The Christmas tree and Nativity scene are symbols of God’s love and hope, reminding us to cont­em­plate the beauty of creation and welcome the marginalised, Pope Francis has said.

Baby Jesus, whose parents could find no decent shelter and had to flee persecution, is a reminder of the “painful experience” of so many migrants today, he said last Friday, just before the Vatican Christmas tree was lit and its Nativity scene unveiled.

Nativity scenes everywhere were “an invitation to make room in our life and society for God – hidden in the gaze of so many people” who were living in need, poverty or suffering, he told those donating the tree and Nativity scene for St Peter’s Square.

The northern Italian province of Trent donated the 82ft-tall spruce fir, adorned with ceramic ornaments handmade by children receiving medical treatment at several Italian hospitals. The 55ft-wide Nativity scene was donat­ed by the gov­ern­ment and Archdiocese of Malta. It features 17 figures dressed in traditional Maltese attire and a replica of a Maltese boat to represent the seafaring traditions of the island.

The boat also represents “the sad and tragic reality of migrants on boats headed towards Italy,” the Pope said in his speech in the Vatican’s Paul VI hall. “In the painful experience of these brothers and sisters, we revisit that [experience] of baby Jesus, who at the time of his birth did not find accommodation and was born in a grotto in Bethlehem and then was brought to Egypt to escape Herod’s threat.”

The symbolic value of the Nativity scene is “a message of fraternity, sharing, welcoming and solidarity”, the Pope said.

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