Thousands gather in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve Mass in Bethlehem 

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- The turnout of Christian pilgrims in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on this Christmas Eve has been the highest in years.

Thousands from around the world gathered for Christmas Eve celebrations, bringing warm holiday cheer to the biblical birthplace of Jesus on a cool, clear night.

The turnout helped lift spirits in Bethlehem -- as leaders expressed hope that the coming year will bring the Palestinians an independent state of their own.

Tourists milled around Manger Square, stopping in restaurants and souvenir shops and admiring a large, illuminated Christmas Tree. Marching bands and scout troops performed for visitors in the streets, and on a stage next to the tree.

Will Green of New York City says being in Bethlehem for Christmas is a dream come true. He's there with his wife and their two-year-old daughter, and says, "All the stories that we grew up with. It's here. It's part of our life."

His family followed a crowd toward the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born.