BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Esam Awwad lifted his daughter onto his shoulders and joined the crowd gathered around the barricades, waiting for a glimpse of the patriarch as he passed by on his way into the Church of the Nativity.

His daughter, Annamaria, was wearing a tiny Santa suit for her first Christmas.

It was a first for Awwad, 29, also: his first Christmas in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, where thousands of revelers gather on Christmas Eve each year to celebrate with a procession, music and a midnight Mass.

Families waited to have their pictures taken in front of the massive Christmas tree next to the church. Vendors wended their way through the square, hawking coffee, Santa hats and balloons adorned with Christmas trees and Santas as well as not-so-seasonal images such as Hello Kitty, Mickey Mouse and Angry Birds.

Balloons periodically escaped from their owners and drifted into the sky above the church – and above the mosque on the opposite end of the square – as the crowd pressed against the barricade, watching a seemingly endless stream of drummers, bagpipers and Scouts march by.

At last, a procession emerged bearing a cross, to greet the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, as he entered the church. Spectators lifted cellphones and iPads into the air to capture the image. Awwad hoisted his daughter higher so she would see. The patriarch, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, paused and raised his hand in greeting. .

Tens of thousands of pilgrims each year celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. Rania Malki-Bandak, director of the Bethlehem Peace Center, a community center in Manger Square, said the Christmas crowd was about as large as usual this year, but included fewer foreigners.