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Coronavirus

Coronavirus: In COVID-hit Europe even St Nicholas told to keep distance at Christmas

Published: Updated:

With restrictions on family gatherings, instructions not to hug and a polite request to St Nicholas to “keep your distance”, Europe is preparing for its first COVID-19 Christmas.

Read the latest updates in our dedicated coronavirus section.

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 virus.

Most are due to unveil plans for Christmas 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 isa 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.”

Italy faces a surge in the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) infections, in Rome. (Reuters)
Italy faces a surge in the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) infections, in Rome. (Reuters)

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 SinterKlaas.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has said German families should be able to come together for Christmas, “perhaps with protective measures”.

The prospect of controls has provoked dissent in her Christian Democrats. Friedrich Merz, a contender to become party
leader next year, told the Tagesspiegel daily: “It is none of the state’s business how I celebrate Christmas with my family.”

In London, the government said it was working with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to ease restrictions over Christmas to allow families to meet, despite a scientific adviser warning that mixing at Christmas posed substantial risks.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez summed up the balancing act governments face: “We have two wishes: to be with and embrace those we love the most, and the obligation to protect them. Because without a doubt our greatest aspiration is to be able to live and share many more Christmases in the company of our loved ones.”

Across the Atlantic, Americans are already offering a preview of what Christmas could look like with millions defying
health warnings and traveling ahead of Thursday’s Thanksgiving holiday.

US airport travel on Sunday reached its highest peak since March while US COVID-19 infections are hitting a record
168,000 per day.

“I’m asking Americans, I’m begging you: hold on a little bit longer,” US Surgeon General Jerome Adams told the ABC News
show “Good Morning America” on Monday. “We want everyone to understand that these holiday celebrations can be superspreader events.”

Read more:

Coronavirus: UK lifts quarantine restrictions for holiday travel during Christmas

Coronavirus: Paris boulevards deserted as lockdown claims Christmas shopping trade

Coronavirus: Germany braces for extension of lockdown month into December