VATICAN CITY – Christmas celebrations are kicking off early at the Vatican, where Pope Benedict XVI is set to hold the traditional midnight service two hours early in a move to ease the aging pontiff's busy holiday schedule.
The 82-year-old Benedict will celebrate Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at 10 p.m. local time Thursday, two hours earlier than usual to spare him from such a late night at the start of one of the busiest periods of the liturgical calendar.
As night fell on Christmas Eve, Vatican officials unveiled a life-sized Nativity scene located next to a 100-foot (30-meter) tall Christmas tree brought in from the forests of the Ardennes in Wallonia, Belgium.
Children in red-and-white Santa hats sang Italian holiday hymns in the rainy square as the Vatican's Gendarmeria band played alongside.
Later in the afternoon, Benedict was expected to briefly appear at his studio window for the traditional lighting of a candle in a sign of peace.
On Christmas Day, Benedict will deliver his traditional "Urbi et Orbi" speech (Latin for "To the city and the world") from the basilica's balcony. On Sunday, he plans to share lunch with the homeless at a soup kitchen near the Vatican.