JERUSALEM — It’s a busy time of year for Santas worldwide. But for Jerusalem’s Mr. Claus, it’s been particularly hectic.
On Sunday, a restless crowd waited outside the shiny red door of his tinsel-lined home on Santa Claus Lane in Jerusalem’s Old City.
It was a familiar scene, one played out in thousands of malls and stores around the globe: children and parents eagerly seeking a little face time with the kindly red-suited gentleman.
Yet, in Jerusalem, the traditional trappings of Christmas are hard to find, despite the Old City’s cobblestone streets being the backdrop to much of this holiday’s story. Even as thousands of Christian pilgrims make their way to the Holy Land this time of year, fairy lights, seasonal music and an official Santa are all conspicuously absent.
But not this year.
In July, Issa Kassissieh participated in the annual World Santa Claus Congress in Copenhagen and became a full-fledged certified Santa.
And with that, Jerusalem finally had its own St. Nick.
Kassissieh formally began his Santa duties on Dec. 1, and he has already greeted about 3,000 visitors with sparkling Santa stardust, imported candy canes and fake snow. When he’s not working from home, he’s out visiting the sick and others who cannot make it to him.
“I am the only official Santa of the Holy Land,” Kassissieh, 40, told The Washington Post on Monday.
He pointed proudly to the neatly framed diplomas hanging on the wall above his special Santa desk — on which stands the manual typewriter he uses to respond to letters and requests he receives from fans all year round.
Kassissieh, an Arab Christian and former professional basketball player, is a well-known figure in Jerusalem. For years, he had donned the red suit and white beard, finding fame as possibly the only Santa in the world whose preferred mode of transport is a camel, as opposed to a reindeer.
But, taking his role very seriously, Kassissieh decided to become formally certified, attending Santa schools in Denver and in Michigan, as well as the Copenhagen congress.
“People think that anyone can just put on a red suit, but you also need to study the special spirit and the joy of Santa,” he said.
You also need to know how to bake cookies and carve wooden toys, apparently. All skills Kassissieh has mastered at special Santa workshops. Everything in his “Santa’s House” — a 700-year-old stone structure in a narrow alley that is decked with Christmas lights and a helpful sign directing visitors to “Jerusalem,” “the North Pole,” “Santa’s House” and “Santa’s Workshop” — is handcrafted. He has even built a full-size Santa sleigh to enhance the experience.
“They also teach you how to talk to children, how to dress properly, to be clean and smell good,” he said. “You need to show happiness and welcome everyone — even those who are scared of you — with a smile.”
But that is no easy feat in Jerusalem, where political and religious tensions can sour even the most genuine of gestures.
In the past, the appearance of Christmas trees and other holiday decorations in malls and hotels has drawn protests from ultra-Orthodox Jews. Last week, a shopping mall in the southern Israeli coastal city of Ashdod sparked an uproar by erecting a Christmas tree in its central plaza.
One city council member from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party said it was “intended to hurt anyone who identifies as Jewish.” The mall pointed out that many Ashdod residents are immigrants from the former Soviet Union who celebrate Novy God, the civil new year, with a holiday tree, Haaretz reported.
“My aim as Jerusalem Santa is to bring everyone together with peace and security,” Kassissieh said. The tensions between Israelis and Palestinians would not deter him from spreading Santa’s joy, he added.
“We are all human,” said Kassissieh, who receives Jewish, Muslim and, of course, Christian visitors. “It makes me happy to see people coming here from all over the world and from every group.”
Sarah Tuttle-Singer, a Jerusalem-based writer who is Jewish, took her two children to visit Santa last week.
She said it was important to her that her children learn about other religions and cultures.
“My kids love the lights and the tree and the candy and the holiday spirit — even though they know it isn’t our holiday,” Tuttle-Singer said. “They especially love how jolly Santa is and how he laughs and makes them feel special.”
Kassissieh’s journey to Santa-hood started in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, where much of the city’s Christian population lives and works. He was born just a stone’s throw from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and later resurrected.
“Even though I grew up here, the center of Christianity, we did not celebrate Christmas like they do in other countries,” he said. “I really wanted to bring what I saw in Europe and in America to the children here, too.”
Now, as a fully qualified Santa, Kassissieh does just that. Opening the door to his lovingly crafted home on Santa Claus Lane and greeting his visitors every evening with a “Ho, Ho, Ho” from the Holy Land.