Thousands of pilgrims and tourists from around the world together with local Christians gathered in the biblical town of Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas eve in the traditional birthplace of Jesus, with spirits lifted by a slowdown in recent violence and cool, clear weather.
Security was tight in Bethlehem after recent deadly attacks on Christian targets in neighboring Egypt and Jordan by Islamic extremists.
Yet the faithful braved the chilly weather outside the town's Manger Square as traditional Christmas songs like "Jingle Bells" played in Arabic over loudspeakers and scout groups paraded with bagpipes and sang carols. Elated tourists and local Christians alike wandered around the square illuminated by festive red and golden lights and a large Christmas tree, visiting souvenir shops and restaurants.
Adding to the holiday spirit for the Palestinians, locals celebrated a key diplomatic victory at the United Nations the day before, where the Security Council passed a resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Sharolyn Knight, a 28-year-old teacher from Georgia, said she was in Bethlehem for the first time and experiencing mixed emotions. "It's been sobering and humbling because it's a place with a lot of heavy stuff, religious and historical. At the same time, disillusioning because there is so much strife in the place where Jesus was born."
She said she would come back again, maybe next time with her kids.
"It's very unique, I've never seen anything like it," said Rodrigo Reis, 23, who came from Louisville, Kentucky, "It's very meaningful, its Christmas time, where everything started."
Christian clergymen welcomed the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land inside the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus Christ, as Christians worldwide begin to prepare to celebrate Christmas this year.