VATICAN CITY (AP) - Pope Benedict XVI has lit a Christmas peace candle set on the windowsill of his private studio.
Pilgrims, tourists and Romans gathered below in St. Peter's Square for the inauguration Monday evening of a Nativity scene and cheered when the flame was lit.
Later, he will appear in St. Peter's Basilica to lead Christmas Eve Mass. The ceremony begins at 10 p.m. (2100 GMT) instead of the midnight start time, which was changed at the Vatican years ago to let the pontiff rest before a Christmas Day speech to be delivered from the basilica's central balcony.
Meanwhile, the mood is a festive one today in Bethlehem, where hundreds gathered in Manger Square under sunny skies to greet the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land.
In his annual pre-Christmas homily, the cleric (Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal) told followers in Jerusalem's Old City earlier today that the festivities are doubly joyful this year -- since they celebrate not only the birth of Christ, but also "the birth of the state of Palestine."
But he said that even though the U.N. recently recognized a Palestinian state, the road to actual freedom from Israeli occupation remains long.
Manger Square is dominated by a lavishly decorated 55-foot fir tree with a nativity scene at its base. Festivities will culminate with Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity.
Devout Christians in Bethlehem today say it's a moving experience to be so close to the origins of their faith.