This aerial view shows members of the scouting movement marching during Christmas eve celebrations at the Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank on Christmas eve on December 24, 2022. AFP
Tourism is the economic lifeblood of this town in the occupied West Bank, and for the past two years, the pandemic kept international visitors away.
This year, visitors are back, hotels are full and shopkeepers have reported a brisk business in the runup to the holiday. Although the numbers have not reached pre-pandemic levels, the return of tourists has palpably raised spirits in Bethlehem.
"We are celebrating Christmas this year in a very much different way than last year,'' Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maayah said. "We're celebrating Christmas with pilgrims coming from all over the world.''
Throughout the day, hundreds of people strolled through Manger Square for Christmas Eve celebrations. Marching bands pounding on drums and playing bagpipes paraded through the area, and foreign tourists meandered about and snapped selfies with the town's large Christmas tree behind them.
Cool gray weather, along with an occasional rain shower, did little to dampen spirits, though many people headed indoors to shops and restaurants to warm up. By nightfall, the crowds had thinned.
Daisy Lucas, a 38-year-old Filipina who works in Israel, said it was a dream come true to mark the holiday in such an important place.
"As a Christian walking in the places in the Bible, it's so overwhelming," she said. "This is the birthplace of Jesus Christ. As a Christian, that's one achievement that's on my bucket list.''
Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, arrived from Jerusalem through a checkpoint in Israel's West Bank separation barrier.
"We are living in very difficult challenges,'' he said, noting the war in Ukraine and a recent wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence. "But the message of Christmas is a message of peace."
"It's possible to change things,'' he added. "We will be very clear in what we have to do and what we have to say in order to preserve the importance of unity and reconciliation among all.''
Pizzaballa walked through Manger Square, waving to well-wishers before heading to the Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born.
Later, he was to celebrate Midnight Mass.