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Masks and social distancing: This is a weird Christmas

In another year, most Kenyans would by today have travelled upcountry, making merry and overindulging with family and friends without any care in the world.

Christians would have held the customary midnight vigil to usher in the birth of Jesus Christ, marking the most important day in their calendar. A good number would be relaxing at entertainment joints, on the coastal beaches and other safari destinations across the country and overseas.

But December 25, 2020 is a different Christmas. Many did not travel at all for fear of the invisible enemy that has tormented the world for most of this year. The carefree attitude has been replaced by the now ubiquitous face mask and the urge to social-distance even from close family members.

The coronavirus pandemic has loomed large over all facets of our lives this year, and Christmas day is no exception. Joshua Milimo, a shopkeeper in Ngong town, is struggling to get into the Christmas mood. He says no one, apart from the children walking into his small shop, appear too bothered by the day.  Even the flickering Christmas lights hanging loosely on the rails in his shop don’t seem to do it.

“It is a strange Christmas. I have never seen anything like this. Shopping is at an all-time low. People are just waiting to see the day come and go,” he says.

Face masks, sanitisers, thermal guns and social distancing are all barriers to any intimate celebration. Those who love to party the night away in clubs and other social places will have until 10pm to enjoy their favourite tipple before they start offending the law.

Midnight fireworks

Midnight fireworks will only be lit from homes or in the confines of hotels for the lucky ones who will afford a Christmas holiday. Hotels are still struggling to get full occupancy despite massive marketing efforts.

A number of company CEOs declined to share their Christmas plans when contacted by the Daily Nation so as not to appear to be the only ones celebrating in the middle of a pandemic, but Milimo says that today is perhaps a good day to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas as people stay at home with their loved ones.

Christmas is celebrated to remember the birth of Jesus Christ, who Christians believe is the Son of God. The name ‘Christmas’ comes from the Mass of Christ (or Jesus). A Mass service, which is sometimes called Communion or Eucharist, is where Christians remember that Jesus was crucified, died and then came back to life.

Karura Community Chapel, which is inviting its congregants to join its Christmas service online, says Christmas is a season to be jolly “for Christ was born unto to us for this very reason”.

“He came at a time when the world was weary and in need of a saviour. He was the hope the world had been waiting for. O what a joy! He came in love and as love for you and I,” the church says in an online notice to its congregants.

Just like many other churches, Karura Community Chapel is allowing a limited number of in-person worshippers for the Christmas service in line with Covid-19 restrictions, who must book a seat online in advance.

This, however, is not a Kenyan problem as many countries have imposed major restrictions on social and religious gatherings this festive season. In Israel, for instance, the Church of the Nativity has been closed and most souvenir shops shuttered.

Stray cats

Hotels that are usually sold out months in advance are deserted. Among the few signs of life on the main street in Bethlehem’s Old City last Friday were the chirping of a few birds and stray cats scavenging an overflowing garbage can.

Earlier in the month, only a few people attended the tree-lighting ceremony in Manger Square, an event that usually heralds the metamorphosis of the quiet West Bank town of Bethlehem into one of the main seasonal attractions of international Christendom.

The coronavirus pandemic has put a damper on Christmas at the place where it is said to have all begun.

“Great sadness,” Father Ibrahim Shomali, the chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said of this year’s celebrations. “We are very frustrated, but what can we do? We need to accept the reality and do the right thing.”

Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity is usually one of the social events of the year on the occupied West Bank. The ancient limestone church takes on the atmosphere of a glittering movie premiere as diplomats and Palestinian officials emerge from motorcades of shiny BMWs and Mercedes in tailored suits and elegant dresses.

This year, the ceremony will be limited to church officials, a handful of European diplomats and Bethlehem’s mayor. The Palestinian Authority imposed tough antivirus restrictions on Bethlehem on December 10, setting up checkpoints around its perimeter, ordering the closing of restaurants, cafes, schools and gyms, and forbidding nearly all large gatherings.

In Italy, a surge in infections, a new fast-spreading variant of the virus and mounting deaths have led authorities to shut down Christmas, too. For many, home for the holidays has taken on an ominous meaning: There is nowhere else to go.

Restrictions

In England, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has locked down London and prohibited guests from outside households as the new mutation runs rampant. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel urged the public to battle the virus by avoiding family visits and by making video calls like service members stationed abroad. Similar restrictions are in place across the globe.

The 2020 Year-End Survey by research firm Tifa shows that 70 per cent of Kenyans feel that their current economic situation is worse than it was in December 2019. As a result, Kenya is facing a double crisis — the coronavirus pandemic and loss of livelihoods.

The survey, released on December 23, notes that a majority (62 per cent) of Kenyans will spend less during the 2020 festive season than they spent during the same period in 2019. Only 16 per cent of Kenyans intend to travel out of the counties in which they reside, compared to the 40 percent who travelled last year.

“One in four people surveyed said they usually travel for the holidays, but will celebrate (to whatever extent they can) at their county of residence instead this year.”

The Tifa Survey also says it will be a challenging year for the retail and transport sectors, which usually benefit from Christmas shopping sprees, as Kenyan consumers are pandemic-weary.