Vendors in the souvenir stalls around the Church of the Nativity are keeping their Christmas lights and ornaments in packing boxes this year.
In honor of the Palestinian uprising, city officials are refusing to sponsor holiday celebrations in the birthplace of Christ.Israeli soldiers stood guard this week as Israeli civilians employed by the army built a platform for a choir concert to entertain hundreds of pilgrims who officials hope will come to worship in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.
But Arab officials in this West Bank city have decreed that there will be no municipal decorations this year and no traditional holiday reception for diplomats or Boy Scouts on parade.
"It is a protest for those killed, injured and detained," said the town's Palestinian Christian mayor, Elias Freij. "The people are not in a mood to celebrate or rejoice."
More than 330 Palestinians have died in clashes with the Israeli army since they launched their "intefadeh," or uprising, against Israel's 21-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Thirteen Israelis also have died in the 12 months of unrest.
The underground leadership of the uprising declared Dec. 24 "a national day of mourning," calling a general strike to close shops and restaurants on the normally busy holiday eve.
For its part, Israel's Tourism Ministry has tried to maintain some semblance of Christmases past.
"Nothing has changed in the intrinsic meaning of Christmas in Bethlehem," it said in a statement. "No secular municipal action will either dampen the religious fervor of pilgrims or mar their freedom of worship in Bethlehem."
To this end, the ministry is sponsoring Christmas Eve performances by choirs from Switzerland, Spain and the Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.
Roman Catholics, Anglicans and other Christian denominations have put out pamphlets publicizing events ranging from the Catholic patriarch's procession Saturday afternoon to midnight Masses in Bethlehem chapels.
Just how many pilgrims will travel to Bethlehem for Christmas is uncertain. Tourism for the year is down 14 percent, and Israel admits many potential visitors have been frightened away by the daily reports of clashes.
Peace and joy were not part of the mood Tuesday on Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity, which covers the grotto where the Bible says Christ was born.
Israeli soldiers lounging near the undecorated municipal tree were pelted with stones by Palestinian youths, who then fled up a narrow street in the Arab market. Street hawkers complained of bad business.
The holiday sadness extends deep into the Palestinian community, including among its Christians.
There are an estimated 35,000 Christian Arabs in the occupied territories and about 100,000 within Israeli borders, according to Geries S. Khoury, director of the Al-Liqa Center for Religious Studies and chairman of the religion program at Bethlehem University.
Khoury, a Greek Catholic, says there will be no Christmas presents for his wife and four children, no festive dinner at his home.
"The only present I would like to give them is the story of the suffering of my people," Khoury said.
Nicholas Canavati, owner of a large Bethlehem souvenir store, said he and other businessmen were called in by Israeli officials this week for what he described as "a gentlemanly talk."
He said the officials asked if it wouldn't be better for business if stores got out their decorations.
"I said yes," Canavati says. "But I told them there are more important things than business."
His store remains unadorned, and he is unconvinced flashing lights and colored ornaments would be a lure.
"Why should anyone come to Bethlehem when the town is full of arms and soldiers rather than peace, which is the symbol, after all, of the man born here," Canavati said.