Millions of holiday homebodies got a well-deserved break from shopping malls and the ring of cash registers Saturday after the annual mad dash to Christmas.

Long post office lines and packed parking lots gave way to a relaxed time when families gather and reflect on the true meaning of the holiday, if only for a day.Just being alive was enough for Dan Stickney, 47, a father of six recovering from his second heart transplant.

"I don't think I would have made it to Christmas" without the new heart, said Stickney, who lives just outside Philadelphia. "I'm just going to enjoy my family, enjoy life and enjoy Christmas."

The essence of Christmas was evident in the Chicago area, where an anonymous donor, or donors, dropped gold coins into Salvation Army kettles.

Five gold coins turned up, worth up to $400 each.

"My theory is that it's someone who likes what the Salvation Army does and who's well enough off that they can afford to give a gift without the tax write-off," said Salvation Army Lt. Col. Gary Herndon. "And then I think (it's) a very private person, who doesn't want all the fanfare."

At the Vatican, Pope John Paul II delivered a Christmas address to more than 150,000 in St. Peter's Square, praising Middle East peace progress while lamenting continued ethnic killing in Bosnia and elsewhere.

"Only mutual respect and fraternal acceptance can overcome hatred and hostility," he said in a broadcast heard in more than 40 nations. The pope offered Christmas greetings in 53 languages.

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Full-fledged Christmas celebrations returned to Bethlehem for the first time since the Palestinian uprising began six years ago.

The peal of bells rang off the stone walls of the 1,600-year-old Church of Nativity and Manger Square. Pilgrims formed a procession to a grotto where the faithful believe Jesus was born.

"It's a great feeling celebrating Christmas in the town of Jesus," said Todd Johnson, an insurance agent from Chicago. "I can't wait until all my friends hear about it."

It was a white Christmas for much of the East, with snow falling in parts of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky, New York and Ohio.

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