Biblical city of Bethlehem boasts largest Christmas in years
BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Pilgrims from around the world flocked to Bethlehem on Monday for what was believed to be the biblical West Bank city’s largest Christmas celebrations in years.
Hundreds of locals and foreign visitors milled in Manger Square as bagpipe-playing Palestinian Scouts paraded past a giant Christmas tree.
Crowds flooded the Church of the Nativity, venerated as the traditional site of Jesus’s birth, and waited to descend into the ancient grotto.
Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maaya said all Bethlehem hotels were fully booked, and the city was preparing to host an “astounding” 10,000 tourists overnight.
“We haven’t seen numbers like this in years,” she said, adding that the 3 million visitors to Bethlehem this year exceeded last year’s count by hundreds of thousands.
Solemn-faced nuns and enthused tourists crossed themselves and bowed over their rosaries as they entered the church, the air thick with incense.
Linda Selbmann, 24, of Chemnitz, Germany, said she had long dreamed of celebrating Christmas in Bethlehem.
“It’s wild to be in the place it all began,” she said, sipping Turkish coffee in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary cradling the infant Jesus.
The Christmas festivities traditionally bring a boost of holiday cheer to Christians in the Holy Land, whose numbers have shrunk over the decades and makeup just a small percentage of the local population.