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Dec. 5, 2020, 8:38 a.m. EST

To slow down a killer virus, Spain breaks with decades-old Christmas traditions

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By Barbara Kollmeyer

MADRID — For 41 years, families in the Spanish capital have kicked off the Christmas season by gathering behind the department store El Corte Inglés to watch a performance by giant singing puppets.

The store’s “Cortylandia” show has treated crowds in the past to festive depictions of “Gulliver’s Travels” and “Aladdin,” among numerous others , including the Noah’s ark story. But this year, as all the world battles a killer virus, the tradition has been replaced with a light display that simply reads, in lowercase letters, felices fiestas.

Happy holidays.

The loss of a beloved 15-minute puppet show is among the Christmastime traditions of this traditionally Catholic country being altered or even eliminated, as the government tries to keep its physically demonstrative populace a step ahead of a virus that has killed 45,069 to date here.

Spain’s lengthy holiday season lasts roughly a month — a marathon of family and friend gatherings — ending on Jan. 6, with the Feast of the Three Kings, which is traditionally the biggest gift-giving day in the country. On Jan. 5, families line the streets of big cities and small towns all over the country to watch the Kings’ Day parade, whose roots date back centuries. But that crowning glory of the season has already been canceled or switched to virtual in many places.

The local government in Madrid, a region that has been hit hardest by both waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, recently embarked on a dour holiday public information campaign, with messages such as: “Family gatherings without protection could bury your grandmother, or “Breaking the rules could put your best friend in intensive care.”

The last weekend in November saw people pouring into Madrid’s center to shop and to experience the holiday lights, with police using barricades and overhead cameras as crowd-control measures. In Plaza Mayor, long lines stretched around a scaled-down traditional Christmas market, which, too, was hemmed in by blue metal gates.

Spain has sought to sidestep another lockdown like the one in the spring that left children trapped indoors for six weeks . Officials have mostly relied on midnight curfews, six-person limits on gatherings and regional border closures to counter an autumn surge , with schools open throughout and masks mandatory since summer.

Announcing a vaccination plan that will start in early 2021 and involve six major pharmaceutical companies, Spain’s health minister, Salvador Illa Roca, recently implored a weary population to hang in there. “We understand that everyone is now a little tired of so many months with big restrictions and losses, but … we cannot let our guard down now,” he said.

Don’t miss: MarketWatch’s daily Coronavirus Update

And there has been some good news. As of Monday, Spain’s 14-day cumulative number of cases per 100,000 population stood at 275.51, inching toward levels not seen in more than a month. Death rates and hospitalizations are also dropping.

As elsewhere, Christmas will present a crucial COVID-19 test for Spain, where big family gatherings are the norm and for many people happiness is synonymous with being in a crowd. While many in the U.S. may have felt blindsided by a warning not to travel at Thanksgiving, holiday expectations run low here.

Hair stylist David Henry Lesur Depret, who runs two hair salons in Madrid with his partner Atilio Künzle, is planning a low-key Christmas closing out a year that has brought an intense focus on staying well and keeping his business alive.

From the archives (May 2020): Long lines and plenty of limitations on the other side of Spain’s pandemic experience

The year may end on a quieter note than usual, because of the dampening effect the virus will have on what is normally a busy holiday season.

“We are going to stay in Madrid in the house with one friend and that’s it. I don’t want to travel or bring people here,” and that, he said, includes a brother in France. “I don’t want to worry about it, so he’s not coming and … he will be alone, but at least he will be safe.”

With such uncertainty about what will be possible, it is virtually impossible to plan right now, said Ana Ramos. She and her husband, José Alberto Trabanco, own Santa Eulalia , a popular rustic café and bakery near the Royal Theater that boasts high ceilings and glass floors revealing part of Madrid’s ancient city wall.

Ramos is determined to preserve some traditions and Christmas magic for their nearly 8-year-old daughter, while keeping her live-in 97-year-old father-in-law safe.

“We’ll try to go for a walk and not be sad,” she said. “It will be Christmas with masks, with whatever we need. If we are four in the house, well, we are four.”

But Ramos holds just a thread of hope about the possibility of seeing her parents in Burgos, located in the northern region of Castille and León, currently a highly infected community under the strictest restrictions. “They can’t leave, and we can’t enter, and this worries me because I would love to see them for the holidays,” she said. “I haven’t seen them since August.”

Still, she counts her blessings, which include the steady stream of loyal local clients who have kept the café going all year with tourism dramatically curtailed. A small Christmas will do, she said.

“You have to think positive, though sometimes it’s hard,” she said. “I imagine we won’t see them for Christmas, but my parents are well, safe and cared for, and this helps me.”

However, the government this week announced that it would allow 10 people to gather for December 24, 25 and 31 and Jan. 1. Family members and close friends will be allowed to travel across borders for those key dates, and a A 1:30 a.m. curfew will be in place.

But Spain health minister Salvador Illa Roca said Tuesday that the government hopes many will follow their simple advice: “We need to stay home for Christmas.”

Read on: Leading epidemiologist on why the virus has spread in a ‘surprisingly enduring’ way in Italy, and how Germany managed lower deaths

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