BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) - 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.
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 early evening, the Israeli military, which controls movement in and out of town, said some 55,000 visitors, including foreigners and Arab Christians from Israel, had reached Bethlehem. Palestinian officials in Bethlehem said that with local tourists included, overall turnout was 120,000 - about 30 percent higher than last year. The number was expected to rise throughout the evening.
"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."
By 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 were to culminate with Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.
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.
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.
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 during a wave of assaults in the last decade.
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.
"There are lots of people around but not many tourists," said Johnny Giacaman, a disappointed 37-year-old souvenir vendor. "Last year I was here and it was definitely a lot busier."
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.
In all, Israel's Tourism Ministry said it expects 90,000 tourists to visit the Holy Land during the holiday season, which stretches through Orthodox Christmas in early January. Ministry spokeswoman Lydia Weitzman said that number is on par with last year's record-breaking tally, but was surprisingly high considering the turmoil in the Arab world and the U.S. and European economic downturns.
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.
Benedict will celebrate the Mass, and then after a few hours rest will deliver 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.
"Let's take a moment to give thanks for their service; for their families' service; for our veterans' service," the president said Saturday. "And let's say a prayer for all our troops standing post all over the world, especially our brave men and women in Afghanistan who are serving, even as we speak, in harm's way to protect the freedoms and security we hold dear."
The president noted that with the Iraq war over, the last troops from that conflict are home for the holidays.