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By AP

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Updated: Wed, 25 Dec 2013 02:15:32 EST

VATICAN-CHRISTMAS EVE

UPDATE: First Christmas for Pope Francis

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis is marking his first Christmas as leader of the Catholic church.

He celebrated Christmas Eve Mass Tuesday night in St. Peter's Basilica.

And at noon Wednesday he'll deliver the traditional Christmas Day message.

Tens of thousands of people are expected to gather in St. Peter's Square for his speech and blessing delivered from the central balcony of the basilica.

CHRISTMAS-COLD AND DARK

UPDATE: Holiday power outages

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) —About a half million utility customers from Main to Michigan and into Canada are spending Christmas without electricity.

They lost power during a weekend ice storm and repair crews are working around the clock.

The National Weather Service says more snow is expected to roll into the Great Lakes and Midwest by Wednesday morning.

SOUTH SUDAN-VIOLENCE

NEW: Ready for peace talks?

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — The leader of South Sudan's rebels is telling Secretary of State John Kerry that he's ready for talks with the country's president, after days of violence that threaten to turn into a civil war.

Rebels loyal to South Sudan's former vice president are in control of a town where at least 34 bodies have been found in mass graves.

GAY MARRIAGE-UTAH

UPDATE: Utah will continue to fight gay marriage

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A spokesman says Utah Attorney General's Office is prepared to go to the U.S. Supreme Court to stop same-sex marriages in the state.

A federal appeals court ruled today that gay marriages can continue in Utah, but the case is now on the fast track.

A lower court judge had ruled that Utah's voter-approved ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional, and he rejected a state request to halt same-sex marriages while the case is appealed.

THAILAND-POLITICS

Thai prime minister proposes reform council

BANGKOK (AP) — The Thai prime minister has proposed the formation of a national reform council to find solutions to the political turmoil that is splitting the country and paralyzing governance.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's (SHIN'-uh-wahz) announcement Wednesday means she can portray herself as being committed to reconciliation in the face of a protest movement seeking to topple her government via civil disobedience and vowing to disrupt elections on Feb. 2.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has already indicated he would not accept the idea of a reform council as a way out of the crisis.

Yingluck said the council would not be a government body, and its membership would be appointed by an independent commission.

It would be tasked with amending the constitution and addressing corruption, money politics and ensuring electoral reform.

Stations: Note sensitive nature of following story.

CHINA-FATHER JAILED

China jails dad who tried to kill kid with needles

BEIJING (AP) — A court in northeastern China has sentenced a man to 10 years in prison for trying to kill his baby daughter by inserting sewing needles into her body.

The official Xinhua (shihn-wah) News Agency reports that a court has found the man guilty of trying to murder his 2-month-old daughter in August.

Xinhua says the court found that the man wanted to kill the child because he believed that she was not his daughter. He first inserted one needle into the baby's ribcage on Aug. 4, which was surgically removed the next day.

But later he inserted three more needles in the child's chest, navel and stomach. The needles were removed in an operation but had already caused respiratory failure and injuries to the baby's organs.

Stations: Note sensitive nature of above story.

TONSILLECTOMY-BRAIN DEAD GIRL

Judge: Calif. teen can be taken off life support

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — A California judge says a girl declared brain dead following complications from a tonsillectomy can be taken off life support.

But the judge is giving the family of 13-year-old Jahi (juh-HY') McMath until Dec. 30 to file an appeal.

Until then the girl will stay on life support at Children's Hospital of Oakland. The family says there's still time for a miracle.

US-OBAMA-CHRISTMAS

Michelle Obama helps kids track Santa by phone

HONOLULU (AP) — A handful of kids calling to pinpoint Santa's progress on his Christmas Eve journey may have been surprised to hear Michelle Obama's voice on the other end of the line.

The first lady is vacationing with President Barack Obama and their daughters in Hawaii, but spent about a half-hour Tuesday manning the phones for the North American Aerospace Defense Command. The agency's NORAD Tracks Santa program takes calls each Christmas from children wanting to ensure their presents are on track for timely delivery.

