Pope Francis is celebrating Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter's Basilica as Catholic faithful joyfully recall the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem.

Children were at the heart of this Christmas celebration. Some youngsters invited to attend came from countries that Francis has visited as pontiff. The youngsters left floral bouquets around a baby Jesus statue near the central altar after Francis unveiled and gently kissed the statue.

The basilica's bells rang at the start of Thursday's late-night ceremony, which is Francis' only public Mass for Christmas. Hymns were played on trumpets.

On Christmas Day, tens of thousands of people are expected to flock to St. Peter's Square outside the basilica to hear the pontiff deliver a traditional speech at noon (1100 GMT, 6 a.m. EST).