Christians from all corners of the earth flocked to celebrate Christmas today in the town where Christ was born, but the stream of pilgrims was relatively thin this year compared with recent years.

A chilling wind swept through Bethlehem's narrow alleyways as buses parked in Manger Square to unload tourists coming to worship at Christianity's holiest place.

George Sammour of Bethlehem's tourism department said the higher cost involved in the trip to Bethlehem, brought on by inflation the world over, and "the political situation, particularly in the Middle East, apparently . . . persuaded people they would be better off at home."

Officials in Bethlehem had expected about 20,000 visitors, but estimated that about half that number arrived.

In Vatican City, Pope John Paul II wished the world a Merry Christmas in 34 languages today, and urged the superpowers to lay down their nuclear weapons rather than bequeath "the threat of common extermination" to the children of the world.

The Pope's annual "Urbi et Orbi" ("to the city and the world") message focused on the theme of the Year of the Child, and John Paul also took the opportunity briefly to reaffirm the church's stand against abortion.

Addressing the tens of thousands of people in St. Peter's Square, John Paul said, "What better wish can I express for every nation and the whole of mankind, and for all the children of the world, than a better future in which respect for human rights will become a complete reality throughout the third millennium, which is drawing near?

"Are the children to receive the arms race from us as a necessary inheritance?

"We must ask ourselves whether there will continue to accumulate over the heads of this new generation of children the threat of common extermination for which the means are in the hands of modern states, especially the major world powers."

The child is also a great and continuous test of our fidelity . . . of our respect for humanity," he said. "It is a test of our respect for the mystery of life . . . "

Dressed in while and gold mass vestments and speaking in a firm voice from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, John Paul displayed his broad linquistic skill: he wished the world a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year in 34 languages, more than any other pope has used, including 17 spoken in his native Eastern Europe.

On a busy Christmas Eve, John Paul had celebrated two pontifical high masses in St. Peter's Basilica within 10 hours, the first a midnight service attended by 10,000 congregants and televised live to 34 nations.

In the Soviet yunion, where the Russian Orthodox Church follows a different calendar and celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7, Roman Catholics and members of other Christian faiths celebrated Christmas unobtrusively with church services and quiet family gatherings.

The Vatican estimates there are about 3.5 million practicing Roman Catholics in the Soviet yunion, about 70 percent of whom live in Lithuania.

In Peking, more than a thousand Chinese -- many more than last year -- crowded into the two Christian churches open in Peking in the early hours of this morning to hear midnight Christmas services.

In Warsaw, Poland's Roman Catholic primate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, echoed the major themes used in Pope John Paul's speech in Vatican City.

Wyszynski, who also blamed food shortages in Poland on government mismanagement, condemned those who, "by the words of peace on their lips . . . try to camouflage treacherous plans, who produce and deploy arms on the continents . . . "

In London, Queen Elizabeth II's traditional Christmas message to the Commonwealth was also broadcast to Rhodesia for the first time since the colony declared unilateral independence 14 years ago.

Rhodesia's warring factions signed an agreement in London last week providing for a cease-fire and for a return to colonial status pending elections and full independence early next year.

In her speech, delivered from the Regency Room of Buckingham Palace, the queen praised the Commonwealth conference held earlier this year in Lusaka, Zambia, saying it "demonstrated the great value of personal contact and the desire of all the leaders to settle their differences in the friendly spirit of a family gathering."