Vatican City: Pope Francis led Christmas Eve mass in the Vatican calling for "tenderness" and "warmth" after a violence-plagued year as millions of Christians began marking the holiday.
The Argentine pontiff's brief homily was replete with Gospel references in his Christmas Eve mass, broadcast live in 3D for the first time.
"Do we have the courage to welcome with tenderness the difficulties and problems of those who are near to us?" the pope asked in Saint Peter's Basilica, filled with some 5,000 worshippers.
"Or do we prefer impersonal solutions, perhaps effective but devoid of the warmth of the Gospel? How much the world needs tenderness today!" he said.
The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics also called on "the arrogant, the proud... (and) those closed off to others" to meet life "with goodness, with meekness."
In Bethlehem, meanwhile, hectic preparations preceded celebrations on the West Bank town's biggest night of the year, culminating in midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity built over the spot where Christians believe the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus.
Scouts playing bagpipes and drums marched to the church in a procession led by Jerusalem's Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the top Catholic cleric in the Holy Land.
In his homily Twal called for "peace in Jerusalem", where violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians rocked the city for months, and "equality and mutual respect" among all faiths.
He also asked for the rebuilding of Gaza, which was ravaged this summer during a 50-day war between Hamas and Israel in which more than 2,200 people died.
Outside the church at Manger Square, a man dressed as Santa Claus handed out sweets next to a giant green Christmas tree decorated with red, black and silver baubles -- the colours of the Palestinian flag.
But for many faithful across the region, the festivities will be tinged with sadness following a year of bloodshed marked by a surge in the persecution of Christians that has drawn international condemnation.
"For many of you, the music of your Christmas hymns will also be accompanied by tears and sighs," Pope Francis wrote in a long letter addressed to Christians in the Middle East.