By Noushin Ziafati and Danielle Edwards, The Canadian Press
Fewer Canadians gathered around twinkling Christmas trees to tear open presents with friends and family Saturday as COVID-19 put a damper on festivities for a second straight year, but the holiday spirit still managed to shine through for many.
Public health experts have spent recent weeks urging people to keep their gatherings small and intimate — if they were to go ahead at all — as COVID-19 cases spiked across the country due to the fasts-spreading Omicron variant.
Still, dozens attended a scaled-back noon-hour mass at St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica in downtown Toronto, where churchgoers wore masks and stood two metres apart.
Bernadette Alexander, who attended with a friend, said the service was particularly moving because she had been worshipping from home for so long.
“We were just saying it’s been almost two years. We’ve been watching mass on TV, but this is the first time we’ve been to mass in person in two years,” Alexander said.
“It was amazing. It was beautiful. It reduced me to tears, actually.”
Froila Fernandes, an international student from India who moved to Canada two months ago, attended the service on her own — her first in this country.
“I found this service so spiritually enriching for me today because it felt like that was something I was lacking over here ever since I moved,” she said.
“Being able to experience this was really heartwarming and so touching for me. I kept kind of crying.”
At Saint Gabriel’s Parish in Toronto, Christmas trees and poinsettias were displayed ahead of a small in-person mass service on Saturday.
A pianist played Christmas tunes that filled the church. Green markers signalled where churchgoers could sit among the pews while being physically distanced.
Christine Odunlami of Toronto said she usually spends holidays south of the border catching up with loved ones, but since she suffers from asthma, she didn’t feel comfortable travelling this year.
“It’s still a little lonely in a sense,” she said. “I’m more accustomed to being around family this time of year.”
Odunlami said celebrations this year included a small Christmas Eve dinner with friends, complete with vaccination checks, and a virtual party over Zoom with other loved ones.
Over in Yarmouth, N.S., Const. Ryan Bell worked his first Christmas shift on Saturday. It was quiet, and he and other officers helped out at the Royal Canadian Legion in the small southwestern Nova Scotia town to distribute food and gifts to members.
“Driving around on the roads here in town, we haven’t seen many vehicles,” Bell said.
“With the pandemic, I think a lot of people are staying home, sticking with their families and enjoying Christmas.”
Few provinces reported new COVID-19 diagnoses on Christmas Day, though Quebec was an exception. It saw 9,206 new cases and four added deaths.
In recent days, many provinces have broken records with their infection counts.
On Christmas Eve, Ontario smashed past the record set a day earlier with 9,571 new cases, while British Columbia announced a new high of 2,144 infections and Manitoba broke its record with 742.
Nunavut, with eight infections in several communities, ordered a full lockdown in the territory on Friday.
Back in Ontario, St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church in Kincardine handed out free Christmas Day meals in drive-thru fashion in the parking lot like they did in 2020 — as opposed to offering sit-down lunches as was the case before the pandemic.
Organizer Sam Finnie said the church had given out 216 meals by Saturday afternoon. The meals consisted of turkey, potatoes, turnip, stuffing, mixed vegetables, gravy, cranberries and dessert. They were made possible with donations from community members, he said.
It meant a lot to be able to give the meals to those in need as well as people who won’t be celebrating the holidays with their loved ones this year, Finnie said.
Toronto-based Dr. Naheed Dosani said finding alternative ways to celebrate was the responsible thing to do during this phase of the pandemic.
“We have come so far and sacrificed so much that, at this time, a decision to put a hold on holiday get-together plans is the right thing to do.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 25, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.