Around the time Mrs. Obama was taking calls, NORAD's tracker showed Santa and his reindeer making their way through Europe.

It's the fourth year the first lady has taken part in the tradition.

Children can track Santa by phone, Twitter, Facebook or email.

POSTAL RATES

First-class stamps to cost 49 cents as of Jan. 26

WASHINGTON (AP) — It's about to cost close to 50 cents to mail a letter.

Regulators have approved a temporary price hike of 3 cents for a first-class stamp, bringing the cost of mailing a letter to 49 cents, beginning Jan. 26.

The Postal Service hopes the higher rate will help it recoup about $2.8 billion in losses.

The price hike is to last no more than two years.

HEALTH OVERHAUL

More Americans use website, phone on health care deadline

CHICAGO (AP) — The White House says traffic on the health care website has been high, but not as heavy as Monday -- when there were two million visits. That was the highest one-day total since the website went into operation.

Officials say error rates have been lower than one in 200, and pages loaded quickly, in less than a half-second.

Monday was supposed to be the last day for people to sign up for health care coverage in order to be covered on the first of the year. But the deadline was extended until midnight Tuesday.

For a multitude of reasons -- including technical difficulties with the site or trouble understanding the instructions -- thousands of people have been seeking telephone help, and wound up waiting on hold at the government's call center.

A Utah man said he and his wife, both students, had been trying for weeks to complete their application on the federal site, but were thwarted by computer error messages each time. They reached a call center counselor who succeeded in enrolling them. The "silver" plan they chose will cost them $241 a month, after a tax credit.

Officials say more than 110,000 people had called the government's help line by this afternoon, with wait times averaging 27 minutes.

SPITZER'S MARRIAGE

Scandal-scarred ex-NY Gov. Spitzer's marriage over

NEW YORK (AP) — A former New York governor who quit in a prostitution scandal says his marriage of more than two decades is over.

Eliot Spitzer and wife Silda Wall Spitzer made the announcement Tuesday. They say in a statement they regret that their marital relationship has come to an end.

The Spitzers married in 1987 and have three grown children but have been living apart for months.

She supported his rise from state attorney general to governor. She stood by his side in 2008 when he resigned after admitting he paid for sex with prostitutes.

He attempted a political comeback this year by running for New York City comptroller but lost in the Democratic primary.

OBIT-LAWSON

Drummer Ricky Lawson, 59, dies after aneurism

LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Studio drummer Ricky Lawson, who collaborated with Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Whitney Houston and other artists, has died at a California hospital after suffering a brain aneurism earlier this month. He was 59.

Lawson became disoriented Dec. 13 during a show in Seal Beach, Calif., and was diagnosed with an aneurism.

Uncle Paul Riser says his nephew was removed from life support after 10 days and died Monday evening.

Lawson was being treated at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center.

The Detroit native jumped into the music business even before graduating from Cooley High School, and he became one of the nation's top studio musicians in the 1980s.

His work appears on Houston's version of "I Will Always Love You."

STOCKING BABIES

NEW: Hospital wraps newborns in Christmas stockings

REDLANDS, Calif. (AP) — Look, there's something amazing in your Christmas stocking!

Hospitals in Southern California are spreading the holiday cheer to new parents by delivering their newborns in giant Christmas stockings. It's a half-century-old tradition.

The Long Beach Press-Telegram reports the bright red stockings were handed out this week at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, and all this month at the Redlands Community Hospital.

DANGLING MANNEQUIN

Ga. Christmas display prompts emergency response

BERKELEY LAKE, Ga. (AP) — A homeowner near Atlanta hopes he didn't offend anyone by his Christmas display. It includes a mannequin with outstretched arms entangled in a string of Christmas lights and clinging to a ledge, and it prompted an emergency response to his house.

Bubba Murphy Lake tells WSB-TV that someone passing the house in Berkeley Lake with their children thought the display looked so realistic that that person called 911. He says fire officials told him to take the display down — at least temporarily. The display also had a ladder toppled over in the front yard.

Murphy says homeowners in his Cobb County neighborhood go all out with their Christmas displays every year.

Berkeley Lake is about 22 miles northeast of downtown Atlanta.

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