Europe's Christmas dilemma: risk empty chairs next year?

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FILE - In this Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020 file photo, women wearing face masks walk past a Christmas tree and lights in Burlington Arcade, where all non-essential shops are temporarily closed during England's second coronavirus lockdown, in London. Nations are struggling to reconcile cold medical advice with a holiday tradition that calls for big gatherings in often poorly ventilated rooms, where people chat, shout and sing together, providing an ideal conduit for a virus that has killed over 350,000 people in Europe so far. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)

BRUSSELS – Please leave a chair empty at this year's family Christmas dinner as a precaution, or face the possibility of having that chair empty forever.

That's the stark dilemma Belgium's prime minister has set to urge smaller festive family gatherings, as Europeans battle with containing the surging COVID-19 pandemic over the holiday season.

Alexander De Croo argued that the country's long-running, costly efforts should not be thrown away for the sake of a few warm and fuzzy hours exchanging gifts under the Christmas tree. “I would not want the progress of the past four weeks to be wasted because of four days,” he told legislators this week.

Europe's nations are struggling to reconcile cold medical advice with a tradition that calls for big gatherings in often poorly ventilated rooms, where people chat, shout and sing together — providing an ideal conduit for a virus that has killed over 350,000 people in the continent so far. These weeks it is the No. 1 cause of death in the European Union.

Yet the desire for contact with family is such that all the horrible realities can be briefly sidelined. In France, it took a letter addressed to Santa Claus to put it in perspective.

A year of pandemic and lockdown had weighed so much on a 22-year-old student, that as a grown adult he rekindled his youth and wrote again to the jolly children's saint.

“For the end of this year, I’d simply like the family whose name I proudly bear to be reunited, and things to progressively return to normal," wrote Alexis — Santa letters don't usually involve a surname.

If families have not lost close ones to the pandemic, many have been unable to meet for much of the year when distancing had to do the job that, hopefully, vaccines will do in 2021. Often grandparents could not see their grandchildren, and family functions — even weddings or funerals — required minute planning and heart-wrenching choices on who would be excluded.