John Lennon fans tried to imagine what might have been.

On the 25th anniversary of his murder, fans brought flowers, candles and their own bittersweet memories Thursday as they gathered in Central Park's Strawberry Fields -- and in the former Beatle's hometown of Liverpool, England.

"With the country at war, his work and philosophy seem more poignant and more desperately needed than ever," said Kim Polson, 50.

Polson, who said she fell in love with the Beatles when she saw them on television at age 8, was an early morning visitor to Strawberry Fields, the section of Central Park opposite the Dakota apartment building where Lennon was gunned down Dec. 8, 1980. Hundreds of fans, some of them born after Lennon's death, gathered on a cold morning.

The scene Thursday was much the same in Liverpool, where scores of fans from around the world remembered him with white balloons, flowers and prayers. The balloons, carrying tributes to Lennon, were released into the sky.

"I just wrote 'Merry Christmas John' on my balloon," said James Andrews, a 9-year-old from Bournemouth, England. "I love the Beatles, and especially John Lennon."

In New York, locals mingled with tourists in Central Park. One woman sat with a scrapbook she had assembled over the years, while another man played Beatles' music on an acoustic guitar. Visitors piled off tour buses to visit the vigil or walk past the Dakota. Among the floral offerings were a half-dozen white roses and a bough of holly.

Angie Mulbay, who was born four days after Lennon's slaying, traveled to New York from Columbus, Ohio, with her 20-year-old sister, Ashley. They planned to spend most of the day in Strawberry Fields.

"John is very important to me, his music and his message," Mulbay said. "We're here to share the day and meet people with the same interest."

On that night 25 years ago, Lennon -- who had just turned 40 -- was returning from a midtown recording studio with his wife, Yoko Ono. In an instant, Mark David Chapman, a fan carrying a copy of J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," opened fire. Police officers put the mortally wounded singer in the back of a squad car, but shortly after arriving a hospital, Lennon was dead.

In the documentary "One Night In December," airing on the British Broadcasting Corp. to commemorate the anniversary, former Beatle Paul McCartney recalled getting the news that Lennon had been slain.

"It was early in the morning for us and I got a phone call from the manager who said, you know, 'Are you sitting down?'

"He told me, and it was just terrible," McCartney said. "It was a terrible shock because it was the end of an era of friendship for me."

Tom Leighton, one of the organizers of an ad-hoc memorial committee, said people attend the vigil for different personal reasons, but "primarily it's to pay our respects and share our grief collectively."

Fans hold a moment of silence at 10:50 p.m. -- the time Lennon was shot -- and at 11:15 -- the time he is believed to have died. Despite an appeal by Lennon fans, city officials planned to close the park at 1 a.m., as they have for several years.

Polson, who lives a block from the Dakota, recalled seeing Lennon in a coffee shop four months before he was killed. She stuck around to listen to him talk to a colleague.

"I came to the office two hours late that morning and my boss was furious, so I said, 'Ask me why I'm late,"' Polson said. "When I told him, he was no longer angry."

"I'll be late for work again today. John Lennon made me late again," she said.

Chapman remains in New York's Attica state prison, where his third request for parole was denied in October. He comes up for parole again next year.