VATICAN CITY - Two children lit up the Vatican's Christmas tree in St. Peter's Square on Wednesday, with shimmering lights reflected in the gold and silver ornaments of the 100-year-old fir.
The 105-foot tree from the Alpine forests of Italy's Trento region stands at the center of the square, next to a large Nativity scene still under construction. A choir sang "O' Come All Ye Faithful" in Latin as the tree's lights flickered on.
Pope John Paul II did not take part in the ceremony, but he had a candle lit outside the window of his private study to mark the event.
Earlier Wednesday, the pontiff told visitors at his weekly general audience that the tree "will remind visitors and pilgrims of the birth of Christ, light of the world."
In Italy, the Nativity scene is the traditional symbol of Christmas. The idea of a Christmas tree in St. Peter's Square comes from the Polish pope, who introduced the first one in 1982, four years after assuming the papacy.
American Cardinal Edmund Szoka, who presided at the ceremony, said this year's tree was the tallest of John Paul's 22-year tradition. Each year, the tree comes from a different country in Europe or region of Italy.
The people of the Trento region donated the 2004 tree in memory of John Paul's trip to Adamello, a mountain peak in the area, 20 years ago. At the time the pope took a few runs down the mountain on skis, a sport he used to practice before age and Parkinson's disease made movement difficult.
During the general audience earlier Wednesday, John Paul wished thousands of pilgrims a merry Christmas in various languages, speaking from a red-carpeted stage flanked by two Christmas trees.
The pontiff had a special greeting for the people of his native Poland, and for those celebrating the holiday far from home. He also thanked the mountaineers from the Polish ski area of Zakopane who brought trees to decorate his private apartments.
"I am grateful for the trees you bring every year because they remind me of my dear mountains and my dear homeland," he said.