Christmas at the Vatican this year is filled with the usual host of inspiring and fitting events and liturgies that celebrate the birth of the Lord, as well as at least one surprise.

As always, celebrations will properly commence with the papal midnight Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Eve, beginning at the now slightly earlier time of 10pm. Then, at noon on Christmas Day, from the basilica’s Loggia of Benediction, the Holy Father will deliver his Christmas message.

The Pope, as he has in the past, is expected to reflect on world trouble spots. This year he is likely to comment on the tumultuous events of 2011, such as the Arab Spring, the financial crisis and the threat of war with Iran, while offering the Gospel message of hope.

Afterwards, Benedict XVI will bestow his “urbi et orbi” apostolic blessing and offer brief Christmas greetings in 65 languages.

But before the Christmas celebrations are fully under way, the Holy Father will make an unusual excursion and visit Rome’s largest prison in Rebibbia.

He is due to arrive at the jail at 10am on Dec. 18, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, where he will begin by visiting the prison church of “Our Father.” He is then scheduled to meet inmates, answer their questions, and then plant and bless a tree in memory of his visit.

One of the prison’s two chaplains, Father Sandro Spriano, said news of the visit filled his “heart with joy” and would “certainly help to give hope to many people and, above all, draw attention to the living conditions we have in Italian prisons.” He told Il Messaggero newspaper that overcrowding, suicides and lack of amenities are commonplace, and the system is reliant on volunteers.

The Holy Father is aware of prison life: As a cardinal, he used to celebrate Mass on Sundays close to Casa del Marmo, a youth detention center in Rome, and one of his first visits in the Eternal City after being elected Pope was to revisit the youth there.

In his address, he encouraged the young inmates not to lose hope. “Life without God does not work,” he said, “because there is no light, because there is no sense of what it means to be human.”

By visiting Rebibbia, the Pope is following a papal tradition begun in 1959 by John XXIII.

John Paul II made prison visits a focal point of his pastoral activity. His most poignant and famous visit was to Rebibbia in 1983, when he called on his would-be assassin, Ali Agca.

Benedict will return to traditional Vatican Christmas events on Dec. 22, when he will give his Christmas greeting and address to members of the Roman Curia.

In the past, the Holy Father has sometimes used this opportunity to share some profound thoughts on the contemporary Church as well as offer some reflection on the year that is passing.

The following day, the Pope will attend the fourth homily of Advent, given by the papal preacher, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel of the Apostolic Palace.

The Holy Father will recite the Angelus prayer on Dec. 26, the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr, before presiding over solemn vespers of Mary, Most Holy Mother of God in St. Peter’s on New Year’s Eve.

After the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, the traditional Te Deum hymn will be sung in gratitude for the passing year, followed by a brief visit by the Holy Father to the life-size Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square, where he will spend a few quiet moments in prayer.

On New Year’s Day — the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God — the Pope will lead celebrations of the Church’s 45th World Day of Peace at a traditional papal Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. The theme for the Pope’s message to mark the day is: “Educating Young People in Justice and Peace.”

Among the issues it raises, the message will call for the establishment of a new “pedagogical alliance” among all those responsible for the education and formation of young people. 

The life-size crèche has been attracting plenty of attention since mid-November, when artisans began constructing it next to the square’s central obelisk.

This year, the elaborate scene — the 30th to be built since Blessed Pope John Paul II began the tradition in 1982 — will be dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God, in view of the beatification earlier this year of Blessed John Paul, who had a profound devotion to Our Lady.

The Vatican says that the crèche, which will remain under wraps until it is inaugurated by the “governor” of Vatican city state, Archbishop Giuseppe Bertello, on Christmas Eve, will comprise a number of buildings re-created in the architectural style of biblical Palestine, where the events of Mary’s life took place.

The side panels and some of the buildings include a house and a temple, pointing to the Annunciation, the meeting of Mary with her cousin Elizabeth, and the presentation of Jesus in the Temple.

The figures in the illuminated crib, which fittingly act as a beacon of light in the winter darkness of St. Peter’s Square, come from the Nativity scene created by St. Vincent Pallotti for the Roman Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in 1842.

Also lighting up the night sky is the large Vatican Christmas tree that was placed next to the obelisk on Dec. 5. Nearly 100 feet high, the spruce is decorated with 2,500 silver and gold colored baubles illuminated by white and yellow lights. Each year, a country or Italian region donates a tree, and this Christmas it comes from the Zakarpattia region in Ukraine, a gift from the Ukrainian state.

As always, the Vatican’s Christmas events will attract a vast global audience from across Asia, the Americas, Europe and Africa. This year viewers will also have the benefit of, a Vatican news website recently set up to help highlight the top news coming out of the Holy See.

Thaddeus Jones, a Vatican official in charge of the new site, said all live events over Christmas and at other times are “well covered” by the new site. He added that new multimedia features, including better mobile access, will be added to it early next year.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.