Pope Benedict XVI decried the increasing commercialization of Christmas as he celebrated Christmas Eve Mass on Saturday night, urging the faithful to look beyond the holiday's "superficial glitter" to discover its true meaning.
Benedict presided over the service in a packed St. Peter's Basilica, kicking off an intense two weeks of Christmas-related public appearances that will test the 84-year-old pontiff's stamina amid signs that fatigue is starting to slow him down.
In Bethlehem, meanwhile, tens of thousands of tourists and Christian pilgrims packed the West Bank town for Christmas Eve celebrations, bringing warm holiday cheer to the traditional birthplace of Jesus on a raw, breezy and rainy night.
The Christmas Eve Mass in the Vatican was moved up to 10 p.m. from midnight several years ago to spare the pope a late night that is followed by an important Christmas Day speech. In a new concession this year, Benedict processed down the basilica's central aisle on a moving platform to spare him the long walk.
Benedict appeared tired by the end of the Mass, and a dry cough interrupted his homily.
In his homily, Benedict lamented that Christmas has become an increasingly commercial celebration that obscures the simplicity of the message of Christ's birth.
"Let us ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season, and to discover behind it the child in the stable in Bethlehem, so as to find true joy and true light," he said. "A child, in all its weakness, is Mighty God. A child, in all its neediness and dependence, is Eternal Father. And his peace has no end," Benedict said.
It was the second time in as many days that Benedict has pointed to the need to rediscover faith to confront the problems facing the world today. In his end-of-year meeting with Vatican officials Thursday, Benedict said Europe's financial crisis was largely "based on the ethical crisis looming over the Old Continent."
Benedict officially kicked off Christmas a few hours before the evening Mass, lighting a candle in his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square in a sign of peace, as crowds gathered to witness the unveiling of the Vatican's larger-than-life sized Nativity scene.
Security was tight for the evening Mass, as it has been in recent years. There were no repeats of the 2008 and 2009 Christmas Eve security breaches, in which a woman with a history of psychiatric problems and wearing a telltale red sweatshirt jumped the wooden security barrier along the basilica's central aisle and lunged for the pope.
In 2008, the pope's security detail blocked her from getting to Benedict. But in 2009, she managed to grab Benedict's vestments and pulled him to the ground. The pope was unhurt and continued along with the service.
Today, Benedict will deliver his traditional "Urbi et Orbi" speech, Latin for "to the city and the world," from the central loggia of St. Peter's overlooking the piazza.
Next weekend, he'll preside over a New Year's Eve vespers service, followed by a New Year's Day Mass. A few days later he'll celebrate Epiphany Mass followed by his traditional baptizing of babies in the Vatican's frescoed Sistine Chapel.
Bethlehem, like the rest of the West Bank, fell onto hard times after the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation broke out in late 2000. As the fighting has subsided in recent years, the tourists have returned in large numbers.
With turnout at its highest in more than a decade, proud Palestinian officials said they were praying the celebrations would bring them closer to their dream of independence.
By late night, the Israeli military, which controls movement in and out of town, said some 100,000 visitors, including foreigners and Arab Christians from Israel, had reached Bethlehem, up from 70,000 the previous year.
"It's wonderful to be where Jesus was born," said Irma Goldsmith, 68, of Suffolk, Va. "I watch Christmas in Bethlehem each year on TV, but to be here in person is different. To be in the spot where our savior was born is amazing."
After nightfall, a packed Manger Square, along with a 50-foot-tall Christmas tree, was awash in Christmas lights, and the town took on a festival-like atmosphere.
Among the visitors were a surprisingly large number of veiled Muslim women with their families, out to enjoy an evening out in what is normally a quiet town.
"We love to share this holiday with our Christian brothers," said Amal Ayash, 46, who came to Manger Square with her three daughters, all of them covered in veils. "It is a Palestinian holiday and we love to come here and watch."