VATICAN CITY — While signs of bustling pilgrims who came for the Jubilee of Mercy are mostly gone, new signs of Christmas are springing up around St. Peter’s Basilica, including the construction of the large Nativity scene in the middle of the square and the placement of a Christmas tree alongside it.
On Nov. 24, a massive 82-foot tree from the Dolomites arrived in St. Peter’s Square next to the large Nativity scene currently being built, which was donated to the Vatican by the Archdiocese of Malta and designed by local artists.
An artist from the island of Gozo, Manwel Gretch, did the sketch chosen for the Nativity, which depicts the Maltese countryside. The 17 characters in the Nativity, animals excluded, will be dressed in typical Maltese clothing and will be holding tools and instruments.
The traditional “Cross of Malta” will be included in the scene, as well as a typical Maltese archipelago boat meant to represent not only the island’s tradition, fishing and life, but also the reality that thousands of migrants face when risking their lives to sail in makeshift boats to Italy.
A delegation of 30 people from Malta will be present for the official presentation and inauguration of the Nativity scene Dec. 9, during which the Christmas tree in St. Peter’s Square will be lit for the first time.
Pope Francis will have a busy schedule during December and January for Christmas and the new year.
His liturgical celebrations for December will begin with a special Mass celebrated Dec. 12 for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Special features of the Mass will include ancient hymns composed in indigenous languages, including Nahuatl, Quechua, Mapuche and Guarani.
The Sistine Chapel Choir will be joined by the Latin American Choir to perform at the Mass under the direction of conductor Eduardo Notrica.
On Christmas Eve, the Pope will celebrate Christmas Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at 9:30pm, and on Christmas Day, he will give his traditional Christmas urbi et orbi blessing to the city and to the world from the main balcony on the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica.
To celebrate the new year, Francis will preside over evening prayer and the singing of the ancient Te Deum hymn Dec. 31 in order to give thanks for 2016 as the year ends.
On Jan. 1, he will offer Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, marking both the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God and the World Day of Prayer for Peace.
Just a few days later, he’ll celebrate Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica to mark the Epiphany, and on Jan. 8, the Pope will celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, as usual, by offering Mass in the Sistine Chapel, where he will baptize several babies.
To close January’s liturgical celebrations, Pope Francis will preside over a Jan. 25 evening prayer service for the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, which will also mark the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.