COVID-19: No hugs or kisses and a warning to St Nick – how Europe is spending Christmas
Accounting for a quarter of the world’s coronavirus cases and deaths, it was inevitable Europe would be having a much more muted Christmas this year.
The UK has announced up to three households can form a “bubble” for five days over the Christmas period, meaning families will be able to come together over the festive period.
But with cases rising in many countries across Europe, leaders are still grappling with tough decisions over how far restrictions can be peeled back.
Faced with one of the worst second waves of the pandemic in Europe, Christmas will look very different in France this year.
Paris will not be holding its Christmas market or opening ice rinks, and much of the hospitality industry – including restaurants, cafes and bars – will remain shut until 20 January next year.
However, in an announcement that would have brought sighs of relief for retailers, President Emmanuel Macron said in a televised address that France would begin easing its lockdown this weekend to allow shops, theatres and cinemas to reopen by Christmas.
He also said people will be able to spend the holiday with their families and are free to travel across the country to see loved ones on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.
There will still be no public gatherings allowed on these evenings and ski resorts will remain closed until January.
Many of us associate the festive season with German-style Christmas markets, complete with twinkly wooden huts selling gingerbread, bratwurst and festive crafts.
But Germany has been forced to cancel many of its markets this year to avoid a spike in infections.
Some people have instead got creative with their festivities, with one Bavarian innkeeper opening a drive-through Christmas market.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has said families should be able to spend time together at Christmas, “perhaps with protective measures”, despite a record 410 COVID-19 deaths being reported on Wednesday.
Germany has agreed to extend and tighten its “lockdown lite” until at least 20 December but ease rules over the holidays to allow loved ones to celebrate together.
The country will reduce the number of people allowed to meet to five from two households, but gatherings of up to 10 people will be allowed over Christmas and the New Year.
The country has yet to decide its plans for the Christmas period, but Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has said he is considering limiting celebrations to six people.
Spain has reported more than 1.8 million COVID-19 cases – western Europe’s second-highest tally after France – and Mr Sanchez has spoken of 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,” he said.
“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.”
On Tuesday, Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported the government would recommend that office gatherings be held on restaurant terraces, outside, or in a place with “no more than two walls”.
The paper has also said the start of the night-time curfews in force would be moved to 1am from 11pm on 24 December and 31 December.
As for the Three Wise Men processions which are held in January and are popular among children, El Mundo said the government could recommend holding “static” processions instead.
In one of the hardest-hit countries in Europe, the government is worried about a third wave of infections.
“Either we break a third wave at Christmas or we make a third wave at Christmas,” said Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, who is planning to celebrate only with his wife and two children.
To bring home its message, the Belgian government has written to “St Nicholas”, who visits children with presents on 6 December.
“Keep your distance, wash your hands regularly and wear a mask when necessary,” the letter urged him.
Meanwhile, the famous Christmas market in Brussels has been cancelled.
To keep some Christmas spirit alive, the city is still going ahead with putting up an 18-metre tree and nativity scene in the middle of the Grand Place.
In Norway, where the main celebrations are traditionally held on 24 December, the government has said being able to go home for the holiday is of “high value”.
But Prime Minister Erna Solberg has said the country “must see a clear decrease in infection and get better control before we consider opening (for) more social contact”.
The Norwegian government has just extended its national measures for another three weeks, which include closing theatres, cinemas and swimming pools.
Bars and restaurants are also no longer able to serve alcohol.
The country’s famous love of hugging and kissing friends will be curbed this holiday season.
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.”
He also told Italians not to ski during the holidays, after clusters of coronavirus cases at resorts helped to spread infections across Europe during the first wave.
Many regions in Italy are still in partial lockdown, with restrictions expected to stay in place until at least 3 December, but retailers and restaurants are pinning their hopes on the revival of business around the Christmas period.