By Adam Taylor
Oct. 31, 2020 at 5:38 a.m. GMT+9 The Washington Post
With the coronavirus pandemic surging in many parts of the globe, world leaders are warning as the holiday season approaches that Christmas, like much else this year, could look “very different” than usual.
Both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasized concerns about the holiday, often a time of travel and large, multigenerational indoor gatherings, as they announced new coronavirus shutdowns this week.
Speaking Wednesday, Macron said he hoped that a 15-day lockdown would be sufficient to curb the virus and that he wanted to “cultivate the hope to celebrate with our families the previous moments that are Christmas and end-of-year festivities.”
The French leader’s conditional language caused alarm in France. Other European officials have offered more openly pessimistic accounts. “I think that this year’s Christmas will be a different Christmas,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday.
Von der Leyen was echoing comments made by Spanish Health Minister Salvador Illa, who in an interview last week with the RAC1 radio station said that Christmas “would not be normal; it will be different and with distance.”
Concern about the impact of the pandemic on Christmas cut across political lines. Many businesses rely on the holiday for a spike in sales. But some financial experts are warning there may be no “Santa rally” for stocks this year. In a market note released Friday, Fidelity International’s Graham Smith said it was unclear if holiday events could “proceed as normal or, in some cases, even take place at all.”
Some political leaders had staked out positions, doubtful in hindsight, that their countries would be at least somewhat open by Christmas. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in July that there could be a “significant return to normality” by November.
The British government now faces criticism for not being clear about whether there would be a Christmas shutdown or not. This week, a member of Johnson’s cabinet told the BBC that people “may not be able to get together in the larger groups that they normally would.”
In the United States, where Christmas shares the winter holiday season with Thanksgiving, official concern has been more muted, with some Republican officials pledging to keep the country open during the holiday season.
President Trump has accused Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden of wanting to cancel Christmas, though the candidate has not spoken publicly on the issue.
The outcome of Canada’s Thanksgiving, in October, indicates that even smaller gatherings can contribute to the spread of the virus. Officials in at least three provinces and the federal government linked a rise in coronavirus cases to the holiday.
“It’s frustrating knowing that unless we are really, really careful, there may not be the kinds of family gatherings we want to have at Christmas,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during a national address Tuesday.
With well over a month to go until Christmas, there are signs that it will be a muted affair in many parts of Europe. Cities in Britain, the Czech Republic and Germany have announced that they will cancel traditional Christmas markets because of the pandemic.
Even in the Vatican, the center of the Catholic Church, changes are underway: Officials said this week that attendance for Pope Francis’s Christmas Mass will be limited, citing the surge in new cases in Italy.
But some health experts suggest that far more restrictions may be necessary. Andreas Westerfellhaus, Germany’s commissioner for nursing care, said this week that families should consider celebrating in “shifts” to avoid spreading the virus to the vulnerable.
“Unusual times require unusual solutions,” Westerfellhaus told the German publication Bild. “Different households could celebrate together on different days.”
A top Belgian doctor had a more radical proposal. Frédérique Jacobs, head of the infectious-diseases department at the Erasme Hospital in Brussels, suggested that Christmas celebrations could be postponed to July or August.
“To slow down the curve, we have to imagine different holidays,” Jacobs told the Belgian broadcaster RTBF on Tuesday.