• The Star Staff

The virus that stole most of 2020 now steals Christmas, too


By Jason Horowitz


This will be Rinaldo Verzeni’s first Christmas without his father.


In the nine months since Verzeni, 50, lost him to the coronavirus during Europe’s initial outbreak, he has grappled with grief and sought to sell the family grocery in their northern Italian town. He hasn’t had any takers.


At the end of an emotionally and economically draining year, Verzeni had looked forward to at least celebrating Christmas with his mother and sister and in-laws and nieces and nephews. For him, like for many Italians, the holiday meant the big family dinner and “being together.” But this year, he said, “something’s missing.”


Across Italy and beyond, people who have lost loved ones face an empty chair or an agonizing void this holiday season. That is hard enough. But 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.


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 Europe.


The upending of holiday rituals has had a particularly disruptive effect in Italy, which has within it the Vatican, panettone and pandoro Christmas cakes, Neapolitan Nativity scenes and big family reunions over tortellini in broth, roasts and seafood pastas. Since at least October, the country has focused on what would be the government’s policy for the festive season with the obsession of a child counting down the days on a chocolate-filled Advent calendar.


The topic was inescapable, repeated in Parliament and on talk shows with the frequency of Christmas music on heavy rotation. Government ministers and virologists, celebrity entrepreneurs and influencers held forth on striking the right balance between health and mirth.


On the one hand, there was the need for human comfort. On the other, the grandparents at the table needed to be safeguarded in a country with so many intergenerational households. To lower the contagion rate for Christmas, the government broke the country into a color-coded patchwork with dangerous red regions and safer yellow ones.


To get the economy moving, it offered cash-back benefits for Italians shopping for Christmas gifts in stores. Then it changed the colors and rebuked the irresponsible shoppers for accelerating a second wave. The vaccine brought hope, the government said, but not a license to act recklessly.


The months of Christmas mania coincided with a dizzying increase in contagions that put a renewed burden on hospitals and catapulted Italy — after a brief summer hiatus — back to the ignoble position of deadliest country in Europe. Italy now has the highest number of COVID-19 deaths on the continent.


About 600 people die of the virus on average every day, more than any country other than the much larger United States and Brazil. Italy has lost more than 69,000 people to the virus and experienced more deaths generally than in any year since 1944, during World War II. With all the horrible news, the holiday talk started feeling unmoored from reality.


Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte himself started the holiday countdown in October, asking Italians to respect restrictions to enjoy “Christmas holidays with more serenity.” But by last Friday night, he had switched the talk from saving Christmas for Italians to saving Italians from Christmas.


In an almost apologetic speech to the nation, Conte introduced restrictions that limited movement and closed bars and restaurants from Dec. 24 to Jan. 6. In his trademark legalese, Conte called the measures “a point of balance between necessary restrictions and considerations of the social importance and ideals that this holiday has for the national community.”


The government’s complicated pattern of red days and orange days, of openings and closings through the New Year, of limits and exceptions on the number of guests, confused many.

But the main message got through.


“I’ll be home alone,” said Iolanda Di Maiuta, 73, who said that it would be her first Christmas away from her children and grandchildren since they had been born. She planned on making a bowl of fettuccine with ragù, a single serving of Christmas lamb, and watching some reality television. “Then,” she said, “when I am tired, I will just go to sleep.”


Many Romans checking out the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square said that, as much as they would like to celebrate with their loved ones, they would not throw aside a year of sacrifice for one holiday lunch.


Pope Francis himself seemed fed up with all the hand-wringing about whether or not the big dinner would be permitted or whether children would find presents under the tree. He urged Roman Catholics this weekend to do something for the disadvantaged “instead of complaining in these difficult times about what the pandemic prevents us from doing.”


Even so, many sought a semblance of normalcy in this most abnormal of years. Panettone ads appeared on television, even if they now argued that the cake was as essential for a party of four as for 14.


Romans clogged the Via del Corso, the Italian capital’s main shopping artery, in the days before the holiday. As carolers sang English songs in Italian accents, Monica Baroni, 58, said she would set the Christmas table for five, including her husband, daughter, sister and mother, who is 100 years old.


“At that age, you have to consider what is the greatest evil,” she said, risking her health or leaving her alone. “This could be her last Christmas.”


For nearly a year now, the constant message hammered into Italy, the country with Europe’s largest population of seniors, is the danger the virus posed to the old. Conte’s first appeals for responsible behavior in March derived their emotional power from the idea of protecting grandparents. About 95% of Italians killed by the virus have been over the age of 60, and more than 85% were over 70.


That has periodically led politicians and doctors to float the idea of protectively setting the old apart so that the young could work and revive the economy. Dr. Luca Lorini, director of anesthesia and intensive care medicine at the Papa Giovanni XXIII hospital in Bergamo, in northern Italy, the hardest-hit part of the country, proposed “a parallel life” between the working young and retired old in which they did not cross paths, a vision he said that any “normal person” looking at the mortality statistics would consider logical.


Lorini said that the governor of Lombardy, Attilio Fontana, called him in the fall and urged him to spread the word about his “great idea.” But many Italians who live in close contact with their grandparents say they consider such a measure unthinkable.


Monica Mazzoleni, whose mother died of the virus at the hospital where she works as a secretary, decided with her father to spend Christmas Day away from the family table, avoiding the empty chair where her mother would sit year after year after year. Instead, they had intended to go to a restaurant near the northern city of Calusco d’Adda.


“We wanted to get away,” she said. But even those plans had to be canceled when the government closed all the restaurants. “There will be no Christmas for us,” she said.

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