BETHLEHEM, Palestinian Territories // Thousands of Palestinians and tourists flocked into the West Bank city of Bethlehem yesterday to mark Christmas in the "little town" where many believe Jesus Christ was born.
This year's celebration carries special significance for many Palestinians, coming after 12 months in which their status on the world stage has been significantly upgraded.
Just last month the United Nations granted them the status of non-member observer state, and earlier this year they won their first UNESCO World Heritage Site designation – for Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.
The designation also included part of a pilgrimage route in Bethlehem, along which the traditional Christmas procession headed by the Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal marched on Monday.
Under nearly cloudless blue skies and a surprisingly warm December sun, thousands of tourists and Palestinians – Muslims and Christians alike – lined the route to welcome the procession.
Dozens of scout troupes of boys and girls from across the West Bank drumming and playing the bagpipes marched into Manger Square, where an enormous Christmas tree decorated with hundreds of red baubles stood behind a Nativity scene.
Many Palestinian Christians were dressed in their best, the women in high heels and jewellery, the men in suits, for the occasion.
The parade culminated around 1130 GMT in Manger Square, in front of the Church of the Nativity, which is built over the site where Christians believe Mary gave birth to Jesus in a cattle shed.
Taghreed Rishmawi, 20, a biology student from Bethlehem, was watching the procession with a friend.
"It's just a really happy time for us, people are happy and excited. It's particularly special this year because it comes after the UN gave us the state status," she said.
"That decision gave us hope, and we feel that the world sees us as a state now."
At midnight, Twal, the most senior Roman Catholic bishop in the Middle East, will deliver the traditional mass to the faithful, with officials including Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, prime minister Salam Fayyad and Jordan's Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh expected to be in attendance.
Last week, in his pre-Christmas press conference, Twal praised the UN decision to upgrade Palestinian status, calling it a "step towards peace and stability in the region".
"Israel can now negotiate on equal state-to-state terms for the good of all," he told reporters.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, the Palestinians have seen Israel move forward with settlement activity, including around Bethlehem.
The Palestinians say part of the new settlement activity is intended to punish them for the UN upgrade bid, which was fiercely opposed by Israel and the United States.
But Xavier Abu Eid, an advisor to the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said this year's celebration of Christmas would be particularly meaningful for Palestinians nonetheless.
"At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of the prince of hope and the prince of peace and the Palestinian people have been hoping for 64 years to achieve a just peace," he told AFP.
"After the UN vote we feel a step closer to this just peace we've been searching for," he added. "The UN vote is a turning point in our peaceful struggle for freedom and justice."
Dotted among Palestinians in Manger Square were hundreds of foreign tourists, including 58-year-old Joan Cross from Canada, on her first-ever trip to Bethlehem.
"It's just magical," she told AFP, beaming as she took photos of the procession.
"I've waited 20 years to come as a Christian pilgrim. My mum and I always wanted to come together, but she passed away aged 97 last year, unfortunately, so this trip is really for both of us."