I have been working from home for most of the last two weeks after the government implemented the Level 2.5 social distancing scheme. During the period, I have stepped outside the house on three occasions -- once to a department store and once to a bookstore to get Christmas presents that could not be bought online and then once more to buy wrapping paper.
Each outing was a brief affair, dashing in and out of the store after getting what I needed. No lingering and browsing. So, I may not be entirely accurate in saying that the world appears cheerless this Christmas season.
The usual crowd of last-minute shoppers was missing. Maybe it was my rush, but no spectacular holiday decorations or displays grabbed my attention. The last time I heard a Christmas song outside the house was at the gym three weeks ago before it was forced to close as the third wave of COVID-19 took hold.
As with almost everything else this year, Christmas Day today is unlike Christmases past.
Christians will notice the glaring absence of Christmas services and masses.
One of the most important holidays in the Christian faith, the day that marks the birth of Jesus Christ, this Christmas Day is being celebrated online as all in-person religious gatherings have been banned. I shall miss going to the Christmas morning service and singing old, familiar Christmas hymns.
Church gatherings were identified as a significant source of COVID-19 spread early on, and the stricter social distancing rule currently in place bans all in-person religious gatherings, except for a gathering of 20 or less to prepare online services.
Yet, some churches have continued to hold in-person services and meetings. A pastor of one such church is reported to have said that people who experience difficulties because they attended worship services are the blessed ones. Even if the followers of the said church believe that to be the case, how about the people they infect? Are they to consider themselves blessed, too?
The restriction on religious gatherings is in place to stem the spread of COVID-19; it is not intended as religious persecution. In fact, many church leaders have been urging the people to observe the ban on church gatherings, reminding fellow Christians to practice brotherly love by not congregating. In doing so, they not only protect themselves but their families, loved ones, colleagues and others as well. Just as masks protect others more than the wearer, not gathering protects others against you who may have been infected but are not showing symptoms.
In Korea, where the census taken in 2015 showed 27.6 percent of the total population identified themselves as Christian, Christmas is more of a secular festival, heavily exploited by retailers.
For the young people, especially, Christmas is part of the year-end festivities that typically involves merrymaking with friends, be it partying, drinking or going to the movies. Couples book a dinner for two and exchange gifts. In fact, Christmas Eve is the highlight, Christmas Day itself often seen as a day to recover from the previous night’s outing.
Well, even this secular celebration of Christmas is mostly out this year as the latest social distancing measures prohibit gathering of more than five people who are not family members. Living through the year that was, it is not difficult to empathize with those who are frustrated by such measures, including business owners whose very livelihoods are threatened.
Government bans and restrictions aside, however, remembering the Golden Rule may serve us well as we countdown the year and look forward to a better 2021. One simple message is found across different religions: Treat others as you want to be treated.
Protect others by staying away. There is no easier way to say it. When you stay away, you are practicing love.
By Kim Hoo-ran (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Kim Hoo-ran is the culture desk editor at The Korea Herald. – Ed.