Every year on the feast of St. Nicholas, Issa Anis Kassisieh dons a red suit, black boots, and a thick white beard. He mounts a camel in the outskirts of Jerusalem and rides into the streets of the Old City.
The 44-year-old Orthodox Christian, a former soccer pro who played in Europe and the United States, coaches basketball at his local YMCA.
But every December for 16 years, he has become the “Jerusalem Santa.”
Kassisieh told ACI MENA, CNA’s Middle Eastern news partner, that while Santa Claus is an invented figure, his motive as a Christian for dressing up as the character is to remind people that the feast of Christmas celebrates an event that took place in the Middle East — the birth of Christ.
The family of this Middle Eastern Father Christmas has lived in Jerusalem for almost 900 years. For Kassisieh, being Jerusalem Santa is a way to also remind people of the more than 2,000-year history of the Christian presence in the Middle East.
Kassisieh first stumbled on his Jerusalem Santa role after dressing up as the jolly Christmas character for his own children, following in the footsteps of his father. He started walking around the Old City of Jerusalem in the costume, and he was surprised to notice how much joy it brought to both children and adults.
A few years ago, Kassisieh decided to not only dress as Santa Claus but also to enter Jerusalem on the back of a camel as a reminder of the entrance of the three Magi, or wise men, into that ancient city on their way to the Christ Child.
In 2017, he also opened up a space inside a 700-year-old building as a permanent “workshop” where he could welcome children and families.
Kassisieh is now an internationally-recognized Santa: In 2015, he received the title of “Santa’s Global Ambassador for the Holy Land” from The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, established in 1937.
He has also collaborated with Israel’s Tourism Ministry to film videos of Jerusalem Santa sending Christmas greetings from important Christian religious sites in Israel. In one video, Kassisieh wishes “joy and peace” to the children of the Holy Land from a boat on the Jordan River.
By Hannah Brockhaus, ACI MENA