions in the medieval landmark ravaged by fire in 2019 — sang inside the church for the first time since the blaze.

In a special Christmas Eve concert, accompanied by an acclaimed cellist and a rented organ, the socially distanced singers performed beneath the cathedral’s stained-glass windows amid the darkened church, which is transitioning from being a hazardous clean-up operation to becoming a massive reconstruction site. The public was not allowed in and isn’t expected to see the interior of Notre Dame until at least 2024.

In Rome, partial lockdown measures were keeping the faithful from gathering in St. Peter’s Square, where in past years tens of thousands would receive a papal blessing and hear the pope’s traditional Christmas Day message. But they wouldn’t have been able to see Pope Francis anyway this year. In response to a virus resurgence in Italy, the pontiff wasn’t appearing on the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica this Christmas but opted to deliver his annual address on world issues from inside the Apostolic Palace.

Elsewhere, Christmas was a difficult time. Thousands of drivers were stranded in their trucks at the English port of Dover, lacking the coronavirus tests that France is now demanding. The elderly, meanwhile, struggled with virus travel restrictions that kept them from visiting family or friends for the holidays.

“The solitude gets to me these days. I often feel depressed,” said Alvaro Puig, an 81-year-old in Spain who spent Christmas Eve eating dinner alone with his pet rabbit. “These holidays, instead of making me happy, make me sad. I hate them.”