Video: Christmas in Jesus’ birthplace

Photos: Christmas Eve around the world

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  1. Don Ward, dressed as Santa Claus, drives down Colley Avenue in Norfolk, Va., on Saturday, Dec. 24, in his 1958 Corvette. Ward says that for the past 16 or 17 years he has spent all of Christmas Eve day driving around the neighborhoods of Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, waving to people. (Steve Earley / The Virginian-Pilot via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Iraqi Christians attend a Christmas Eve mass at a Chaldean Catholic church in Amman.Thousands of Iraqi Christians fled to neighboring Jordan following a spate of bombings that targeted churches in Iraqi cities in the past few years. (Ali Jarekji / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A beachgoer poses with a lifeguard in front of a Christmas tree at Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia, on Sunday, Christmas Day. (Rob Griffith / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Children sing Christmas songs for customers at a shopping center on Christmas Eve in Beijing, China. Though Christmas is not officially celebrated in China, the holiday is becoming increasingly popular as Chinese adopt more Western ideas and festivals. (Feng Li / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Visitors to New York's Herald Square are seen reflected in the Macy's Christmas windows on Dec. 24. (Mary Altaffer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Fans dressed as Santa Claus cheer during the Christmas Eve game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the St. Louis Rams at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. (Jared Wickerham / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. People crowd a square near a shopping district for the Christmas Eve celebration in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Choir boys sing during a Christmas Eve choral service at St Paul's Cathedral in London. (Finbarr O'reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Pope Benedict XVI lights a candle in his private window at the end of the unveiling ceremony of the crib in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Dec. 24. Benedict will celebrate Christmas Mass at St. Peter's Basilica to mark the nativity of Jesus Christ. (Andreas Solaro / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Faithful gather in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican after the unveiling of the nativity scene Dec. 24. (Andrew Medichini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Iraqi Christians gather around a fire as they celebrate Christmas in a church in Hamdaniya town, east of Mosul, Iraq, Dec. 24. (Stringer/iraq / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Iraqi Christians attend Mass at the Virgin Mary Chaldean Christian Church in Baghdad on Dec. 24. Iraq's Christians, markedly fewer in number following attacks on their minority community, are increasingly fearful in the face of a rise in sectarian tensions after the withdrawal of U.S. troops. (Sabah Arar / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Indonesian Christians hold candles during a Christmas Eve Mass at the Bethany Church in Surabaya city, in East Java province, Dec. 24. (Juni Kriswanto / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Pakistani Christians look at decorations during Christmas celebrations in Islamabad Dec. 24. Pakistan deployed snipers and hundreds of extra police at churches this Christmas to prevent possible attacks on the Christian minority. (Farooq Naeem / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Christian visitors gather inside the Church of the Nativity, the site revered as the traditional birthplace of Jesus, on Christmas Eve in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. (Fadi Arouri / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Two Palestinian Muslim women pose for a snapshot in front of a nativity scene inside the Church of Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Dec. 24. (Bernat Armangue / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A worshipper prays in the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem Dec. 24. (Oliver Weiken / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Artists dressed in Santa Claus costumes stand near a sand sculpture of Santa Claus they created as part of Christmas celebrations on a beach in Puri, in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, Dec. 24. (Stringer/india / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A group of girls enjoy Christmas Eve on an illuminated street in Kolkata, India, Dec. 24. Christmas Day is observed as a national holiday in India. (Bikas Das / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Indonesian Christians hold candles as they pray on Christmas Eve at the Gelora Bung Karno stadium in Jakarta, Dec. 24. (Beawiharta / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Aboriginal members of Broome's community open presents at One Mile Community on Dec. 24, in Broome, Australia. The Broome Police & Community Centers organize a present drop each year to bring festive spirit to the indigenous residents of Broome. (Ingetje Tadros / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Two Pakistani girls stand in front of a wall decorated with paintings for the Christmas holiday in a Christian neighborhood in Islamabad, Pakistan, Dec. 24. (Nathalie Bardou / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A Syrian Greek Orthodox nun prays at the Virgin Mary monastery in Sidnaia, north of Damascus, on Dec. 23. Nine months of unrest in Syria have stripped Christian neighborhoods of any sign of Christmas joy. Syrian Christians have decided to cancel celebrations and observe only Christmas Mass. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. People dressed up as Father Frost (the equivalent of Santa Claus), Snow Maiden and other costumes from old tales march in central Minsk, Belarus, in celebration of Christmas on Dec. 24. (Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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updated 12/24/2011 7:15:35 PM ET 2011-12-25T00:15:35

Tens of thousands of tourists and Christian pilgrims packed the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations Saturday, bringing warm holiday cheer to the traditional birthplace of Jesus on a raw, breezy and rainy night.

With turnout at its highest in more than a decade, proud Palestinian officials said they were praying the celebrations would bring them closer to their dream of independence.

Meanwhile, Christmas celebrations began to take place around the globe, with Pope Benedict XVI celebrating Christmas Eve Mass two hours before midnight at Vatican City and urging the faithful to look beyond the commercialization of the holiday and discover its true meaning.

"Let us ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season, and to discover behind it the child in the stable in Bethlehem, so as to find true joy and true light," Benedict told congregants in a packed St. Peter's Basilica.

