Pope John Paul II broke Vatican tradition by walking to the towering main altar of St. Peter's Basilica to officiate at his first Christmas mass since becoming pontiff 2 1/2 month ago.

As he strode briskly to the altar to the strains of a tradional Christmas hymn sung by the all male Sistine Chapel choir and a choir of nuns, he waved to the 12,000 strong congregation attedning the traditional midnight mass and was cheered repeatedly.

Until now, popes have been carried in a portable throne to the main altar, where only pontiffs are allowed to celebrate mass.

The 58-year-old Polish born leader of the world's 700 million Roman Catholics made a new plea in his homily, delivered in Italian, for victims of political and religious oppresion.

Christman, he said is a time to think of those unable to excercise their rights and practice their religion.

It was also a time to remember the old, the sick, the homeless, the hungry, "and thouse whose misery is the result of the exploitation and injustice of economic systems."

The mass was broadcast into millions of homes on a television hookup to 3k countries, including the United States. Neither Poland nor any other country in Eastern Europe was on the hookup - in contrast to the live beaming in October of John Paul's installation.

Although the pope did no say so, Vatican officials have said he is homesick for his native Poland, especially the city of Krakow where he was archbishop unitl he was chosen to head the church. To lighten his momesickness, church sources said Vatican cooks prepared a special Polish Christmas Eve dinner of borscht, white cabbage, roast pork, Polish sausage and plum pudding.

In Christ's traditional birthplace, Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, colorful parades, with brass and pipe bands, enlivened Christmas Eve - but there were constant reminders that peace and goodwill to don yet regin supreme in the Holy Land.

Israeli military helicopters hovered overhead and paratroops watched from rooftops as the traditional procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem's Manger Square was held.

Hundreeds of troops and police sealed off the ancient town and admitted only residents and tourists - an estimated 40,000 were expected - in an attempt to prevent any repetition of a grenade explosion last year in Mager Square just before midnight mass began.

In Peking, a few Chines joined several hundred foreighers in a Catholic church at an old-style Latin mass celebrating Christmas. Christmas is not observed by most of China's 900 million people, a quarter of mankind.

In the Soviet Union, another country that does not officially celebrate Christmas, only a handful of Catholics and Protestants were observing the religious traditions of Dec. 25. Most Soviet Christians belong to the Russian Orthdox Chruch and delay their celebrations until January.