A relic of the manger of Jesus, Christmas gift from the Pope to Bethlehem

BELÉN: A piece of wood with the reputation of being the manger where Jesus was laid after his humble birth came as a gift from the Vatican on Saturday, beginning the Christmas season in the venerated city as the birthplace of Jesus.

The piece of wood, only a few centimeters (inches) long, was once held in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. He gave himself earlier this week to the custodian of the church in Bethlehem, who said he brought great honor to the believers and pilgrims in the area.

The origin of ancient relics is often questionable. Even so, they are revered by the faithful Christians, including the many pilgrims who pass through a narrow sandstone entrance into the Church of the Nativity to visit the birth grotto that is their centerpiece.

According to the Custos of the Holy Land for the Catholic Church, Francesco Patton, the relic dates back more than 2,000 years and was sent to the Vatican in the seventh century.

Encased in an ornamental silver table stand, it was presented to the public on Friday at the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem. The music bands greeted the relic when he arrived in Bethlehem on Saturday. It was placed in the Church of Santa Catalina, in the complex of the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square .

We are proud that part of the manger is back in Bethlehem because we feel that God's soul is with us more than before, said Chris Giacaman, 53, Bethlehem's housewife, while standing outside the church.

Others were a bit disappointed.

It's a small piece, we thought it would be a bigger piece, said Sandy Shahin Hijazeen, 32. When we hear that the manger returns, we think it would be the whole manger, but then we saw it.

After night fell, the traditional lighting of the Christmas tree ceremony was underway as hundreds gathered at Manger Square to celebrate the start of holiday season.

With a bright red star shining on its top, the giant tree was lit by hundreds of golden white light bulbs while fireworks lit the night sky.

Bethlehem, in the West Bank occupied by Israel, is usually particularly busy before Christmas on December 25, with tourists and pilgrims flocking to the biblical city. Christians represent about 1% of the Palestinian population in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.