Covid clouds Christmas celebrations for second year

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  • Pope Francis
    Pope Francis
    Religious leader

Pope Francis on Saturday called for dialogue to counter the isolation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, as billions around the world marked a second Christmas under the shadow of the coronavirus.

An explosion in cases driven by the rise of the Omicron variant has meant another Christmas season tainted by the pandemic, with longed-for family reunions overshadowed by the prospect of yet more Covid-19 restrictions.

In his traditional Urbi and Orbi Christmas Day blessing, the pope told the faithful gathered in St Peter's Square at the Vatican that "our capacity for social relationships is sorely tried; there is a growing tendency to withdraw, to do it all by ourselves, to stop making an effort to encounter others and do things together.

"On the international level, too, there is the risk of avoiding dialogue," said the 85-year-old Argentine pontiff.

"Yet only those paths can lead to the resolution of conflicts and to lasting benefits for all."

In a time of pandemic, Pope Francis also asked God to "open hearts to ensure that necessary medical care -- and vaccines in particular -- are provided to those peoples who need them most".

During the Christmas Eve mass, the pope had urged people to appreciate the little things in life.

- 'Make do with spaghetti' -

In south of the Philippines, Father Ricardo Virtudazo celebrated Christmas Day mass standing in a pool of water in his typhoon-hit church.

He and dozens of devotees prayed for a better year after the storm killed nearly 400 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

"What's important is all of us are safe," said Joy Parera, 31, who attended the service with her husband on the island of Mindanao.

Another survivor, Marites Sotis, said she would usually serve up meat, spring rolls and salad for Christmas, but her family was struggling after the storm felled most of their coconut trees.

"We won't have those this year because they cost a lot of money," said the 53-year-old. "We'll make do with spaghetti."

For the second year, surging infections have complicated holiday plans, from Sydney to Seville.

The new coronavirus strain severely disrupted holiday travel, with tracking website Flightaware.com reporting that at least 5,700 flights had been cancelled worldwide over the long Christmas weekend, hundreds of them in the United States.

Millions of Americans were nevertheless on the move to see loved ones for Christmas, even as Covid infections surpass the peak of the previous wave and hospitals run out of beds.

In his first Christmas address as US president, Joe Biden commended Americans for their strength and resilience in the face of the raging pandemic, urging "hope and renewal" during the holiday season.

Biden, a devout Catholic, said he prayed for "finding light in the darkness".

- Jabs for Christmas -

In Europe, governments have been reimposing misery-inducing safety measures as Covid cases again shoot up.

France notched up record Covid-19 cases for the third day in a row, for the first time since the start of the pandemic breaking the barrier of 100,000 infections in 24 hours.

In Britain, which has also been hitting one record high after another in recent days, health staff in Santa hats gave people booster vaccine shots for Christmas.

Queen Elizabeth II paid tribute to her late husband Prince Philip in her Christmas Day message.

"Christmas can be hard for those who have lost loved ones. This year especially, I understand why," said the Queen, who was married for 73 years.

Portugal said Omicron had become the dominant strain of coronavirus in the southern European country.

Christmas gatherings will nevertheless be easier than a year ago in many places around the world.

Most Australians are allowed to travel interstate over the festive break for the first time in two years, with Sydney's Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher saying that Christmas was "a ray of light" in dark times.

And Santa Claus was not deterred from doing his rounds, after showing proof of vaccination and a pre-flight negative Covid test, Ottawa's transport minister said.

According to the North American Aerospace Defense Command's (NORAD) Santa-tracking website, Father Christmas had delivered 7.6 billion gifts during his 2021 sleigh ride around the world.

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