The scent of pine needles and Turkish coffee lingered in the crisp morning air at Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate as Issa Kassissieh, dressed as Santa Claus, rang his bell, beckoning locals to pick out their Christmas trees.
“They gave me a certificate that I’m the Jerusalem Santa,” said Kassissieh, a professional basketball player who once played for Hapoel Jerusalem, Greek professional team Olympiakos and the Palestinian national team.
But Kassissieh didn’t want to talk about his basketball playing on this particular morning.
He wanted to talk about the Christmas trees — “They’re very good trees this year, like the kind we used to get ten years ago,” he said — and the ongoing terror wave affecting Jerusalem and other parts of the country.
“Not everyone is celebrating but we’re trying to make them feel great, just bring joy for the people, especially for kids and the important thing is Jesus’ birth,” he said.
The Jerusalem Municipality distributed 200 Arizona cypresses at Jaffa Gate on Monday morning. The trees are grown in Israel and donated by the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, which distributes trees in Nazareth, Shfar’am and Jerusalem to local monasteries, churches, convents, embassies, diplomats, foreign journalists and the general public.
Kassissieh was joined by two municipal workers who were helping locals pick out their perfect Christmas tree from the stacks leaning against a building on Omar Ibn El-Khattab Square, the area leading from Jaffa Gate into the Old City.
The trees are short, around five feet in height, and narrow, about 30 inches in width, with rounded shoots of gray-green needles that seem thinner and less dense than those of traditional Christmas trees.
As people chose their trees, and then dragged them home or stuffed them into the back seat of their cars, one of the workers swept up the cypress needles from the wide sidewalk.
Perry Mansaur, an Old City native, chose a cypress and began pulling it up the street to his family’s home. Last year’s trees were much smaller, he said, and they ended up buying a fake one.
“I like a fresh tree better because it smells good and creates a new vibe in the house,” said Mansaur. “We’ll put some decorations on it and it will look really nice.”
Mansaur, like others choosing their trees, lives in the Christian Quarter, where his father’s family has lived for generations. His mother is Russian and is also a practicing Christian.
Likewise, David Toursman, another Old City resident, was picking out a tree for his grandmother.
“We usually get fake trees because they’re more environmentally friendly,” said Toursman, an Al-Quds University student earning his master’s degree in European Studies. “But since this is already cut, I think I’ll try to save it and create a good home.”
With that, he dragged the tree up the narrow, winding street of the Christian Quarter, spreading the scent of pine throughout the Old City.