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Around the World, Celebrations of Christmas

December 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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This Christmas day brought all the traditional festivities and religious observances, but it was also marked by questions about the pope's safety and a harsh winter storm in the Midwest. Jeffrey Brown reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: This Christmas Day brought all the traditional festivities and religious observances, but it was also marked by questions about the pope’s security and by misery in the American Midwest.

WOMAN: Help!

MAN: We need some help!

JEFFREY BROWN: For many people in the nation’s midsection, there was no way to be home for Christmas. A massive winter storm kept piling up snow and ice that closed down airports and made highways impassable.

WOMAN: At some point, you reach a breaking point, and you just want to see your family.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oklahoma declared a state of emergency, and scores of families had to abandon cars and take refuge in churches. Entire towns in Iowa had no electricity.

Halfway around the world, the issue wasn’t weather, but distance. American soldiers in Afghanistan sang carols and ate a hearty Christmas lunch. Some even dressed for the occasion.

STAFF SGT. ELTON GILL, U.S. Army National Guard: I miss my family tremendously, but, if you look around at everyone that wears one of these uniforms, regardless if it’s Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine, we’re all family. And I’m here to, hopefully, you know, make it a little easier for them being away from their family.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, for one American in Afghanistan, it was a Christmas in captivity. The Taliban released video of Army Private Bowe Bergdahl, captured five months ago. He said he had been treated well, but he said of the war, “This is just going to be the next Vietnam.”

Such statements are generally assumed to be made under duress. And NATO forces in Afghanistan condemned the video’s timing and content. President Obama addressed U.S. troops abroad as he began a holiday stay in Hawaii.

He spoke in a prerecorded message, joined by the first lady.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So, to all our men and women in uniform spending the holidays far away from home, whether it’s at a base here in the States, a mess hall in Iraq, or a remote outpost in Afghanistan, know that you are in our thoughts and in our prayers. And, this holiday season, and every holiday season, know that we are doing everything in our power to make sure you can succeed in your missions and come home safe to your families.

JEFFREY BROWN: British soldiers received a similar tribute from Queen Elizabeth in her annual Christmas speech. One hundred and six British troops died in Afghanistan this year,

QUEEN ELIZABETH II: I am sure that we have all been affected by events in Afghanistan and saddened by the casualties suffered by our forces serving there. Our thoughts go out to their relations and friends, who have shown immense dignity in the face of great personal loss.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Rome, Pope Benedict XVI also spoke of war and peace and hopes for the world in his annual Christmas blessings.

POPE BENEDICT XVI, (through translator): Today, to the human family, deeply affected by a serious moral and economic crisis and by the wounds caused by many wars and conflicts, the church repeats, in a spirit of sharing, let’s go to Bethlehem. There, we will find our hope.

JEFFREY BROWN: The pontiff didn’t mention a Christmas Eve incident in Saint Peter’s Basilica. A woman jumped a security barrier and briefly pulled the 82-year-old Benedict to the ground.

It turned out, the same woman, Susanna Maiolo, unsuccessfully tried the same thing last year. Today, a Vatican spokesman said there’s no such thing as zero risk, but he promised a security review.

FEDERICO LOMBARDI, spokesman, Vatican (through translator): I don’t think we can act much differently. We have seen that security intervened promptly once again, I think they did their job. Sometimes, you get there in time. At other times, you don’t. But it seems to me that, this time, the incident wasn’t so serious for the Holy Father, who was able, as we have seen, to recover in a couple of minutes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, the pope was unharmed, but a retired Vatican diplomat broke a hip in the scuffle.

In the meantime, religious celebrations in Bethlehem were relatively upbeat. Crowds packed the Church of the Nativity, marking the traditional birthplace of Jesus.