Bethlehem’s Christmas season gets earlier start

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — The Christmas season begins a little earlier this year.

Several thousand people gathered Sunday to watch the lighting of the Christmas tree in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, near the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.

Last year, the more than 12,000 tiny lights on the 15-meter-tall (50-feet) artificial tree were only switched on in mid-December.

Toni Musleh of the Bethlehem city council says the holiday festivities were launched earlier this year to expand the season and attract more visitors.

Tourism is important to the economy of the Palestinian town near Jerusalem. In the past, Israeli-Palestinian fighting and Israeli movement restrictions kept down the number of visitors.

In Sunday’s ceremony, Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun and Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah switched on the tree lights as bands played Christmas songs.

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