Thu, 02 Feb 2023

Palestinian Santa Brings Cheer to Jerusalem

Voice of America
07 Dec 2022, 16:06 GMT+10

Jerusalem - In Jerusalem's Old City, there are dozens of churches. But as Christmas beckons, there is just one Santa Claus - a towering Palestinian former basketball player.

Each December, the streets sparkle green and red as Christian pilgrims and others arrive to celebrate Christmas in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.

Seven years ago one resident, Issa Kassissieh, transformed the ground floor of his 700-year-old home into a grotto, complete with candy, mulled wine, and a chance to sit on Santa's lap.

Welcoming the season's first visitors to Santa House, the red-suited and bearded Kassissieh belted out a 'Ho, ho, ho!' at families queueing to see him.

'We are dealing with many religions here in Jerusalem,' said Kassissieh, himself a Christian. 'We have Muslims, Christians and Jews. I have all religions come to my house. I open my hands to everybody.'

Among the visitors were a group of Israeli tourists, as well as two priests who blessed the opening with prayers in Arabic and the ancient language of Aramaic - the language of Jesus.

At 1.9 meters tall, Kassissieh's height served him well as captain of the Palestinian basketball squad. He doesn't seem to intimidate the children he towers over.

'I'm not a Christian, but I still love Santa Claus,' 8-year-old Marwa, a Palestinian Muslim, told AFP, grinning. 'We have a (Christmas) tree at home too.'

Palestinian Issa Kassissieh, dressed as Santa Claus, prances for a picture on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, Dec. 6, 2022. Palestinian Issa Kassissieh, dressed as Santa Claus, prances for a picture on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, Dec. 6, 2022.

Visitors line up

Visitors from around the world also lined up to sit on Santa's lap, and to find out if they were on his naughty or nice list.

Alison Pargiter, from the United States, waited with her children.

'It is important that our kids have fun, but we also want them to know the true story behind Christmas,' the 52-year-old said.

While Jerusalem is home to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which Christians believe contains Jesus's tomb, the Nativity story of his birth happened in nearby Bethlehem, according to the faithful.

But at Santa House, Kassissieh said his young visitors have more modern concerns.

'Every child asks me for an iPhone,' he chuckled. 'I never promise anything, but I say, 'Let's pray, and if you're on my good list, you will get it.'"

More than a costume

As a child, Kassissieh's father would dress up as Santa for him and his two sisters.

Fifteen years ago, he found his father's suit and decided to slip into the red velvet role.

It involved more than just putting on a suit.

Since then, he has attended the World Santa Claus Congress in Denmark and studied at a Santa school - yes, there is such a thing - in the state of Colorado in the United States.

Kassissieh displayed a certificate from another center of Santa learning, the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, and said his training makes him Jerusalem's only accredited Santa.

Based in Michigan, the Howard school traces its establishment to 1937, making it the world's longest-running.

In his role, Kassissieh is all too aware of the sensitivities in Jerusalem.

Issa Kassissieh dresses as Santa Claus to pose for photos with children and a camel in Jerusalem, Dec. 23, 2021. Issa Kassissieh dresses as Santa Claus to pose for photos with children and a camel in Jerusalem, Dec. 23, 2021.

As well as its importance to Christians, the Old City is home to sites revered by Jews and Muslims. For decades it has been a focal point of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

'It's special to give the message of love and peace from Jerusalem - it's the heart of the world,' he said at his grotto.

'When we have peace in Jerusalem, we will have peace in the world,' added Kassissieh, who consciously avoids politics.

For the Jerusalem native, the secret to being a good Santa is simple: Always, he said, 'have an answer to the children's questions.'

Despite its location in Jerusalem, the home of Palestinian Issa Kassissieh, dressed as Santa Claus, looks like it could be Santa's North Pole workshop on Nov. 30, 2022. Despite its location in Jerusalem, the home of Palestinian Issa Kassissieh, dressed as Santa Claus, looks like it could be Santa's North Pole workshop on Nov. 30, 2022.

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