Turnout is at its highest in more than a decade -- about 30 percent higher than last year. By early evening, the Israeli military -- which controls movement in and out of town -- said some 55,000 visitors had reached Bethlehem. Palestinian officials said that with local tourists included, overall turnout was 120,000. And the number was expected to rise throughout the evening.
Manger Square is packed. The square and its 50-foot-tall Christmas tree are illuminated in Christmas lights.
One Virginia woman, Irma Goldsmith, says she watches the events in Bethlehem every year on TV, but that it's "amazing" to be there in person.
John Houston of Long Beach, California, says it feels good to see first-hand what he's learned about since he was a child in Sunday school. He says he's surprised to see that Bethlehem is a sprawling town of cement apartment blocks and narrow streets, a far cry from the pastoral village of biblical times.
Festivities lead up to the Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.