Pope Benedict prayed for peace on Friday as he led the world's Roman Catholics into Christmas [Reuters]

Pope Benedict XVI has ushered in Christmas with an evening Mass at the Vatican amid heightened security, as Christians around the world began to mark the holiday. 

The Christmas Eve ceremony on Friday in Vatican City followed package bombings at two embassies in the Italian capital, Rome, a day earlier.

The mass also came in the wake of Christmas Eve security breaches at the Vatican the previous two years.

But this year's service proceeded without incident, as Benedict marched down the central aisle of St Peter's Basilica to begin what is known as Midnight Mass. With his normal phalanx of bodyguards on either side, he stopped several times to bless babies held up to him from the pews.

During the same service in 2008 and 2009, a mentally disturbed woman lunged at the pope as he proceeded down the aisle. Last year she managed to pull him to the ground.

In his homily on Friday, Benedict recalled the birth of Jesus, which is commemorated on Christmas, and prayed that the faithful would become more like Christ.

"Help us to recognise your face in others who need our assistance, in those who are suffering or forsaken, in all people, and help us to live together with you as brothers and sisters, so as to become one family, your family," he said.

Around the world

Elsewhere, thousands of people gathered to celebrate Christmas at Manger Square in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born.

Tourists, pilgrims and clergy converged on Christianity's holiest city as boy scouts marching bands played outside the Church of the Nativity.

Candles were lit inside the church, identified by Christian tradition as the site where Jesus was born in a stable two millennia ago. 

Latin Patriarch Fouad Tawal, the archbishop of Jerusalem and the Catholic Church's top clergyman in the Holy Land, conducted mass at midnight local time.

Officials said the turnout shaped up to be the largest since 2000.

Meanwhile in China, hundreds of people crammed a historic Beijing cathedral on Friday to observe a Christmas Eve Mass.

And international troops in Afghanistan celebrated Christmas Eve in the capital, Kabul with intimate religious services, Christmas carols and a special meal.

Source: Agencies