VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI urged Christians on Wednesday to defend the spirit of Christmas against secular trends during his last general audience before the holiday.
He wished the several thousand pilgrims and tourists gathered in a Vatican auditorium decorated with Christmas trees a "Happy Christmas" in seven languages and told them that "false prophets continue to offer cheap salvation which ends up in deep delusions."
"It is the duty of Christians to spread through a witness of life the truth of Christmas, which Christ brings to every man and woman of good will."
Throughout the audience, choral groups sang Christmas carols, including "Silent Night," a favorite in the pope's native Germany. Shepherds from Italy's Abruzzi mountains, in their traditional fur-trimmed costumes, played Italian carols on their bagpipes.
During his speech, Benedict also posed the question of the relevance of religion in modern society, one of his leading themes.
"Today, many consider God irrelevant. Even believers sometimes seek tempting but illusory shortcuts to happiness. And yet perhaps even because of this confusion humanity seeks a savior, and awaits the coming of Christ," the pope said.
Although he warned against being distracted by what he called the "trappings of Christmas," Benedict offered thanks for the 110-foot Christmas tree set up in St. Peter's Square, and the one in his private apartment in the Vatican, both gifts from the mountains of Calabria in southern Italy.
He also encouraged the custom of setting up nativity scenes in the home.
"It is my hope that such an important element (of Christmas) not only part of our spirituality, but also of our culture and art continue to be a simple and eloquent way of remembering Christ."
The home nativity scene is the traditional focal point of the Italian Christmas, with families working for days on elaborate settings which, along with the main figures, often include village scenes, artistic lighting and even fountains with running water.
However, according to recent news reports, the tradition is waning, with some families preferring the Christmas tree, a custom inherited from northern Europe and North America.
Workers in St. Peter's Square are still busy setting up the Vatican's life-sized nativity scene with 26 figures set under a caravan tent, to be unveiled on Christmas Eve, along with the lighting of the Christmas tree.