As dark fell over St. Peter’s Square on Dec. 16, a young Ukrainian boy switched on the lights for the Vatican’s Christmas tree, a 98-foot spruce donated by his homeland.
The tree is “a significant symbol of Christ’s nativity because, with its evergreen boughs, it reminds us of enduring life,” said Pope Benedict XVI at a meeting earlier in the day with a group of Ukrainian bishops – Catholic and Orthodox – that oversaw this evening’s ceremony.
“The spruce is also a sign of popular religiosity in your country,” he told them, “and of the Christian roots of your culture. My hope is that these roots may increasingly reinforce your national unity, favoring the promotion of authentic shared values.”
The tree is decorated with 2,500 silver and gold ornaments and topped with a bright star. This evening’s lighting ceremony combined traditional folk music from the Ukraine, provided by a youth choir in national costume, with operatic Italian music played by the Vatican’s Gendarmerie band.
The thousand-strong crowd seemed to be equally Ukrainian and Italian, with many blue and yellow Ukrainian flags in evidence.
In his earlier remarks, Pope Benedict touched on how Ukraine “has been a crossroads of different cultures” over the centuries, a “meeting point for the spiritual richness of East and West.” He urged Ukrainians to “tenaciously” adhere to the values of the faith as they live out their “unique vocation” of being a crossroads.
The Pope said he hoped today’s events in Rome would inspire in all Ukrainians “a renewed desire to live and witness to the faith with joy and promote the values of life, solidarity and peace, that the Nativity of Christ every year before us again.”
The Ukrainian tree is located next to the central obelisk in St. Peter’s Square. Alongside it is the soon-to-be-unveiled Vatican nativity scene. These Christmas displays are a fairly recent tradition, having started in 1982 during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II.
Pope Benedict said these seasonal traditions are a “part our communities' spiritual heritage … which we must seek to conserve, even in modern societies where consumerism and the search for material goods sometimes seem to prevail.”