The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With the virus raging, Europeans grudgingly accept the dashed hopes of Christmas

People visit St. Marienkirche, a Protestant church in Berlin, on Christmas Eve. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
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ROME — As Christmas begins, Germany is in lockdown, having shuttered even its mulled-wine stalls and famed winter markets. London, and a growing area beyond, is under Britain's harshest level of restrictions. And Italy, as of Thursday, launched new rules that have returned life to a standstill, with 70,000 police officers fanning out across the country to enforce movement restrictions.

Depending on where in Europe you live, it’s a Tier 4 Christmas. Or a Red Zone Christmas.

But it’s surely not the Christmas that Europeans wanted.

There had been a hope, even a month ago, that restrictions might flatten the curve enough for Europe to eke out a half-joyous holiday season — with some gatherings and festivities. “As normal a Christmas as possible,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in November, making the case that it might be possible if Brits followed the rules.

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

But in country after country, the autumn rules didn’t do enough. The virus still rages. A new variant first detected in Britain appears more transmissible than other coronavirus strains, raising fears that it will spread to other countries. Although European Union nations plan to launch their vaccination programs starting two days after Christmas, doses are far from enough for an immediate, broad campaign.

That has left Europeans to reluctantly give up on the idea that Christmas celebrations might be a salve in an otherwise dreary, frustrating winter. Instead, families face the agonizing decisions that already have made the year so trying: whether to open their doors even a little bit to guests and whether to gather with older generations that have been kept isolated in the name of protection.

Christmas this year also comes with a sometimes-complicated rule book, as many countries have placed limits on how many people or households can gather. (In Italy, a family can have two other adults at the table. In Belgium, a single “close contact” can join another family. In Croatia, up to 10 people can be together.)

Yet on a continent where more than half a million people this year have died of covid-19, the holidays are also driving home the emotional toll.

Antonietta Longhi, 68, who lives in the Italian province of Bergamo, said she normally gathers over the holidays with the extended family of her deceased husband; she had grown close to them over the years, and they would pack an 18-person restaurant table on Christmas. But this year, her husband’s brother died of covid. So did two other members of that family. She is spending the holidays at home, she said, with a tiny Christmas tree and Nativity scene.

“Some knitting,” she said. “And I’ve got a big book to read.”

World leaders warn that the coronavirus will jeopardize holiday celebrations

Politicians have spoken euphemistically about a “different” Christmas. But the mood is glum. Italians, as of Christmas Eve, have been ordered back into their homes, other than for emergency reasons, just as they were during March and April as the pandemic raged.

At major sites in Rome — the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona — there were just a handful of people passing through on Thursday: a food delivery biker, somebody with a shopping bag. Restaurants in Rome, which had been open until 6 p.m., are now closed for anything but takeout. The Italian restrictions go beyond anything seen in the United States, largely because of the limits on movement; people can go on walks but only near their own homes.

In London, the convivial pubs, which make the short days and long nights bearable, are shuttered. The Christmas markets — even toy stores — have closed. Same with the annual concerts, the amateur choirs and the neighborhood caroling.

Londoners, as well as others under Tier 4 restrictions, are not supposed to leave their homes except to shop for groceries, attend medical appointments or get outdoor exercise. Those who must work outside the home, such as essential workers, may do so.

Announcing the new lockdown, Johnson said, “Yes, Christmas this year will be different, but we must be realistic. We’re sacrificing the chance to see our loved ones so we have a better chance of protecting their lives and seeing them at future Christmases.”

On Wednesday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that another 6 million Brits would be thrust into Tier 4 restrictions Dec. 26, celebrated in Britain as Boxing Day, which is traditionally even merrier — and boozier — than Christmas Day.

U.K. coronavirus mutation prompts more travel bans

In a few countries, restrictions have been relaxed slightly for the holidays. France is loosening rules for family gatherings and lifting its curfew for Christmas Eve.

But Germany has gone in the other direction, as its daily tally of deaths per capita has reached the level of the United States.

In Saxony, the German state with the highest infection rate, the head of the undertakers guild has sounded the alarm about Christmas. “The big problem now is the holidays,” he told German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur. “Everyone is afraid of that.”

Waiting times at the state’s 10 crematoriums have already stretched from five to 10 days, even as workers take on extra shifts. In Zittau, a city in the southeastern part of the state, the mayor announced Tuesday evening that bodies would have to be stored outside the crematorium.

“There is no point in pretending that the world is okay,” Mayor Thomas Zenker said. The area’s infection rate of about 500 new cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period is 10 times higher than the target voiced by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

On Wednesday, the country recorded 962 new deaths, the highest number so far. The Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s federal agency for disease control, has expressed concern that harder lockdown measures so far do not appear to be having the desired effect.

“We fear that the holidays could further increase the rate of infection,” he said as he urged Germans not to travel or socialize.

Booth reported from London and Morris from Berlin. Stefano Pitrelli in Rome contributed to this report.

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