VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Exchanging Christmas gifts and organizing holiday parties are all well and good, but Christians should contemplate the scene of Jesus’ birth to recover what is truly important during the Christmas season, Pope Francis said.

At his weekly general audience Dec. 20, just five days before Christmas, the pope told people that “the risk of losing what matters in life is great, and paradoxically increases at Christmas.”

A Nativity scene donated by the Catholic University of St. Teresa of Avila in Spain is on display as part of the “100 Nativity Scenes at the Vatican” exhibit under the colonnade in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Dec. 20, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

“The atmosphere of Christmas is changing,” he said. “It’s true, if people want to give presents, that’s good, but with the frenzy of shopping, ‘go, go, go,’ this pulls one’s attention somewhere else, and there is not that simplicity of Christmas.”

For people caught up in the holiday rush, “there is no interior space for wonder” before the mystery of Jesus’ birth, but “only to organize parties,” he said.

Organizing parties is fine, “but with what spirit do I do that?” he encouraged people to ask.

After a band performed Christmas songs using traditional wooden instruments, Pope Francis entered the Paul VI Audience Hall using a cane. He read most of his lengthy catechesis, often departing from his prepared text to speak off-the-cuff and only occasionally pausing to catch his breath.

Recalling the first Nativity scene — a live one — staged by St. Francis of Assisi 800 years ago in Greccio, Italy, the pope said that the Nativity scenes being prepared by Christians around the world should provoke a sense of amazement in the humility of a God who became human.

“If we Christians look at the Nativity as something nice, something historic, even religious, and pray, that is not enough,” he said. “Before the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word, before the birth of Jesus, one needs a religious attitude of wonder. If I, before the mysteries, don’t arrive at this wonder, my faith is simply superficial.”

The Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican this year is a recreation of St. Francis’ original Nativity scene and includes a figure of the saint and three other Franciscan friars, including a Franciscan priest celebrating Mass, just as one of St. Francis’ confreres did in the cave near Greccio on Christmas Eve in 1223.

St. Francis created the first Nativity scene “to bring us back to what matters: to God coming to live among us. That’s why it is important to look at the Nativity scene,” the pope said. He also highlighted how the many figures often included in Nativity scenes — Mary, St. Joseph, local herders and other figures close to Jesus — convey how God puts “people before things.”

“So often we put things before people; this doesn’t work,” the pope said.

Nativity scenes also depict great joy, he said, but that “is different than having fun.”

“Having fun is not a bad thing if it is done in the right way, it’s something human,” he said, “but joy is even more profound, more human, and sometimes there is the temptation to have fun without joy.”

The pope read an account of those who attended the first Nativity scene in Greccio and “returned home with an ineffable joy.” Such joy, he said, did not come from bringing home gifts or attending lavish parties, “no, it was the joy that overflows from the heart when one touches the closeness of Jesus, the tenderness of God who does not leave one alone but consoles them.”

“If before the Nativity scene we entrust to Jesus all that we have in our hearts, we too will feel a great joy,” he said, encouraging people to go to a Nativity scene, “look, and let yourself feel something in your heart.”

Pope Francis ended his audience by asking people not to forget those who suffer because of war, particularly those in Palestine, Israel and Ukraine.

“Let us think of the children in war, the things they see; let us go to the Nativity scene and ask Jesus for peace,” the pope said. “He is the prince of peace.”