Bethlehem, like the rest of the West Bank, fell onto hard times after the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation broke out in late 2000. As the fighting has subsided in recent years, the tourists have returned in large numbers and all of the city's hotels were fully booked.

By late night, the Israeli military, which controls movement in and out of town, said some 100,000 visitors, including foreigners and Arab Christians from Israel, had reached Bethlehem, up from 70,000 the previous year.

Story: Pope laments Christmas consumerism

Thousands of Palestinians from inside West Bank also converged on the town.

"It's wonderful to be where Jesus was born," said Irma Goldsmith, 68, of Suffolk, Virginia. "I watch Christmas in Bethlehem each year on TV, but to be here in person is different. To be in the spot where our savior was born is amazing."

After nightfall, a packed Manger Square, along with a 50-foot-tall (15-meter-tall) Christmas tree, was awash in Christmas lights, and the town took on a festival-like atmosphere.

Vendors hawked balloons and corn on the cob, and bands played Christmas songs and tourists packed cafes that are sleepy the rest of the year. As rain began falling in the early evening, many people cleared out of the square and raced to nearby restaurants.

Festivities culminated with Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.

Slideshow: Christmas Eve (on this page)

Among the visitors were a surprisingly large number of veiled Muslim women with their families, out to enjoy an evening out in what is normally a quiet town.

"We love to share this holiday with our Christian brothers," said Amal Ayash, 46, who came to Manger Square with her three daughters, all of them covered in veils. "It is a Palestinian holiday and we love to come here and watch."

Israel turned Bethlehem over to Palestinian civil control a few days before Christmas in 1995, and since then, residents have been celebrating the holiday regardless of their religion.

Pilgrims from around the world also wandered the streets, singing Christmas carols and visiting churches.

"It's a real treat to come here," said John Houston, 58, a restaurant owner from Long Beach, California. "It makes me feel really good to see what I have been learning from the time I was a kid in Sunday school until today."

Houston said he was surprised by Bethlehem's appearance, which is a far cry from the pastoral village of biblical times. Today, it is a sprawling town of cement apartment blocs and narrow streets that combined with several surrounding communities has a population of some 50,000 people.

Located on the southeastern outskirts of Jerusalem, Bethlehem is surrounded on three sides by a barrier Israel built to stop Palestinian militants from attacking last decade.

Image: Christian pilgrim waits in line to go inside the Grotto, at the Church of Nativity.
Bernat Armangue  /  AP
A Christian pilgrim lines up to go inside the Grotto, at the Church of Nativity, believed by many to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Saturday

Palestinians say the barrier has damaged their economy by constricting movement in and out of town. Twenty-two percent of Bethlehem residents are unemployed, the Palestinian Authority says. Israeli settlements surrounding Bethlehem have added to the sense of confinement.

The Christmas season is essential for Bethlehem's economy, which depends heavily on tourism.

Most visitors entering Bethlehem, including the top Roman Catholic official in the Holy Land, had to cross through an Israeli-controlled checkpoint to reach town.

"We ask the child of Bethlehem to give us the peace we are in desperate need for, peace in the Middle East, peace in the Holy Land, peace in the heart and in our families," Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal said as he crossed through a massive metal gate in the barrier in a traditional midday procession from Jerusalem. Later, he went to the Church of the Nativity to celebrate Midnight Mass.

Israel allowed about 550 Christians from Gaza to cross Israel and enter Bethlehem. Israel rarely allows Gazans to enter.

The Palestinians have subtly tried to draw attention to their plight with this year's Christmas slogan, "Palestine celebrating hope," a veiled reference to their bid to win U.N. recognition. With peace talks at a standstill, the Palestinians are seeking membership as a state in the United Nations and recently gained admission to UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency.

"We are celebrating this Christmas hoping that in the near future we'll get our right to self-determination, our right to establish our own democratic, secular Palestinian state on the Palestinian land. That is why this Christmas is unique," said Mayor Victor Batarseh, who is Christian.

Late Saturday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told a meeting of Christian leaders that he is committed to reaching peace with Israel, despite a three-year standstill in negotiations.

"I hope they will come back to their senses and understand that we are seekers of peace, not seekers of war or terrorism," said Abbas, a Muslim. "The mosque, church and synagogue stand side by side in this Holy Land."

Today, only about one-third of Bethlehem's residents are Christian, reflecting a broader exodus of Christians from the Middle East in recent decades. Overall, just 60,000 Christians live in the Palestinian territories, making up less than 2 percent of the population, according to Palestinian officials.

As Christians throughout the world prepared to celebrate, Pope Benedict XVI was beginning a busy two weeks of celebrations at the Vatican with an evening Mass in St. Peter's Basilica. Midnight Mass was moved up to 10 p.m. a few years ago to spare the 84-year-old pontiff such a late night.

After the Mass, Benedict will have a few hours rest before delivering his traditional "Urbi et Orbi" speech — Latin for "to the city and the world," where the pope usually reflects on the hardships facing the world, and ends with Christmas greetings delivered in dozens of languages.
President Barack Obama was spending the holiday with his family in Hawaii. In his weekly radio and Internet address, Obama wished all Americans a merry Christmas and happy holidays, with a special message of thanks to U.S. troops, especially those serving in Afghanistan.

"Let's take a moment to give thanks for their service; for their families' service; for our veterans' service," the president said Saturday. Obama noted that with the Iraq war over, the last troops from that conflict are home for the holidays.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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