(Photo: MUSA AL-SHAER, AFP/Getty Images)
BETHLEHEM, West Bank - If there is a heart of the Christmas celebration, it's here.
Thousands have gathered in the cradle of Christianity on the site where Jesus is believed to have been born - the West Bank city of Bethlehem. They're here to kick off Christmas celebrations.
Tourists, Christian pilgrims and residents packed Manger Square to watch choral groups, performers, clowns, giant Santas and marching bands from across the West Bank. Children wearing Santa outfits and Christmas-themed costumes held balloons as they crowded outside the Church of Nativity to see the arrival of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal.
Palestinian police snipers flanked the rooftops, and police heavily guarded the crowd as Twal arrived.
The erection of Israel's separation barrier with the West Bank, a high concrete wall around the town, did not stop the procession today, which began in south Jerusalem at Mar Elias Monastery.
Three gates in the concrete wall were opened for Christmas to allow the procession from Jerusalem to enter Bethlehem. Twal was welcomed by Mayor of Bethlehem Vera Baboun.
Twal gave a message spreading peace and love to all the nations of the world. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh arrived later on Christmas Eve to participate in the celebrations and attend the annual midnight mass.
Among the spectators was Angela Freeland from Seattle, who said that as a Christian, visiting Bethlehem has long been a priority for her.
Elisabeth von Trapp performed on stage at Manger Square. The Sound of Music film was based on her father and grandfather.
"I've been reacquainting myself all these years later - I wanted to reawaken those memories," said von Trapp, a Vermont native. "I've been wishing to come back in the last five years. I would like to see Palestinians develop in a courageous and confident way. I think what's hard is to put aside grievances, but the heart is resilient."
Her husband, Edward Hall, said he saw Bethlehem as a thriving place despite its struggles over the past 10 years.
"I've enjoyed meeting Palestinians who are so gracious, hospitable and funny despite all the hardships," Hall said. "It's a thriving, vibrant place, I wasn't prepared for the wall or the expanse since I was here 40 years ago."