The soft ringing of bells approaches, and a red iron door opens in a stone facade in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. In the hallway, next to a sled, stands Issa Kassissieh. He is tall and powerfully built—Kassissieh is a talented basketball player, and was once recruited to play college ball in the United States—and he is Israel’s only certified Santa Claus. When he gave me directions to his house at St. Peter’s Street, he asked if he should answer the door as Santa. We agreed on “50/50.” So the 35-year-old’s short, dark beard is viable, but is wearing a fuzzy red shirt and pants, and a pair of tall black boots. Oh, the boots. That’s where the sound of the bells came from.
This is “Santa’s House,” a small space on the first floor of the Kassissieh family home. Issa has turned this room, adorned with an ancient tile floor and a vaulted ceiling, into a glittery fantasy that seems particularly out of place in the Middle East: Christmas trees, glinting snowflakes, reindeer and polar bear dolls. In this setting, Kassissieh looks like a giant. For a moment, it’s not clear if he’s going to do a slam dunk or take to the sky in a sled.
It was 14 years ago when Kassissieh found an old Santa Claus costume that had belonged to his father. He decided to amuse himself and tried it on. It fit so well that he went to the nearby Jaffa Gate, a historic portal in the Old City’s wall, while wearing it. Children happily gathered around, and it had an effect on him. “I realized that as a child I didn’t get to have this happiness, and that it’s time to give it to the children of Jerusalem,” he says. “While traveling the world during Christmas I realized how deep Santa is embedded in Western cultures, while here, in the place where Christmas began, we only know Santa through television and movies.” The following year, Kassissieh donned the costume again. The year after that he hired a camel. Since then, around Christmas, he has ridden the camel around the Old City spreading cheer, and then receives visits from children and their families in Santa’s House in the afternoon. At the height of the season, the line in front of “Santa’s House” can be two hours long. Kassissieh funds most of the operation himself, but he does get candy donations from Christian individuals and organizations worldwide.
In 2016, Kassissieh took the next step in his development—he decided to train at the Professional Santa Claus School in Denver, Colorado. He studied for a week and learned how to build wooden toys, bake cookies, and say “Ho, ho, ho” the right way.
“You can’t just call ‘Ho, ho, ho,’” he says. “The sound needs to come from the abdomen. To be Santa you have to do things from the heart, and the heart should hold hope, love, and peace.”
Kassissieh, who is Orthodox Christian, was the first Arab to attend the Santa school in Denver, they told him. In 2018 he enrolled for further training in the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Michigan. “It’s a famous school founded 83 years ago, which trained more than 5,000 Santas,” he explains. “They told me, ‘You’re the first Santa from the Middle East and the Holy Land.’”
Today, Kassissieh earns his living as a basketball coach in West Jerusalem. “Santa’s House” has been his family’s home for 700 years; they were the first Orthodox Christian family in East Jerusalem. In the home, in which he currently resides with his parents, there are memories, mementos, and pictures that go back centuries.
“My family came to Jerusalem 900 years ago, but we don’t have any exact information on where we came from,” he says. “Some family members claim we came from Greece. Others think we came from the Palestinian city Lydda.” Some centuries back, the family founded a tile factory, and many of those tiles today adorn important churches in Israel/Palestine, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The back wall of the house carries a relatively new sign for the factory, with the name Issa Khalil Kassissieh, Issa’s great-grandfather. The belongings of those great-grandparents—a black telephone, masonry tools, a clock—are now hidden among Christmas paraphernalia. Behind a Santa Claus doll there is a sewing machine that was used by his great-grandmother, Malika.
A yellowing photo of Malika and Issa Khalil Kassissieh shows a handsome pair in Western clothing during the family’s financial heyday. “They were well-off, pillars of the community, very religious,” Kassissieh says. A few years ago, his father found a 250-year-old prayer book, written in Arabic, which now stands on a bookshelf. In the back space of the house hangs a panoramic photo of Jerusalem, around 150 years old. The Dome of the Rock was not gilded then, and the cemetery on the Mount of Olives lies fallow. “My grandfather could travel to Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, just for a party and come back that same night. Can you imagine?!” he says. Today, few can.
Some of the Kassissiehs lived and worked in Katamon, on the other end of Jerusalem. In the war that Israeli Jews call the War of Independence and Palestinians call the Nakba, or the “catastrophe,” they fled from Katamon and took up residence in the Old City, leaving behind a house and a tile factory, which were confiscated by Israel. Kassissieh doesn’t dwell too much on this event. “The Kassissieh family lived with the Ottoman, British, Jordanian, and Israeli rule,” he says. “We always know how to recover from misfortunes and negotiate with everyone.”
Right now, he’s negotiating again, with the Jerusalem Municipality for assistance in making his dream come true: a Santa Conference, the first in Jerusalem history. Kassissieh intends to invite 50 fellow Santas from around the world and hold a great parade in the city during January. He believes it will happen, he says. Because he’s Santa.