A special Melbourne Christmas in trying times

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While hundreds of Melburnians lined up outside testing stations on Saturday, time-honoured Christmas traditions went ahead – in a COVID-safe way.

In the hushed quiet of St Patrick’s Cathedral, about 200 worshippers – weary after another year of lockdowns – found a moment of stillness.

Christmas mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral on Saturday.Credit:Joe Armao

“We’ve all experienced extended lockdowns, long periods of isolation where it was not possible to experience the closeness of family and friends,” said Father Werner Utin, Dean of the Cathedral, to the early-morning congregation. “The warmth and touch of a loved one was not possible.

“Hopefully this Christmas, we will be OK to enjoy the warmth and the love and closeness of family and friends.”

As was the case last Christmas, religious services and masses were live streamed from most major Melbourne churches on Saturday.

But with high vaccine rates, density limits are no longer in place for religious gatherings, and parishioners donned masks, sanitised their hands, check in with QR codes and spaced out inside the majestic cathedral in East Melbourne.

Father Werner said there had been a “significant” increase in patrons to Christmas mass this year compared to last year – especially on Christmas Eve”.

“We could only have about 750 last year [for Christmas Eve mass] and last night we had at least 2500. So getting those numbers and a couple of hundred at 8am [on Christmas] – it’s not bad for Christmas morning,” he said.

Amid the usual rituals of mass – hymns and the taking of communion – were references to the pandemic.

Prayers were made for the equal distribution of vaccines throughout the world, for those stuck behind borders and unable to see family and even for hospitality and retail staff at this time.

“May the people they serve throughout this season be filled with the spirit of love and gentleness,” a volunteer read aloud.

St Patrick’s Cathedral dean father Werner Utri.Credit:Joe Armao

After attending last year’s Christmas mass without them, Melbourne grandmother Lola Hodgetts was overjoyed to have been able to spend the service with her daughter Monique Halliday and granddaughters Izzy, 10, and Anna, 8.

“The singing was excellent,” she beamed from behind a surgical mask. “It was what you needed, to have with some peace and happiness with your family.

Ms Halliday said although she and her daughters aren’t regular churchgoers, she thought it was important for her girls to come once a year to recognise the birth of Christ.

’To come on Christmas is good context for these guys,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s a bit of a vacuum really isn’t it?”

Lola Hodgetts with daughter Monique Halliday and granddaughters Izzy and Anna.Credit:Joe Armao

Healthcare workers and church volunteers Joanna Peter and Kevin Everleigh were among the parishioners at the 8am service and said the morning had given them pause for reflection after a turbulent year working in Melbourne’s COVID-filled hospitals.

“Coming to mass is just really lovely because it’s a time for peace and reflection,” said Ms Peter. “Having a quiet space, away from the craziness. Just even for an hour.”

Collingwood legend and former coach Nathan Buckley hands out Christmas bags at the event.Credit:Justin McManus

Across town at Collingwood, former Magpies coach and AFL legend Nathan Buckley was among those handing out gifts, hampers and meals at a Christmas barbecue put on for the homeless and disadvantaged.

The yearly event organised by the Salvation Army and Collingwood Football Club is usually a sit-down lunch, but due to the pandemic this year pivoted to an outdoor barbecue at the Magpie Nest Café in the city.

One of those attending on Christmas morning was Andrew Hulsman, 49, who was counting himself lucky after he just got out of quarantine on Christmas morning after testing positive to COVID-19 10 days ago.

Andrew Hulsman at the Collingwood Football Club Annual Christmas luncheon for the homeless and disadvantaged. Credit:Justin McManus

“I feel lucky, the last 10 days haven’t been easy. I’ve got a long road to recovery, I’ve still got a sore throat and a cough. I was so glad they let me out, and I could go,” he said.

Mr Hulsman said the yearly gathering was more than just a free feed and a place to go.

“It’s like family for me,” he said. “I don’t have family of my own.”

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