Pope Francis has urged people to lead less materialistic lives as millions across the world celebrate Christmas on Tuesday, while US President Donald Trump put his festive foot in it by asking a child if he believed in Santa Claus.
Thousands attended mass on Monday night at the Vatican’s Saint Peter’s Basilica, where Pope Francis, the head of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics, offered his Christmas homily.
“An insatiable greed marks all human history, even today, when, paradoxically, a few dine luxuriantly while all too many go without the daily bread needed to survive,” the 82-year-old pope said.
Pope Francis will deliver his sixth “Urbi et Orbi” address on Tuesday, Christmas Day — when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ — to pilgrims gathered in Saint Peter’s Square.
Visitors from across the world gathered in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve ahead of midnight mass, queueing to see the grotto where Jesus is believed to have been born and taking in a festive parade.
In the “little town” in the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian scouts and a bagpipe band paraded in Manger Square across from the Church of the Nativity, built where Christians say Mary gave birth to Jesus.
Crowds, some wearing Santa hats or holding balloons, looked on at the square decked out with a giant Christmas tree and a manger as carols in Arabic played through speakers.
“It’s a great opportunity to be in such a symbolic location for Christmas,” said Lea Gudel, a 21-year-old French student studying in Jerusalem, who was in Manger Square on Monday morning.
Beyond Bethlehem, Christians worldwide were marking Christmas, with services held from Indonesia to Iraq.
This year’s celebrations come after a year of tumult, much of which has come from Washington, where the festive spirit was dampened when the national Christmas tree went dark on the third day of a US government shutdown.
One festive service not affected was the military’s annual Santa Claus tracker, which sees North American Aerospace Defense Command’s (NORAD) deliver live updates on his international gift delivery route.
Fielding calls from children anxious to know if their presents would arrive on time, American President Donald Trump risked a spell on Santa’s naughty list by telling one young boy that believing in the jolly man in in red at aged seven was “marginal”.
But his scepticism is unlikely to have dampened the enthusiasm of many excited youngsters.
“Historical data and more than 60 years of NORAD tracking information lead us to believe Santa Claus is alive and well in the hearts of people throughout the world,” the Pentagon’s handbook read.
– Celebrations despite conflicts –
Bethlehem, located near Jerusalem but cut off from the city by Israel’s separation barrier, has seen an increase in visitors this season after several down years due to unrest linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Palestinian tourism officials and hotel operators have reported their strongest season in years.
“This year is much more calm, much better than last year,” said Abeer Nasser, a Palestinian from the nearby town of Beit Sahour celebrating in Bethlehem with her son and daughter.
“Every year I feel more in the mood to celebrate despite the political situation,” the 37-year-old added, referring to the Israeli occupation.
This year, visitors were also able to view the Church of the Nativity’s newly restored mosaics dating to the Crusader era after they were recently cleaned and repaired in a major project.
The first church was built on the site in the fourth century, though it was replaced after a fire in the sixth century.
A newer and more spacious church, St. Catherine, is located next door to the basilica and is where midnight mass is held.
Christian leaders have this year warned about violence against fellow worshippers.
On Friday, Pope Francis said “new extremist groups spring up and target churches, places of worship, ministers and members of the faithful.”
While for many who celebrate the festival around the world, Christmas is a time to gather with loved ones, many were struggling with unforeseen events and hardships.
In Sydney, hundreds of residents of a recently completed high-rise apartment block were spending their Christmas in makeshift camps, after they were evacuated by authorities when “cracking noises” in the building were heard.
Later Tuesday, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II will call for respect and civility in a Christmas message delivered with the country badly divided over its impending exit from the EU.
Spain’s second-largest city Barcelona was meanwhile on alert after the US State Department warned of the risk of a terrorist attack during the Christmas holidays.
And in France, groups of “yellow vest” anti-government demonstrators are spending Christmas day at makeshift protest camps on roundabouts across the country, eating devilled eggs and foie gras with new friends they have made in weeks of rallies over the policies of President Emmanuel Macron.
Father Joseph Nurchi, donning a yellow vest, assured protesters in Somain, northern France that “the Church is on the side of the losers” as he prepared to celebrate a mass on site late Monday.