BRUSSELS – Please leave an empty chair at this year’s family Christmas dinner as a precaution or face the possibility that this chair will be empty forever.
This is the unequivocal dilemma that the Prime Minister of Belgium has put forward to push for smaller holiday family gatherings as Europeans struggle to curb the growing COVID-19 pandemic during the holiday season.
Alexander De Kroo argues that the country’s long-term and costly efforts should not be wasted because of the few warm and fuzzy hours that exchange gifts under the Christmas tree. “I would not want the progress of the last four weeks to be wasted in four days,”
European countries are struggling to reconcile cold medical advice with a tradition that calls for large gatherings in often poorly ventilated rooms where people chat, shout and sing together – providing an ideal channel for a virus that has killed more than 350,000 people on the continent so far. This is currently the number one cause of death in the European Union.
Yet the desire for contact with the family is such that all the terrible realities can be briefly removed. In France, a letter addressed to Santa was needed to put him in perspective.
One year of pandemic and blockade had weighed so heavily on a 22-year-old student that as a grown adult he revived his youth and wrote again to the merry child saint.
“For the end of this year, I would just like the family, whose name I proudly bear, to reunite and things to gradually return to normal,” Alexis wrote, adding that Santa’s letters usually do not include a surname.
If families had not lost loved ones from the pandemic, many could not have met for most of the year, when distancing was supposed to do the job that, hopefully, vaccines will do in 2021. Often grandparents they could not see their grandchildren and family functions — even weddings or funerals — required minute planning and a devastating choice of who to exclude.
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Hence the plot to press the pause button, even for just a few days.
Britain, with the continent’s highest mortality rate at 57,031, but a Christmas tradition unlike few others, could not resist the temptation to relax.
People are currently banned from visiting other households in much of the UK and there are restrictions on traveling to highly infected areas.
All this will be too much for five days during the holidays, when up to three households can form a “Christmas bubble” and members can move freely between them. Cabinet Minister Michael Gove spoke of the need to “give hope to families and friends who have made many sacrifices during this difficult year.”
At the same time, the staff of hospitals and care homes across Europe believe that their many victims may be in vain if the rules are eased too much. Eventually, the resurgence this fall followed similar relaxations in the summer.
Although the European Union has no direct say in national restrictions on Christmas, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, a former doctor, has called for caution until vaccines become widely available.
“We need to learn from the summer and not repeat the same mistakes,” she said. “Relaxing too fast and too much risks a third wave after Christmas.”
But even in her native Germany, led by the overly cautious Angela Merkel, social considerations will prevail: The current limit, which limits private gatherings to five people from up to two households without children, could double to 10 people over Christmas.
Karl Lauterbach, an MP from Merkel’s coalition and epidemiology professor at the University of Cologne, said “Christmas is more important to people, so the planned easing of Christmas restrictions is the right course.”
But many European scientists disagree. Stephen Van Gucht, a virologist with Belgium’s government health group Sciensano, said on Friday that Germany’s Christmas rule was not to gather 10 people.
“It’s about hundreds of thousands, millions of meetings of 10 people,” he warned. “And the impact can be huge.”
So what can be done? Some unintuitive suggestions appear. Christmas dinner is possible, but with the main family in the dining room and grandparents in the kitchen, says Dr. Remy Salomon from the management of the hospital in Paris.
“Don’t eat with them. If I give the virus to grandparents, it’s the worst of all. How would I live with that after that? “he told the France-Info network.
“If we release too fast, the virus will circulate again too quickly.”
That is why the Belgian De Kroo turned his dark allegory of empty chairs from his legislative pulpit. His nation of 11.5 million is severely affected, with more than 16,000 deaths. The country has barely managed to keep its health system afloat by imposing evening hours and closing bars, restaurants and insignificant shops.
Like Belgium, Italy, where the pandemic initially hit Europe hard, has taken a firm stand at Christmas. And the main tradition is for discussion: midnight liturgy.
The government reportedly sought to negotiate with Catholic officials to hold religious celebrations on Christmas Eve earlier, before the national curfew at 10 p.m., although there was a proposal to extend the curfew until at least midnight around Christmas. .
The Vatican has not published its schedule for the Christmas holidays, but Pope Francis celebrates a midnight liturgy beginning at 9 p.m., anyway, for several years, and this year is expected to do so before just a handful of worshipers.
What Christmas Eve will look like in Austria is still unclear, much depending on the success of a large-scale testing program in the coming days. In Oberndorf, home of the most famous Christmas song in the world, they hope that her lyrics will not be taken too literally. “Quiet night! Holy night! Everything is calm.”
So it is in the rest of Europe.