They heard predictions of millennial madness, suicidal cults, and end-time prophets whose followers might try to hasten the Second Coming.
Instead, "Bobby Bible," a lone street preacher - decked out in a priest's robe and "Jesus is Lord" baseball cap - from Los Angeles works Manger Square. "Vegas odds: 30 percent chance Jesus is going to return," he calls out while his portable boom box backs him up with Christmas carols.
But Palestinian tourist police arrested him Wednesday, and told him he had to leave Bethlehem. He says he'll go to Israel instead, but officials say it's likely that from there he'll be deported.
Soapbox sermons are far less tolerated here than in America, especially since officials are trying to put on their best faces this year.
"This is just not like it has been in past years," says Asmi Tuha, owner of the St. George Restaurant on Manger Square, shrugging at his nearly empty, 200-seat facility just days before Christmas. "We thought there would be so many more people. Maybe some of the tourists are afraid to take a holiday here."
Normally, the worst that visitors to Bethlehem have to deal with is waiting on a tour bus while Palestinians and Israelis periodically trade volleys of rocks and rubber bullets. But now there are the US State Department warnings about possible terrorist attacks against Americans win the Middle East as well as fears about possible mix-ups in air travel due to the Y2K computer bug. That's added up to more people deciding to stay close to home for the holidays.
"It seems to me that much of the energy that was devoted to the idea of cults being here for the turn of the millennium was exaggerated, especially by the police," says Gershom Gorenberg, an expert here on apocalyptic cults.
"The police ... were giving a wide variety of millennial expectations attached to the year 2000," says Mr. Gorenberg.
Loath to play soothsayer over what the next few weeks may bring, he raises the possibility that many cultists have gone underground in reaction to the Israeli police clampdown on any questionable religious groups from abroad.
Still, relatively little is going on in Manger Square this week outside last-minute preparations for the crowd of 6,000 expected here tonight for Christmas Eve celebrations. Palestinian shopkeepers are concerned about the tourist turnout being lower than expected.
Fears about cultists, the Y2K computer bug, and warnings from the US State Department that an Islamic terror group planned to target Americans abroad, led to many cancellations, says Lowell Hellervik, a Minnesota man, noting the empty spaces in his tour group. Israel's Tourism Ministry had to scale down its estimates from 4 million for next year to just over 2 million, not much more than the yearly average.
Palestinian police say they wouldn't have arrested Bobby Bible if he hadn't talked about the end of the world. "Preaching about Doomsday is not allowed, because this is against religion," says Lt. Ahmad Tannenthe, describing the security situation in a 12-foot-wide office off Manger Square, where the standard gold-framed portrait of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat hangs over his desk. "We don't want anyone to spoil the celebration. We want to make sure there are no bombs or explosions."
Controlling New Year's celebrations in Bethlehem, he says, is the way Palestinians can show the world they are ready to run their own state - one they hope to declare next year. "Yes, this is kind of a test for everyone to see how the Palestinian Authority manages to secure the area for the millennium. It is like a quiz before the final exam, and we have to pass it, so we pray for it to pass peacefully."
Christmas in the Holy Land is always a slightly odd event: the anniversary of Jesus' birth is marked in place where most local inhabitants, Jews and Muslims, are observers rather than participants. Many Palestinians and Israelis see New Year's 1999 as a date that is not really their party: the Jewish year is 5760, and on the Islamic calendar, it's 1420. Moreover, New Year's Eve also coincides with the last Friday in Ramadan, the Islamic holy month marked by dusk-to-dawn fasting, and Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.
Up the road in Jerusalem, celebrations are expected to be muted because major hotels were told they would lose their licenses to serve kosher food if they held big New Year's galas Dec. 31, against Sabbath prohibitions on playing music.
Though club-goers will undoubtedly find places to party - especially in Israel's secular mecca of Tel Aviv - Israelis seem rather underwhelmed and view the year 2000 as a Christian date that doesn't speak to their view of history.
"For us, the year begins with Rosh Hashana," says Adiel Friedman, a young religious seminary student in Jerusalem, referring to the Jewish New Year that comes in September. "I won't be celebrating; I'll be resting at home with my family like on every Shabbat."
For many tourists coming for a different kind of New Year's experience, however, they're not disappointed to be here. "At home, it's all commercialized: 'Get your millennium shoes, your millennium champagne, before it's all sold out,' " says Eva Norrloef, mimicking advertisements in her home country of Sweden. Traveling with her four children in Bethlehem, she says, made their holiday more meaningful. But giving a nod to Bobby Bible, she realizes the trip isn't for everyone. "I didn't tell my parents I was coming," she whispers. "I didn't want them to worry."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society