(Want to get this newsletter in your inbox? Here’s the sign-up.)
Good evening. Here’s the latest.
1. The fate of $900 billion in pandemic aid is likely to remain in limbo over the long Christmas weekend.
In an episode notable for its political symbolism, Democrats tried and failed to raise the size of relief checks to $2,000, in keeping with President Trump’s own rebellion against congressional Republicans’ insistence on $600 checks. Then the House adjourned until Monday.
The relief, part of a $2.3 trillion spending bill, would be the first significant federal aid since April. If Mr. Trump holds to his implicit threat to reject the bill, millions of Americans would almost immediately lose access to two federal unemployment programs, and other provisions, like an eviction moratorium, could expire at the end of the month.
Our chief White House correspondent, Peter Baker, writes that the chaos Mr. Trump is creating — paired with his expansive grants of clemency to convicted liars, corrupt congressmen and child-killing war criminals — represents “a final, angry exertion of power by a president who is losing his ability to shape events with each passing day.”
2. Actual Brexit news!
After more than four years of trying, Britain and the European Union struck a landmark deal on trade, setting the terms for a post-Brexit future to begin with the new year.
“For the first time since 1973,” said Prime Minister Boris Johnson, above, “we will be an independent coastal nation with full control of our own waters.”
There are caveats, however. The agreement leaves critical parts of the relationship to be worked out later. And it will not prevent trade disruption across the English Channel, as British exports will still face border checks.
The deal also comes at a tricky moment for Britain. The outbreak of a rapidly spreading variant of the coronavirus has led countries across Europe to seal themselves off from British travelers.
3. A white Christmas — but not the kind in song.
A nasty winter storm that’s been slamming the eastern half of the U.S. (that’s Minneapolis above) has pushed drivers off the roads and threatens to spoil the plans of insistent holiday travelers and last-minute shoppers.
The snow and rain have extended from Atlanta to Buffalo. Forecasters see an array of possible hazards — heavy snow, flooding, even tornadoes — from Florida to Maine.
Wind gusts of up to 65 miles per hour were expected to whip through New York City overnight into Christmas morning, along with heavy rain, potentially knocking over trees and power lines. “Widespread power outages are expected,” the National Weather Service warned.
4. Herd immunity estimates are shifting.
Months ago, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top epidemiologist, tended to cite the same estimate that most experts did: 60 to 70 percent of the population would need to acquire resistance to the virus, either by infection or vaccination, to banish it. But now he’s moved the figure closer to 90 percent.
Troubling notes: Infections are overwhelming Southern states. A Black doctor, Susan Moore, died of the virus in Indianapolis, two weeks after she published a widely shared Facebook video in which she complained of racist treatment by a white doctor. And in New York City, some hospital workers turned against one another to get the vaccine.
And fair warning: Ads promoting unproved miracle cures — like intravenous drips, ozone therapy and immunity-boosting music — are proliferating, just as they did in the flu pandemic a century ago.
5. “I am yearning for a hug,” a third grader in Brazil texted her teacher, four months after their school shuttered.
So the teacher created a “hugging kit”: disposable raincoats, surgical gloves, masks and hand sanitizer. She rented a sound truck and drove door to door, draping students in plastic and then embracing each one.
That’s one of 12 stories of respite and resilience our correspondents covering the pandemic found across the globe this year.
And our business reporters also found a bit of light: five entrepreneurs surprised by success in 2020.
6. China is getting tougher on tech.
The country is investigating whether the e-commerce giant Alibaba engaged in monopolistic practices, and four Chinese financial regulatory agencies said they would meet soon with Ant Group, Alibaba’s finance-focused sister company, to discuss new supervision.
Both companies are pillars of the business empire of Jack Ma, above, China’s most famous tycoon. Alibaba’s New York-listed shares fell about 12 percent on Thursday.
Our New New World columnist, Li Yuan, considers a deeper element in a parallel popular turn against the once-lionized businessman: “For all of China’s economic success, a long-running resentment of the rich, sometimes called the wealthy-hating complex, has long bubbled below the surface. With Mr. Ma, it has emerged with a vengeance.”
7. Bollywood is bypassing theaters.
The pandemic prompted 28 big-star-led Bollywood features to skip theaters and go straight to streaming in 2020, vastly expanding potential audiences for India’s famed film industry. Last year, there were none.
Netflix, Amazon and Hotstar (owned by Disney) have poured billions of rupees into producing edgy, India-specific original content in a variety of regional languages. Netflix alone invested about $400 million to license and create more than 50 films and shows in India over the past two years.
“It’s a compromise, definitely,” said the director of “Coolie No. 1,” a Bollywood film, shown above, debuting on Amazon’s streaming service. “But at least my film is releasing.”
8. Meet Jessica Lauser, the reigning three-time U.S. Blind chess champion. She also goes by Chessica.
She honed her chess game on the streets — where she drew a crowd, not so much because she was blind or a woman, but because the struggle of one person against many never fails to fascinate. She lives in what she calls “perpetual poverty”; to maintain her eligibility for Social Security Disability Insurance, she has to limit her income.
Getting a master title is her goal, although she is aware that not many players have achieved this at her age, which is 40.
“I am not giving up this dream of mine,” she says.
9. Every December, the quiet West Bank town of Bethlehem becomes a bustling hub for pilgrims, tourists and dignitaries.
But, like everything else, Christmas looks different this year. Above, a quiet Manger Square. Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity was limited to church officials, a handful of European diplomats and Bethlehem’s mayor. The Palestinian Authority imposed tough antivirus restrictions on the city, setting up checkpoints around its perimeter, ordering the closing of restaurants, cafes, schools and gyms, and forbidding nearly all large gatherings.
“We are very frustrated, but what can we do?” said Father Ibrahim Shomali, the chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. “We need to accept the reality and do the right thing.”
10. And finally, the hidden history behind mistletoe.
Some say it was the ancient Greeks who first kissed under the plant during harvest festivals. Others say first-century druids decorated their homes with mistletoe for good luck.
But a recent paper in The American Naturalist points to another source: tiny, prehistoric primates and marsupials who might have first brought mistletoe — or at least its seeds — high up into forest canopies over 55 million years ago.
Almost all of the world’s mistletoe species siphon water and minerals from their host trees and shrubs to grow berries and showy, colorful flowers that attract bees and songbirds. You could call this parasitism — but you could also call it being the life of the party.