VATICAN CITY (AFP) - The Christmas lights went on at the Vatican on Friday, sending out what Pope Francis described as a message of "light, hope and love" at the end of an extraordinary year for the Catholic Church.
As the fairy lights sparkled into life on the 25m-tall fir tree on St Peter's square, there was also an early unveiling of a giant nativity scene inspired by an Italian opera.
Equally eagerly awaited, and scheduled shortly afterwards, was the switching on of a new LED system for the exterior illumination of St Peter's itself, which was expected to make the cathedral's famous facade and dome an even more spectacular part of the Roman nightscape than ever before.
The nativity scene at St Peter's is usually not unveiled until Christmas Eve.
But, as with so many aspects of Church life, there has been a change of approach this year and the Pope underlined how much importance he attaches to the symbolism of the Yuletide season.
"The crib and the tree touch the heart of everyone, including those who do not believe, because they speak of brotherhood, intimacy and friendship," he said at an audience earlier in the day.
That was seen as a reference to the trend in many countries to get rid of Christmas cribs and nativity scenes in public schools and buildings in the name of secular multiculturalism.
"These symbols are an invitation to unite, to come together in peace, an invitation to make space in our personal and social lives for God, who does not come with arrogance to impose his power but instead offers his all powerful love through the fragile face of a child," the Pope added.
"The crib and the tree therefore carry a message of light, hope and love. They are the dear and evocative symbols of Christmas for our Christian family."
'I WILL NOT BE THERE'
Pope Francis spoke as he greeted delegations from Verona, where the nativity scene was made, and Catanzaro in the southern region of Calabria, which provided the tree.
The nativity scene was designed by artist Alfredo Troisi. Inspired by the comic opera, The Elixir Of Love by Gaetano Donizetti, it features 20 adult-sized terracotta figures.
The new lighting system at St Peter's involves the use of 315 LED lights designed to save money and reduce energy costs.
The switch follows a similar move in October to introduce LED lighting in the Sistine Chapel, home to Michelangelo's famous ceiling frescoes and the place where cardinals have elected new popes since the 15th Century.
In line with tradition, the Pope will visit the nativity scene on Dec 31 following a service to give thanks for the year past.
For Pope Francis, it has been an extraordinary 12 months with his global popularity helping to bring hundreds of thousands of believers back to the church and his reforms renovating an institution battered in recent years by clerical sex abuse and financial scandals.
His influence on the global stage was spectacularly illustrated this week when he was hailed as having played a key role in facilitating a historic rapprochement between the United States and Cuba.
Despite his superstar status, he appears convinced that, at the age of 78, he is living on borrowed time.
He reiterated on Friday that he does not expect to be around for much longer, telling Italian Olympic officials he did not expect to be here for the 2024 Games if Italy wins them.
On his way back from South Korea in August, he light-heartedly remarked to reporters that he may only live for "two or three years, and then I'll be off to the house of the Father".