Surely, not many people will disagree if I say that the holiday season, and especially Christmas, is a fun time. Even for people that winter (definitely not me), or god-forbid, for non-religious/atheists/seculars (me included) - the atmosphere, spirit, or general coziness feeling must mean something. In addition, in the last couple of years, Christmastime meant some fun and interesting work coming my way.
Last year, around this time, I got to go on assignment and photograph Israel’s Jesus Trail in the Galilee region for The Wall Street Journal. This year, I got to meet Jerusalem Santa for The Washington Post.
“I am the only official Santa of the Holy Land,” says Issa Kassissieh, 40, an Arab-Christian and former professional basketball player. For over a decade, Kassissieh has been donning out his father’s old Santa suit, becoming an annual fixture around Jaffa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem. After years of doing his Santa duties unofficially, Kassissieh eventually decided to become a formally certified Santa, attending professional Santa Claus schools in Colorado and Michigan, as well as a World Santa Congress in Denmark.
At this point, you have got to be wondering – the answer is yes - there are Santa schools. Just keep Calm and Drink Eggnog.
On a rainy Jerusalem evening, visitors patiently wait at the entrance to “Santa’s House” – a centuries-old stone structure on Santa Claus Lane. Aside from the usual suspects - a Christmas tree, a grand Santa chair and other holiday ornaments, all situated under a beautiful arched ceiling; Santa’s House includes also Santa’s workshop, equipped with Kassissieh’s father’s and grandfather’s tools, a desk where he writes letters to children, and the “North Pole”, which features a Santa sleigh and artificial snow blowing from above, all handcrafted by Kassissieh himself.
Santa’s House sticks out in Jerusalem. It’s not something I’ve ever seen growing up in the city, or even in recent years. The Old City doesn’t seem to morph into the holiday spirit - there are fewer decorations and the spirit of the season isn’t really felt as it’s felt in other cities around the world, or even in Israel. In the city of Nazareth, for example, Christmas is seen and felt everywhere you go, although Christians only make up about a third of the population there. Jerusalem has the third largest Christian population in Israel, after Nazareth and Haifa, and while Christians are only about 2-3% of the population of the city, I would have expected Christmas to be more prominent in Jerusalem come December.
Judging by the constant stream of visitors, of various ages, religions, and nationalities, Jerusalem could use more Santas, official or unofficial. In the meantime, Kassissieh insists on delivering the best experience to each visitor - forming immediate connections in every language, be it Russian, French, Hebrew, or Arabic. Special care and affection are given by him to all little children, even those that seem startled at first sight, or initially crying when sitting on his lap. Generously handing out delicious Santa shaped chocolates and minty candy canes certainly tend to alleviate any distress a child might feel and doesn’t hurt his chances of being popular with every age group.
I left with pockets full of sweet treats and the feeling that Jerusalem Santa is actually a “gentle giant”.
See more photos from this commission here