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This year’s Vatican Christmas tree has ornaments handmade by the homeless

 MTC0081296312 Decorations on the Christmas tree in St. Peter’s Square on Dec. 11, 2020. / Vatican Media. Ornament-making photos courtesy of Sabina Šegula. St. Peter's Basilica nativity credit: Courtney Mares.

Reaching a height of nearly 100 feet, the Christmas tree in St. Peter’s Square this year is adorned with handcrafted wooden ornaments made by the homeless, as well as children and other adults.

Before the Christmas tree lighting ceremony Dec. 11, Pope Francis said that he wanted the Christmas tree and nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square to be “a sign of hope” in a year marked by the coronavirus pandemic.

“The tree and the nativity scene help to create the favorable Christmas atmosphere for living with faith the mystery of the Birth of the Redeemer,” the pope said. 

“In the nativity, everything speaks of ‘good poverty,’ evangelical poverty, which makes us blessed: contemplating the Holy Family and the various characters, we are attracted by their disarming humility.”

The massive spruce tree in St. Peter’s Square is a gift from Slovenia, a Central European country with a population of two million people, which also donated 40 smaller trees to be placed in the offices of Vatican City.

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Jakob Štunf, Slovenia’s ambassador to the Holy See, told EWTN News that Slovenia is also sponsoring a Christmas meal at the homeless shelter near the Vatican.

“We decided also to give one special tree … to the structure for the homeless people, which is next to St Peter’s Square. We will provide for them also a kind of special meal for that day, so we can express also kind of our connection with them in this way,” the ambassador said.

The homeless were also involved in making some of the ornaments for the Vatican Christmas tree, according to Sabina Šegula, the Vatican’s florist and decorator.

Šegula helped to train 400 people to help make this year’s ornaments out of straw and wood using instructional videos because of the pandemic.

She said that most of the ornaments were made by people in Slovenia, including some young children, but the homeless in Rome and Slovenia were also involved in the craftsmanship.

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“They really enjoyed their workshops so they made their own designs,” Šegula told EWTN.

“And that was the main goal -- that we bring also joy and the Christmas spirit to the house of homeless people in Rome,” she said.

Slovenia donated the Christmas tree as a symbol of gratitude for the Vatican’s support of the country’s independence movement on the 30th anniversary of Slovenia’s independence from Yugoslavia.

“John Paul II ... understood very well the situation in that time, what was going on, not only in Slovenia or Yugoslavia at that time, but also in Europe. So he understood the big changes that were going on and he was really personal, very much involved and engaged in the process,” Štunf said.

“Slovenia is actually recognized as one of the greenest countries in the world. … More than 60% of the Slovenian territory is covered by forests,” he said, adding that this tree could be considered a gift from the “green heart of Europe.”

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The tree from Slovenia’s Kočevje forests is 75 years old, weighs 70 tons, and is 30 meters tall.

It was lit Dec. 11 in a ceremony led by Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello and Bishop Fernando Vérgez Alzaga, president and secretary general of the governorate of Vatican City State respectively. At the ceremony, this year’s Vatican nativity scene was also unveiled. 

The nativity scene consists of 19 larger than life-size ceramic statues made in the 1960s and 1970s by teachers and alumni of an art institute in the Italian region of Abruzzo. 

Among the statues is a figure of an astronaut, which was added to the nativity at the time it was created to celebrate the 1969 landing on the moon, Alessia Di Stefano, the local tourism minister, told EWTN.

In recent years, the Vatican’s nativity scene has been made of different materials, from traditional Neapolitan figures to sand.

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A more traditional Italian nativity scene with moving figures is also displayed in the baptistery chapel of St. Peter’s Basilica. The painted angels from the chapel’s grand mosaic of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River appear to hover above the scene’s wooden manger, which is surrounded by poinsettias and a long row of kneelers for pilgrims who wish to contemplate the nativity in prayer.

“Angels Unawares,” the image of the Holy Family in the migrant sculpture in St. Peter’s Square, has also been illuminated for the first time for the Advent and Christmas seasons.

Both the tree and nativity scenes will be displayed until Jan. 10, 2021, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

On Friday, Pope Francis met with a delegation from Slovenia and from the Italian region of Abruzzo involved in the creation of this year’s Christmas displays in St. Peter’s Square.

“The feast of Christmas reminds us that Jesus is our peace, our joy, our strength, our comfort,” the pope said.

“But, to welcome these gifts of grace, we need to feel small, poor and humble like the characters in the nativity.”

“I express my best wishes to you for a Christmas feast full of hope, and I ask you to bring them to your families and all your fellow citizens. I assure you of my prayers and I bless you. And you too, please, pray for me. Merry Christmas.”  

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