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As cases surge, world set to ring in another pandemic Christmas with restrictions

US travelers face misery as airlines cancel flights due to crewing problems caused by virus; Canada says Santa vaccinated and cleared for travel

  • A woman prepares a Christmas tree decoration at a church in Bali, Indonesia on, Dec. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Firdia Lisnawati)
    A woman prepares a Christmas tree decoration at a church in Bali, Indonesia on, Dec. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Firdia Lisnawati)
  • Churchgoers wear face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19 as they attend a Mass at All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi, Kenya, Dec. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Sayyid Abdul Azim)
    Churchgoers wear face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19 as they attend a Mass at All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi, Kenya, Dec. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Sayyid Abdul Azim)
  • People gather outside the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ's birth, during Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem on December 24, 2021. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)
    People gather outside the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ's birth, during Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem on December 24, 2021. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)
  • Mahouts and their elephants pose for children during Christmas celebrations at the Jirasart Witthaya school in Ayutthaya, Thailand, December 24, 2021. (Jack Taylor/AFP)
    Mahouts and their elephants pose for children during Christmas celebrations at the Jirasart Witthaya school in Ayutthaya, Thailand, December 24, 2021. (Jack Taylor/AFP)
  • A man dressed as Santa Claus hugs children during a Christmas meal distribution a favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on December 23, 2021 (Daniel Ramalho/AFP)
    A man dressed as Santa Claus hugs children during a Christmas meal distribution a favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on December 23, 2021 (Daniel Ramalho/AFP)
  • In this picture taken on December 23, 2021, people watch Christmas themed projections illuminated on St Mary's Cathedral in the central business district of Sydney. (Mohammad FAROOQ / AFP)
    In this picture taken on December 23, 2021, people watch Christmas themed projections illuminated on St Mary's Cathedral in the central business district of Sydney. (Mohammad FAROOQ / AFP)

AFP — Omicron’s rise has heralded another pandemic-tinged Christmas for billions, with Santa’s arrival and longed-for family reunions overshadowed by the prospect of yet more COVID restrictions.

Festive jokes about reindeer having “herd immunity” and millions isolating “Home Alone” may be wearing thin, but the emergence of the ultra-infectious Omicron variant means the pandemic isn’t going anywhere.

For a second straight year, surging infections have complicated yuletide plans from Sydney to Seville.

In Bethlehem — the city Christians believe was Jesus’ birthplace — hoteliers expecting an influx of tourists have been disappointed. After a near-total pandemic lockdown for tourism over the past year, Israel’s borders are again closed.

This year, like last, midnight mass in the city on Christmas Eve will be reserved for a small circle of people by invitation only and celebrations on Friday were subdued.

Palestinian scout band members parade through Manger Square at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Dec. 24, 2021 (Mahmoud Illean/AP)

“It is a bit surreal… there is a selfish part where it’s like ‘oh I get to see this place so empty’ but on the other hand you feel for the shops, all the money they are losing, it’s really quite tragic,” American student Hudson Harder told AFP.

In Europe, governments are reimposing misery-inducing safety measures that are draining the fun from Christmas for many.

The Netherlands is back in lockdown while Spain and Italy have made wearing masks compulsory outdoors.

People take pictures around a Christmas tree on Christmas Eve in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

And with the United Kingdom recording a record high number of COVID-19 infections on Thursday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested getting a vaccine booster shot as a Christmas gift for relatives.

In France, the government urged people to get booster shots just three months after initial jabs, down from the current suggestion of five months as it sought to fight off the fast-spreading Omicron.

‘Sliver of hope’

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

Most Australians are allowed to travel interstate over the festive break for the first time in two years, bringing a touch of Christmas sparkle even as case numbers hit record highs.

In this picture taken on December 23, 2021, people watch Christmas-themed projections illuminated on St Mary’s Cathedral in the central business district of Sydney. (Mohammad FAROOQ / AFP)

“We’ve all witnessed the moving scenes of people at airports after months of separation,” Sydney’s Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher said in his Christmas message.

“In such dark times, Christmas is a ray of light, a sliver of hope.”

Pope Francis is still scheduled to deliver the traditional Christmas Eve midnight mass from St Peter’s Basilica.

Millions of Americans are also on the move during the busy travel days before Christmas, even as COVID infections with Omicron surpass the peak of the Delta wave and hospitals run out of space for patients.

However, thousands of them are set to face a grim holiday weekend, with major carrier United canceling 120 flights because infection numbers had impacted flight crews and other operations.

And the specter of getting sick was also rattling nerves, and threatening plans.

“I was planning to meet up with my family, but I might be positive for COVID, so that’s something that I don’t think is going to be happening,” Queens resident Maria Felix said as she awaited a test result.

Operation present drop

In one sign of people’s darkened mood, one of the most popular shows on Netflix in the run-up to Christmas has been “The Unforgivable,” a less-than-festive tale of a murderer released from prison and struggling to win redemption.

Books on identity and slavery topped The New York Times bestsellers and a profanity-laden rant about a bad break-up led the Spotify charts — beating even Mariah Carey’s perennial Christmas hit “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

But angst borne from a seemingly interminable crisis, long testing queues, cancelled flights and close contact notifications will not prevent Santa from doing his rounds.

A man disguised as Santa Claus hugs children during a Christmas Meal distribution organized by the NGO Central Única das Favelas (CUFA) in the Penha Complex shantytown, commonly known as Alemao Complex, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on December 23, 2021 (DANIEL RAMALHO / AFP)

The hirsute spreader of holiday cheer has reportedly been cleared for travel in Canada’s airspace after showing proof of vaccination and a pre-flight negative COVID test, Ottawa’s transport minister said.

Santa’s flight crew — including reindeer Rudolph, whose “nose shone red and bright (but) made sure he had no COVID-19 symptoms before taking off” — have also been given the all-clear.

And Australian authorities said they were working round the clock to ensure “Operation Present Drop” goes smoothly.

“Our air traffic controllers will be guiding Santa safely through Australian airspace,” said aviation safety authority Airservices.

“He’s cleared to fly at 500 feet so he can skim the rooftops and deliver his presents quickly and quietly –- after all, his magical sleigh isn’t your average aircraft.”

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