Christmas arrived around the world Saturday amid a surge in COVID-19 infections that kept many families apart, overwhelmed hospitals and curbed religious observances as the pandemic was poised to stretch into a third year.

Yet, there were homilies of hope, as vaccines and other treatments become more available.

Vatican Pope Francis Christmas Day

Pope Francis delivers the Urbi et Orbi (Latin for 'to the city and to the world' ) Christmas' day blessing from the main balcony of St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, on Saturday, 25th December. PICTURE: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia.

Pope Francis used his Christmas address to pray for more vaccines to reach the poorest countries. While wealthy countries have inoculated as much as 90 per cent of their adult populations, 8.9 per cent of Africa’s people are fully jabbed, making it the world’s least-vaccinated continent.

Only a few thousand well-wishers turned out for his noontime address and blessing, but even that was better than last year, when Italy’s Christmas lockdown forced Francis indoors for the annual “Urbi et Orbi” ("To the city and the world") speech.

“Grant health to the infirm and inspire all men and women of goodwill to seek the best ways possible to overcome the current health crisis and its effects,” Francis said from the loggia of St Peter’s Basilica. “Open hearts to ensure that necessary medical care - and vaccines in particular - are provided to those peoples who need them most.”

In the United States, many churches cancelled in-person services, but for those that did have in-person worship, clerics reported smaller but significant attendance.

“Our hopes for a normal Christmas have been tempered by omicron this year...still filled with uncertainties and threats that overshadow us,” Rev Ken Boller told his parishioners during midnight Mass at the Church of St Francis Xavier in New York City. “Breakthrough used to be a happy word for us, until it was associated with COVID. And in the midst of it all, we celebrate Christmas.”

US Denver Christmas Eve Mass

The Most Rev Samuel J Aquila, Archbishop of the archdiocese of Denver, heads down the aisle to conduct Christmas Eve Mass in the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, on Friday 24th December, in downtown Denver. PICTURE: AP Photo/David Zalubowski.

Rev Alex Karloutsos, of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary Church of the Hamptons in Southampton, New York, said attendance at the Christmas Eve liturgy was a third less than last year's, with “the reality of the omicron virus diminishing the crowd, but not the fervour of the faithful present".

St Patrick’s Church in Hubbard, Ohio, held Mass on Christmas Eve in a nearby high school because of a church fire this year. The Mass drew about 550 people, said Youngstown Bishop David Bonnar, who presided.

In Britain, Queen Elizabeth II noted another year of pain - particularly personal after losing her husband, Prince Philip, in April - and urged people to celebrate with friends and family.

“Although it’s a time of great happiness and good cheer for many, Christmas can be hard for those who have lost loved ones,’’ the Queen said in the prerecorded message broadcast when many British families were enjoying their traditional Christmas dinner. “This year, especially, I understand why.’’

Thousands of people across Britain got a vaccine booster shot for Christmas as new cases hit another daily record of 122,186. The Good Health Pharmacy in north London was one of dozens of sites that stayed open Saturday to administer “jingle jabs” amid a government push to offer booster shots to all adults by the end of the year. 

The head of intensive care at a hospital in Marseille, France, said most COVID-19 patients over Christmas were unvaccinated, while his staff are exhausted or can’t work because they are infected.

“We’re sick of this,” said Dr Julien Carvelli, the ICU chief at La Timone Hospital, as his team spent another Christmas Eve tending to COVID-19 patients on breathing machines. “We’re afraid we won’t have enough space.”

France Marseilles Christmas Day

Doctors and nurses share a Christmas Eve meal together in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at la Timone hospital in Marseille, southern France, on Friday, 24th December. PICTURE: AP Photo/Daniel Cole.

On the other side of the globe, hundreds of thousands of people in the Philippines, Asia’s largest Roman Catholic nation, spent Christmas without homes, electricity, or adequate food and water after a powerful typhoon left at least 375 people dead last week and devastated mostly central island provinces. 

Governor Arthur Yap of hard-hit Bohol province, where more than 100 people died in the typhoon and about 150,000 houses were damaged or destroyed, appealed for help. He was happy many Filipinos could celebrate Christmas more safely after COVID-19 cases dropped, but he pleaded: “Please don’t forget us.”

At least one American Christmas tradition was revived after the pandemic drove it online last year: the annual reenactment of George Washington’s daring crossing of the Delaware River in 1776. Reenactors in three boats completed the crossing in about an hour Saturday. Crowds were in the hundreds, down from the usual thousands. 

COVID-19 testing continued unimpeded in some places, while other sites closed for the day. 

Lines that in previous days wrapped around the block at a small testing center in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighbourhood shrank considerably Saturday, when the only customers inside were Shayna Prihoda and Michael Boundy, whose negative tests freed them to visit Boundy’s parents in Michigan.

“We would have stayed home and quarantined,” Boundy said.

Philippines Cebu city Typhoon Rai

Alona Nacua, right, stands beside her son as she looks at their damaged house due to Typhoon Rai in Cebu city, central Philippines on Christmas Day, on Saturday, 25th December. Nacua said she and her husband managed to receive rice and four small cans of sardines and corned beef so they could feed their family Saturday. "It's the saddest Christmas for me, seeing my children suffer this way on this day," added Nacua, who is pregnant. PICTURE: AP Photo/Jay Labra.

Swelling numbers of cases in Florida made tests almost as popular as Christmas ham. Florida hit a new case record for the second day in a row.

Hours before a testing site opened at Tropical Park in Miami, dozens of cars lined up. To alleviate demand, county workers had distributed 12,500 at-home test kits Friday at libraries.

Most of New York City’s 120 testing sites were closed Saturday, a day after police were summoned to a Brooklyn neighborhood to quell an angry crowd that had been expecting to receive free at-home testing kits, only to have the supply run out.

