Trading sleigh for camel, Jerusalem Santa puts the ‘ho, ho, ho’ in holy city
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'Christians, Muslims, Jews -- they all love Santa Claus'

Trading sleigh for camel, Jerusalem Santa puts the ‘ho, ho, ho’ in holy city

Red-suited ex-basketball player Issa Kassissieh, a Christmas fixture in the Old City, is cheerier than ever this year after training at Denver’s Professional Santa Claus School

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

  • Jerusalem Santa, as portrayed by Issa Kassissieh, walking the ramparts of the Old City in Jerusalem, on December 21, 2017. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
    Jerusalem Santa, as portrayed by Issa Kassissieh, walking the ramparts of the Old City in Jerusalem, on December 21, 2017. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
  • The Jerusalem Santa taking selfies outside Jaffa Gate on Thursday, December 21, 2017 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
    The Jerusalem Santa taking selfies outside Jaffa Gate on Thursday, December 21, 2017 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
  • Jerusalem municipality workers unloading free Christmas trees handed out at Jaffa Gate on Thursday, December 21, 2017 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
    Jerusalem municipality workers unloading free Christmas trees handed out at Jaffa Gate on Thursday, December 21, 2017 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
  • Jerusalem Santa, Issa Kassissieh, poses with locals coming to pick up free Christmas trees on Thursday, December 21 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
    Jerusalem Santa, Issa Kassissieh, poses with locals coming to pick up free Christmas trees on Thursday, December 21 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
  • Issa Kassissieh climbs astride the camel he uses instead of a sleigh as Jerusalem Santa (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
    Issa Kassissieh climbs astride the camel he uses instead of a sleigh as Jerusalem Santa (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

When Santa Claus comes to Jerusalem, he doesn’t arrive in a reindeer-driven sleigh and wriggle down chimneys, nor does he sit in a mall food court as kid after kid climbs on his lap. This Papa Noel strides along the ramparts of the city’s Old City walls, or climbs on a camel, ambling through Jaffa Gate to greet visitors and take selfies.

On Thursday, Santa amiably squatted to take pictures with kindergarteners wearing red and white Santa hats perched on their little heads. He leaned over the wheelchairs of teenagers from a special needs school, shaking hands and handing out chocolates.

After helping the Jerusalem municipality give away free Christmas trees, he then headed to “Santa’s House,” a 700-year-old stone building at the crossroads of Saint Peter Street and Latin Patriarchate Road, decked out with red and white striped poles for the holiday season and signs pointing toward the North Pole and Santa’s workshop.

Inside this ancient stone home, it’s all about Christmas, Holy Land style, as visualized by Issa Kassissieh, 39, a former professional basketball player who doubles as the Jerusalem Santa.

“I’m a volunteer,” he said. “This makes me happy, this is why I’m doing this.”

Issa Kassissieh stands outside Santa’s House, created out of his family’s 700-year-old home in the Old City of Jerusalem. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Once safely inside the Kassissieh family home, he took off his Santa outfit, to reveal thick, dark eyebrows and a goatee smeared with the white paste that keeps his fake, white beard well fastened.

His mother, Georgina, good-naturedly held the Santa hat and beard, while Kassissieh brushed his fingers through his dark hair, taking a breather from being Santa.

“He loves doing it, but he needs a break sometimes,” said Georgina.

Just to the right of the house’s main entrance is a Christmas fantasy room come to life, with its stone walls and arched ceiling edged with thick boughs and decorated with gold ornaments.

One corner is dedicated to Santa’s workshop, stocked with Kassissieh’s father’s and grandfather’s tools, a (fake) fireplace in another corner, and a grand Santa chair in the center, along with a Santa cookie kitchen, piles of Santa letters and a bright Santa mailbox outside the front door.

Issa Kassissieh without his wig in Santa’s House in the Old City of Jerusalem. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

This Santa doesn’t hand out gifts like say in the US and Europe, but he does give lollipops and foil-wrapped Santa-shaped chocolates to passersby, and has been known to dab sparkle paint on little kids’ hands.

Before playing the role of Santa Claus, the Greek Orthodox Jerusalemite was a basketball player, who taught himself the game in a simple, concrete Old City court.

He was known as Issa 6, and said he played briefly for Hapoel Jerusalem, Greek Olympiakos and then for a local team, De La Salle Al Quds Jerusalem. Now he’s a basketball coach, teaching at the local Anglican School.

It was about a decade ago that he first dug out his father’s old Santa suit, donning it for the annual day of handing out small Christmas trees at Jaffa Gate, offered by the Jerusalem municipality to anyone who wants one.

“I wanted to do something different in Jerusalem,” he said. “And it made everybody so happy, that I figured, why not do this every year?”

And that’s exactly what he did, becoming an annual fixture in his red suit, striding through the Old City and over to Bethlehem as well, once even riding a camel most of the way there, just short of the army checkpoint.

“People loved it,” he said. “Everyone came to see me, Christians, Muslims, Jews, they all love Santa Claus.”

Jerusalem Santa in front of Jaffa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem, on Thursday, December 21, 2017. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

This year, he was invited to attend the Professional Santa Claus School in Denver, Colorado, as the first Santa from the holy city. It was, said Kassissieh, a “magical experience.”

“I was with Santas who had 30 or 40 years experience,” he marveled. “When do you get a chance like that?”

He learned how to speak to children, how to smile, how to put on Santa’s makeup, how to ‘be’ the red suit, and how to say ho, ho, ho from “deep within one’s belly,” despite being a fairly svelt Santa, at 6″1 and with broad shoulders.

“They wanted me to grow it and dye it white at the Santa school,” he said, referring to his pointed, dark brown goatee. “But it wouldn’t have worked; everyone around here knows me.”

Issa Kassissieh greeting visitors at Jaffa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem on Thursday, December 21, 2017. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

This year Kassissieh has embodied the role and soul of Santa for much of December, wearing his red suit and big, black rubber boots for days on end, with set hours for welcoming school kids in the mornings at Santa’s House, and families in the late afternoons and evenings.

Kassissieh acknowledged that the “whole Santa thing” is more of an American concept, commercialized and advertised heavily, and less of an Arab Christian tradition.

That said, anyone who sees him on the streets of the Old City is visibly cheered by the sight of Jerusalem Santa, offering hugs and handshakes, looking for a pat on the head or a selfie.

“It’s our Santa,” said one of the municipal workers who helped hand out trees on Thursday morning. “He’s the only Jerusalem Santa.”

Jerusalem municipality workers unloading free Christmas trees handed out at Jaffa Gate on Thursday, December 21, 2017 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

As for Kassissieh, his month of being Santa is one he looks forward to each year, although, in reality, it takes more than a month to put together Santa’s House.

“When you have more experience in life and in Jerusalem, there’s nothing else you want to do,” he said. “There’s no other place like this in the world, this city is my beloved country.”

With that, Kassissieh returned to his Santa role play.

He pulled on his beard and hat, and headed outside, striding down the cobblestone streets of the Old City, his bells ringing, much to the delight of anyone walking by.

If you want to follow Jerusalem Santa, he’s on Facebook, too, at Jerusalem Santa.

‘Jerusalem Santa” Issa Kassissieh astride his camel at Jaffa Gate (Sarah Tuttle Singer/Times of Israel)
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