Pope John Paul II got his own Christmas tree Wednesday, hand delivered from his native Poland by a group of mountaineers from the Tatra mountains.
The group, dressed in traditional colorful sheepskin coats and felt hats, played and sang mountain songs for the pontiff during his general audience in St. Peter's Square.
"Your presence makes me very happy. As I look at you, many fond memories come to mind," the pope, speaking in Polish, told the group.
As a young priest and then bishop and cardinal, John Paul hiked and skied in the mountains not far from his native Wadowice.
Each year during John Paul's 22-year pontificate, the mountaineers have brought a Christmas tree which is then decorated and set up in the Pope's private quarters. This year the group brought 30 small trees, one for John Paul and the others to decorate the various rooms of the papal apartments.
"Thank you for the trees, and for your touching songs, and for remembering the pope so faithfully," the pope said.
After his election in 1978, Pope John Paul started the tradition of erecting a tall tree and Nativity scene in St. Peter's Square, until then devoid of any visible sign of Christmas. It has since become a seasonal reference point as important to Romans as the tree in Rockefeller Plaza is to New Yorkers.
Each year the tree is a gift to the Vatican from a different part of Europe.
This year's tree will come from the Austrian region of Carinthia and will be accompanied to Rome on Dec. 16 by Austria's right-wing political leader Joerg Haider, who is also expected to meet with the Pope. Haider is governor of Carinthia.
The Israeli government and other groups have condemned Haider's planned visit. Haider has been criticized for past remarks sympathetic toward aspects of Hitler's Nazi regime.
The Vatican has not responded to criticism over the visit.
©2000 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
© 2000 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.