Thousands of pilgrims have joined local Palestinians in Christmas celebrations in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

Christmas mass was celebrated at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, with carols sung in Arabic. Most of the worshippers were Palestinians, and Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal expressed solidarity with their suffering. Twal, a Jordanian who heads the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land, said the Israeli occupation must end.

"Nothing changed. And we hope, we wish and we pray that next year will be a new year full of peace, full of health, and full of security and more trust between all partners," he said.

Just a few meters from where mass was celebrated, thousands of pilgrims visited the ancient grotto where according to Christian tradition, Jesus was born. Laura Wagner came from the U.S. state of Indiana.

"The whole story becomes even more alive here," she said. "The idea that we're just a few feet from where Jesus was born and a few miles from where the angels came to the shepherds is mind blowing; there aren't even words to describe it."

Outside in Manger Square, the atmosphere was festive.

David Bogenrief, an American who has lived in Israel for 25 years, played the classic carol "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" as a crowd gathered. 

"I've come here to worship the Lord Jesus at the place where he was born. It's fun, and the fact that I come and I play trumpet, and there's people singing Christmas carols, and hopefully something goes into the heart of the people," he said.

Sherri Heinrich of St. Paul, Minnesota in the United States said there is something for everyone.

"It's a fantastic experience, everyone's excited, it's an amazing place to come and visit on the day that Christ was born." said Heinrich.

It was a big turnout this year thanks to a lull in West Bank violence. And it was a joyous Christmas in the little town where it all began.