JERUSALEM—Orthodox Christians are celebrating Christmas Eve tonight and Christmas Day tomorrow – and that means that Jerusalem Santa hasn’t had a day off yet.
But it doesn’t look like he minds.
In fact, this Santa appears to be one of the most tireless and infectious beings out there.
It all began 15 years ago when Issa Kassisieh stumbled across his father’s old Santa suit in a cupboard and tried it on. He then thought, “Why don’t I put it on and go to Jaffa Gate?”
He did – and the reception was astounding.
“I saw that many people were excited: ’Oh, Santa, Santa!’” he recalled. “And they wanted to take pictures with Santa. It was just for fun. For one day a year, I did it for five years.”
Then he decided to take it to the next level.
“I was thinking, ‘How can I make something different in Jerusalem?’ And, look – we don’t have reindeer, we don’t have snow in Jerusalem. Then I thought, ‘Shall I come with a camel to Jerusalem?’”
The North Pole probably wished it thought of that.
“I entered Jaffa Gate with a camel and it went everywhere in the media, all around the world,” he said. “And, you know, Santa and Jerusalem, the camel. And from this moment, it’s grown every year.”
Since then, Kassissieh attended different Santa schools – including the world’s oldest, the Charles W. Howard School in Michigan – and became a professional, certified Santa.
Six years ago he turned his house – situated on the winding cobblestone street between Jaffa Gate and New Gate in the Old City – into a winter wonderland. Between December and the end of January, Kassissieh hosts upwards of 14,000 children at his home who come by for pictures with Santa Claus and a mini-Christmas market.
Kassissieh also makes appearances as Santa Claus at schools, markets and even hospitals where he is able to spread Christmas cheer to children and adults when they need it most.
This Santa has a longer season than his Western peers. In Jerusalem, we have three Christmases: Dec. 25, Jan. 7 for the Orthodox Christians and Jan. 19 for the Armenians, plus the Western and Eastern New Year’s – Dec. 31 and Jan. 13.
“They love to come and see Santa, you know, to live the spirit of Christmas,” he said. “It’s very busy here. And of course, with many religions here and many communities… have many Jewish, many Muslims, many Christians. Everybody loves to celebrate Christmas.”
The 43-year-old Jerusalemite also embodies what it means to be Christian born and raised in the Holy Land. With roots that go back 900 years in Jerusalem and a 700-year-old house, Kassissieh is deeply connected to the land, the buildings where his ancestors did the stone work and to his faith. For him, stepping into the Holy Sepulcher is like going home.
“When I go to the church, I feel it very deep, very deeply,” he said.
Kassissieh has a nativity set displayed right next to his Santa chair and he makes sure to ask the children if they know why we celebrate Christmas.
“They want to know why we celebrate Christmas. It’s a very important point to give them because most of them, they don’t know,” Kassissieh said. “‘Jesus is the reason for the season,’ that is always my message to them because I want them to grow up with this.”
Because Christians are a minority here, celebrating the holidays takes greater effort on the part of the families. Kassissieh recalls that growing up his father dressed up as Baba Noel (Santa Claus in Arabic) for Kassissieh and his sisters.
And though people of all faiths come to gawk at the festive decorations and bask in the Christmas spirit, the Santa house and Santa Claus himself have been a boon to the tiny Christian community in the Holy Land.
“When I opened my Santa’s house in Jerusalem, I was shocked by all the residents in Jerusalem – and now everywhere around the Holy Land: everybody was excited to see Santa and to be here in Santa’s house,” Kassissieh said.
Kassissieh stresses that while anybody can put on a red suit, you need to do it from your heart. He listed other qualities.
“First patience, give hope, always give love. And the spirit of Christmas is giving,” he said.
On a practical level, he also learned how to speak with children and defuse their nervousness, make sure his white gloves are always showing and, of course, how to master the quintessential belly laugh. During the pandemic, he even made sure to find a clear plastic mask that shows his flowing white beard.
The training has also helped him weather a bit of “persecution” in the Jewish and Muslim quarters.
“If people are against you, you need to be opposite. You cannot be like them,” he said. “Many people here, they don’t like Santa, you know, with different religions. But I always give them the ‘Ho ho ho’ and give them the smile and they never go against me again because they say, ‘Okay, he’s nice.’ They try to do make me feel nervous, but I try to avoid this because Santa is a message for love and peace.”
Santa doesn’t turn into a pumpkin on Jan. 18 – he goes back to being a basketball coach at the YMCA.
“This is my work,” Kassissieh said. “But I do Santa because I love to do it for the children. Also, I do it because I never met Santa in Jerusalem, and that’s what my message to give this to the children here.”
Santa, or Kassissieh, also sent a Christmas prayer to the world hoping to welcome tourists back to Jerusalem soon.
“Jerusalem is the heart of the world and also – this is very important – if peace will start from Jerusalem, there will be peace everywhere in the world,” he said.