Christian pilgrims from around the world have gathered in Bethlehem for the city's most festive Christmas celebration since the start of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000.

Tens of thousands of tourists are expected to visit the place Christians believe Jesus was born, a significant increase over previous years when the conflict kept many foreigners away.

Visitors and residents attributed the higher turnout to a lull in violence and the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The celebrations will culminate with midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity.

In Rome, Pope Benedict XVI will also celebrate a midnight mass, and on Christmas day Tuesday, he will deliver his traditional address and blessing (Urbi et Orbi -- to the City  and the World).

From the U.S. presidential retreat in Maryland, President Bush Monday telephoned his thanks and best Christmas wishes to members of the armed forces stationed abroad.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command is also doing its part for the holiday, a time when some children await the arrival of Santa Claus, a mythical figure who flies around the world giving out toys.

Norad is tracking what it says is Santa's progress on a website complete with Santacam videos and Google Earth backdrops. (