Amid a last-minute dash by shoppers to purchase presents and turkeys in malls, troops serving in Afghanistan prepared for their chemically-heated Christmas meals under tinsel-decked trees in the heartland of the Taliban.
While large parts of Europe have been shivering in snow and sleet, the “little town” of Bethlehem has been enjoying unseasonably warm weather.
Joined for the first time by fellow worshippers from Arab countries that have no ties with Israel, Christians descended on the West Bank town which was bedecked with Christmas lights and inflatable Santas at every corner.
Elsewhere in the Middle East however, particularly in Iraq, festivities have been muted among Christians amid death threats from Al-Qaeda.
In his midnight mass at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal, the Middle East’s senior Catholic bishop, is expected to issue a message of hope for peace, but also sound a sombre tone after the October 31 massacre of worshippers in a Baghdad church.
According to an advance copy of his address, he will offer solidarity to Iraqi Christians, who have been the target of repeated bloody attacks, including a raid on a church that killed 44 worshippers and two priests.
At least 90,000 people are expected to flood the city for the celebrations, according to Palestinian Authority figures.
“It’s amazing. To be in the birthplace of Christ on Christmas, you can’t get better than that,” said 22-year-old Canadian Brady MacCarl.
Pope Benedict XVI, who has also voiced his fears for Christians living in the Middle East, will preside over midnight mass at The Vatican.
In a message recorded for BBC radio, Benedict said that he prayed for the sick and elderly and “those who are going through any form of hardship”.
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II meanwhile will use her Christmas Day message to emphasise the importance of sport as a way of building communities and creating harmony, 19 months ahead of the London Olympics, according to advance excerpts.
The sense of Christmas cheer was being sorely tested in parts of Europe where freezing temperatures have caused transport chaos.
Thousands of travellers were stranded at Paris’s main airport as icy conditions forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights. Transport Minister Thierry Mariani warned many would probably see in Christmas in the departure lounges.
Two thousand people had to be evacuated from one terminal because of snow accumulating on the roof.
In Britain, where blizzards last week caused widespread transport chaos, meteorologists warned of heavy snow, with temperatures forecast to plunge to as low as minus 14 Celsius overnight in central Scotland.
Train services were disrupted across large parts of the country, hitting travellers heading home for Christmas, although Heathrow airport was largely back to normal.
Two municipal swimming pool roofs collapsed under the weight of the snow, without causing any casualties, in the German city of Aachen near the Belgian and Dutch borders.
The snow did have its uses for some as police in Sassenheim in the western Netherlands, tracked down and arrested two teenagers who stole a Christmas tree from a shopping mall and dragged it in the snow on their motorbikes.
Those forced to spend their Christmas away from their families did their best to create a semblance of festive spirit.
US marines at Patrol Base Talibjan, in the southern Afghan province of Helmand, gathered around a plastic tree, decorated with baubles and fairy lights. The Christmas star made from snack food tubes tops the tree.
Navy chaplain Father William Kennedy said the austere environment can be a humble reminder of the Christian holiday’s true meaning.
“There’s a lot of dust and dirt out here and you take away a lot of the externals that people might have, a lot of the glitz, and it’s a good time to be very simple and to say what is Christmas about,” he said.
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