Chairs went empty at some dinner tables after airlines around the world cancelled hundreds of flights as the omicron variant jumbled schedules and reduced staffing.

Airlines scrapped nearly 6,000 flights globally that had been scheduled to take off Friday, Saturday or Sunday, with nearly a third involving US flights, according to FlightAware, a flight-tracking website.

At a reception centre for asylum-seekers in Cyprus, Patricia Etoh, a Catholic from Cameroon, said she did not have any special plans because it just did not feel like Christmas without her six-year-old child, whom she had to leave behind.

But she added: “We’re grateful, we’re alive, and when we’re alive, there’s hope.” 

South Korea Seoul Christmas

Christians wearing face masks attend while maintaining social distancing during a Christmas service at the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea, on Saturday, 25th December. In South Korea, the toughest social distancing rules remained in place, requiring churches to accept a limited number of worshippers - 70 per cent of their seating capacity - and attendees had to be fully vaccinated. PICTURE: AP Photo/Lee Jin-man.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, tough social distancing rules remained in place, requiring churches to allow only a limited number of worshippers - 70 per cent of their seating capacity - and attendees had to be fully vaccinated.

In Seoul’s Yoido Full Gospel Church, the country’s biggest Protestant church, thousands of masked worshippers sang hymns and prayed as the service was broadcast online. Many churches across the country offered both in-person and online services.

South Korea has been grappling with soaring infections and deaths since it significantly eased its virus curbs in early November as part of efforts to return to pre-pandemic normalcy. The country was eventually forced to restore its toughest distancing guidelines, such as a four-person limit on social gatherings and a 9pm curfew for restaurants and cafes.

Christmas celebrations were subdued in much of India, with more decorations than crowds as people feared a new wave of the omicron variant potentially sweeping the country in the coming weeks. 

Authorities reintroduced night-time curfews and restrictions on gatherings of more than five people in big cities like New Delhi and Mumbai. People attended midnight Mass in Mumbai and elsewhere but in smaller numbers.

Christians comprise just over two per cent of India’s nearly 1.4 billion people. 

India Jammu Christmas Day

Indian Christians, some wearing face masks as a precaution against the COVID-19, attend a Christmas mass at Saint Mary's Garrison church in Jammu, India, on Saturday, 25th December. PICTURE: AP Photo/Channi Anand.

In New Zealand, where 95 per cent of adults have had at least one dose of the vaccine, making it one of the world's most vaccinated populations, the only Omicron cases that have been found have been safely contained at the border.

As the pandemic spread around the world the past two years, New Zealand used its isolation to its advantage. Border controls kept the worst of the virus at bay. By Christmas this year, New Zealand had recorded 50 deaths in a population of 5.5 million.

But that success has come at a cost. There were empty chairs at some tables this holiday season because some New Zealanders living and working overseas were not able to return home due to limits in the country's managed isolation and quarantine program.

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The traditional dining tables of a northern winter - turkey and all the trimmings - are common. But Kiwis also celebrate in an antipodean manner, with barbeques on beaches fringed by the native pohutukawa tree, which blooms only at Christmas.

At New Zealand’s Scott Base in Antarctica, some New Zealanders enjoyed a white Christmas. During summer on the frozen continent, the sun never dips below the horizon and in 24 hours of daylight the temperature hovers around zero degrees Celsius.

Around 200 people pass through the base over the summer season - scientists, support staff and defence personnel who provide communications and other services. Numbers are lower this year because of the pandemic and all staff traveling to the continent have had to isolate and undergo COVID-19 testing before departure.

Australia Bondi Beach Christmas

Tony O'Connor, originally from Manchester, England, rides a surfboard while wearing a Santa hat as he celebrates Christmas at Bondi Beach in Sydney, Saturday, 25th December. PICTURE: AP Photo/Rick Rycroft.

Most Pacific Island nations whose health systems might have been overwhelmed by COVID-19 outbreaks have largely managed to keep out the virus through strict border controls and high vaccination numbers.

Fiji has an ongoing outbreak and has had almost 700 deaths. About 92 per cent of the adult population is now fully vaccinated, 97.7 per cent have received at least one dose and many in the deeply religious nation will celebrate Christmas at traditional church services and family gatherings.

Health Secretary James Fong, in a Christmas message, urged Fijians to “please celebrate wisely".

In remote Macuata province, residents of four villages received a special Christmas gift: Electricity was connected to their villages for the first time.

In his Christmas message, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison referred to the COVID-19 toll. 

“This pandemic, it continues to buffet us,” Morrison said. “The Omicron variant is just the latest challenge that we have faced. But together, always together and only together, we keep pushing through.”

The Omicron variant is prevalent in some states and is estimated to represent more than 70 per cent of all new cases in Queensland.

Summer heat might have discouraged outdoor Christmas feasts in some places. The temperature in Perth in Western Australia was expected to hit 42 degrees Celsius on Saturday, making it the hottest Christmas since records began more than a century ago.

On Christmas Eve, a student driver in the Northern Territory made off with a truck containing more than $US10,000 in Christmas hams that was empty when it was found.

“This behaviour can only be described as Grinch-like,” police detective Mark Bland said.

- With BOBBY CAINA CALVAN and LARRY NEUMEISTER Neumeister in New York, US, MICHAEL SCHNEIDER in Miami, US, DANICA KIRKA in London, UK, DANIEL COLE in Marseille, France, JIM GOMEZ, AARON FAVILA and JOEAL CALUPITAN in Manila, Philippines; HYUNG-JIN KIM in Seoul, South Korea; ASHOK SHARMA in New Delhi; and STEVE MCMORRAN in Sydney, Australia.