The faithful have flocked to the West Bank town of Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas.

A fragrant cloud of incense filled the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, as Palestinian Christians celebrated Christmas Mass. A few meters away, thousands of pilgrims from around the world visited the ancient grotto believed to be the birthplace of Jesus.

Adam Heyney came from the western U.S. state of Utah.

"It's amazing, it's always been a dream to come out here, you see all the stuff on TV, you read it in books, but it becomes reality. Just to be there in that spot was just an incredible experience," Heyney said.

For Barbara Beachie of the Midwest state of Michigan, it was an experience of faith and community.

"We need to touch something. We need to touch the sacred, we need to touch the place where Jesus was born, we need to see it," Beachie said. "There's a sense of mystery that is very overwhelming. And it's not just the place, but it's also the people that come from so far away."

Palestinian police armed with assault rifles patrolled Manger Square, but that did not bother Monty Luker of South Carolina.

"Even though it's a bit s cary, the guns in the hands of the security people is a good thing. Were it not for that, we'd have to worry about the bad guys," Luker said.

It was the biggest turnout in years thanks to a lull in West Bank violence. Bethlehem hotels were full, and Palestinian shopkeepers like Nabil Jakaman were upbeat.

"You can see tourists, many, many, many tourists, you can see it. That's good. It's nice to see this kind of tourists In Bethlehem," Jakaman said.

Palestinians bitterly complain about Israel's security barrier, or wall, surrounding Bethlehem, which was built in response to a wave of suicide bombings a few years ago. But Jakaman sees some light at the end of the tunnel.

"Well, the wall has made some problems but thank God, now there is a lot of tourists, now it's moving better," Jakaman said.

So for pilgrims and Palestinians, it was a Merry Christmas in the little town where it all began.