NEW YORK (TIP): Christmas Eve was marked by festivities and preparations around the world today. The faithful prepared for midnight services in places both traditional and unusual. At the Vatican, worshipers filled Saint Peter’s Basilica for Pope Francis’s first Christmas midnight mass as pontiff. Thousands more gathered outside in St. Peter’s Square. He was assisted by more than 300 cardinals, bishops and priests. In his homily, Pope Francis urged people to lead humble lives. “If our heart is closed, if we are dominated by pride, deceit, and the constant pursuit of self interest, then darkness falls within and around us,” he said.

In a break with tradition, Pope Francis himself performed a task usually given to an aide. He carried a figurine of the baby Jesus to the altar at the start of the mass. The statue of Jesus was then placed in the manger of a life-size nativity scene behind the altar. In Bethlehem, parades filled the streets, as Christian pilgrims and tourists from around the world poured into Manger Square, considered the birthplace of Jesus. Decorations and holiday lights adorned the West Bank for the evening’s celebrations. And in Afghanistan, U.S. troops in Kabul marked the 13th Christmas Eve for American forces in Afghanistan with candles and hymns. In India which has a sizeable Christian population, Christmas was celebrated with zeal and enthusiasm.

The faithful attended midnight mass in churches while a general atmosphere of celebration was witnessed in all major cities. Santa Claus has been a major attraction, as always. In the Philippines, survivors of last month’s catastrophic typhoon erected giant Christmas lanterns across the devastation in Tacloban. People in other towns sang and danced to holiday songs as they remembered lost loved ones. Some of 2013’s first Christmas Eve celebrations occurred in China, where guards and volunteers held back hundreds crowding into a Beijing cathedral for holiday services. And far above the planet, astronauts on the International Space Station performed a rare Christmas Eve space walk, only the second in NASA’s history, the goal, to replace a faulty cooling system that failed December 11, all this as American shoppers raced against time to find last- minute gifts.

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