VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI urged Christians on Wednesday to defend the spirit of Christmas against secular trends during his last general audience before the holiday.
He wished the several thousand pilgrims and tourists gathered in a Vatican auditorium decorated with Christmas trees a "Happy Christmas" in seven languages and told them that "false prophets continue to offer cheap salvation which ends up in deep delusions."
"It is the duty of Christians to spread through a witness of life the truth of Christmas, which Christ brings to every man and woman of good will."
Throughout the audience, choral groups sang Christmas carols, including "Silent Night," a favorite in the pope's native Germany. Shepherds from Italy's Abruzzi mountains, in their traditional fur-trimmed costumes, played Italian carols on their bagpipes.
During his speech, Benedict also posed the question of the relevance of religion in modern society, one of his leading themes.
"Today, many consider God irrelevant. Even believers sometimes seek tempting but illusory shortcuts to happiness. And yet perhaps even because of this confusion humanity seeks a savior, and awaits the coming of Christ," the pope said.
Although he warned against being distracted by what he called the "trappings of Christmas," Benedict offered thanks for the 110-foot Christmas tree set up in St. Peter's Square, and the one in his private apartment in the Vatican, both gifts from the mountains of Calabria in southern Italy.
He also encouraged the custom of setting up nativity scenes in the home.
"It is my hope that such an important element (of Christmas) not only part of our spirituality, but also of our culture and art continue to be a simple and eloquent way of remembering Christ."
The home nativity scene is the traditional focal point of the Italian Christmas, with families working for days on elaborate settings which, along with the main figures, often include village scenes, artistic lighting and even fountains with running water.
However, according to recent news reports, the tradition is waning, with some families preferring the Christmas tree, a custom inherited from northern Europe and North America.
Workers in St. Peter's Square are still busy setting up the Vatican's life-sized nativity scene with 26 figures set under a caravan tent, to be unveiled on Christmas Eve, along with the lighting of the Christmas tree.
ROME (Reuters) - Two leftists in Italy's ruling coalition on Wednesday outraged fellow lawmakers by placing four dolls representing homosexual couples near the baby Jesus in the official nativity scene in parliament.
The two parliamentarians from the small "Rose in the Fist" party said their gesture was to promote the legalization of gay marriage and granting legal recognition to unmarried couples.
Bruno Mellano and Donatella Poretti placed the Barbie and Ken-type dolls in the parliamentary nativity scene, each couple lying down embraced among the shepherds witnessing the birth of Jesus.
Each of the two doll couples, which parliamentary ushers removed after a few minutes, wore miniature placards with slogans in favor of gay rights.
"This is a vulgar and unacceptable double attack against both a (national) institution as well as a religious symbol," a group of women parliamentarians of the opposition conservative Forza Italia party said in a statement.
Luca Volonte, a member of the small centrist opposition Union of Christian Democrats, called the gesture a "pure attack against the religion practiced by the majority of Italians."
Italy is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic and nativity scenes, featuring figures of the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, animals and three kings bearing gifts, are put but in many homes, squares and shops.
Some members of the opposition demanded the lawmakers be censured by the speaker of the lower house of parliament.
But even the Italian Communist Party, which supports gay rights and is also in the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Romano Prodi, distanced itself from the action.
One communist parliamentarian called it "a grave political error" that would not help homosexuals.
The two leftist politicians carried out their gesture just before Pope Benedict, speaking to pilgrims and tourists at the Vatican, said Christmas creches were part of Christian culture that had to be defended.
In recent weeks, several state schools have decided not to erect the nativity scene. Some shops decided not to sell them, saying they were not popular or did not fit their image.
But even Education Minister Giuseppe Fioroni has criticized such schools, saying they had gone too far in banning nativity scenes which could instead be used as tools for inter-religious dialogue.