An Arabic version of Silent Night playing in the background on Manger Square heralded in the beginning of the Christmas season in the Holy Land at the 8th annual Bethlehem Christmas market on Nov.30 and Dec.1.Palestinians and Israelis are hopeful this season will sustain an increase in tourists to the region. This year has also seen a decrease in violence for the first time since the outbreak of a Palestinian uprising known as the “second intifadah” that began in September 2000.Giant inflatable Santa Claus figures were placed in front of restaurants and stores along the main road leading up to Manger Square, in front of the spot where the birth of Jesus is said to have taken place. The municipality has strung up Christmas lights.”I always come here to the market every year to see what is for sale and to feel the start of Christmas, and maybe to buy a small gift,” said 18-year-old Waad Alam, from Beit Jalla, a town neighbouring Bethlehem with a strong Christian presence.This year is special, she said, because her two cousins from Honduras are visiting. In a situation that exists for many Christian families in the Holy Land, Ms. Alam said all her cousins lived either in the United States or in Central America. This is the first time she has met any of them.”We are happy to see Christmas here for the first time. It makes us happy to feel Christmas coming,” said her cousin Jorge Sansour, 20. “This is a nice quiet place, it is like a village. Everyone knows everybody else. In Honduras you have to be more careful.”As busloads of visitors from Nazareth in the Galilee poured into Manger Square, vendors selling local sweets, gourmet chocolates and cheeses, books, handmade crafts and a variety of toys and gifts geared up for what they hoped would be a profitable day.”It is nice to try to bring new handicrafts to people’s attention and for people to see something new in their society,” said Raeda Eichberg, 43, who with her brother Elias Awad, 41, makes handmade bamboo furniture and hand-painted glassware in their Beit Jalla workshop. “I hope [the sales] will be better in the coming hours.”Organized by the Bethlehem Peace Center and the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce, the first day of the market highlighted merchandise from international sellers while the second day was reserved for local products.”This is intended to be an international meeting between locals and internationals. To remind the world of the role of Jesus,” said Peace Center director Jihan Anastas. “We are trying to bring some happiness here. If we can’t penetrate the [Israeli separation] wall then at least we can try to get people inside to us.” She said about 4,000 people were expected to visit the market by the end of the event.On Dec. 1, the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa officially started the liturgical celebrations that lead up to Christmas with his solemn entry into the city. The Custos retrieved the light at the crib in the grotto of the Nativity, and lit the first candle of the Advent wreath, inaugurating the Christmas cycle in Bethlehem.Though the birth place of Jesus and historically a largely Christian town, Bethlehem has over the past century grown to become a Muslim-majority city. At midday the Muslim call to prayer from the mosque on Manger Square drowned out the recorded Christmas Carols and the tape was turned off until the end of the chant.