This is all the work of Isa Anis Kassissieh, a former basketball player and the only official Santa Claus in Israel. Santa Isa is also the world’s only Father Christmas who rides a camel, rather than driving the famous six-reindeer sleigh.
“This is the home where I was born,” Kassissieh said proudly. “It’s been in the family for 700 years. I’m 40 years old and I started performing a decade ago, but two years ago I decided to actually study the trade seriously and went to Denver, Colorado to a special Santa school.”
“I studied at the Michigan Santa School - which is the world’s oldest - alongside 300 other Santas, and got an official diploma,” Kassissieh said.
So what do you do at Santa schools? Well, first of all, you learn about the importance of the Santa for young customers, who anticipate the exciting meeting all year round. They study how to walk slowly and merrily, how to look the part (and there's no room for sloppy appearances!) and how to shout "Ho! Ho! Ho!" to passers-by. And of course, they learn how to talk to children and how to listen—and never reveal that Santa doesn’t really exist.
December is the busiest time of year for Santas around the world. “In preparation for the holiday, I fix the house for visitors and buy lots of chocolate and traditional candy,” said Kassissieh. “I buy presents and keep the house open for a few hours every day—parents who who want their children to visit contact me in advance and bring the presents, which I later give to the children.”
“But every child that visits gets candy—that’s the whole idea of Santa,” Kassissieh said. “Santa brings joy, love, peace and security to all children, and every smile I get makes me proud and and happy.” Kassissieh said his home is open to all: Christian, Jewish and Muslim. “Everyone is welcome!”
Jerusalem’s Santa doesn’t just settle for inviting children to his home, where all decorations are handmade and visitors can see his Santa workshop and experience the holiday spirit. In the mornings, he visits children in hospitals and in schools, spreading the joys of the festive season to everyone.
So how did you become Santa?
“It all started 10 years ago, when the municipality put up a Christmas tree in front of the Jaffa Gate to the OId City,” Kassissieh said. “I decided to wear a red suit that I had, just for the holiday spirit. And people got excited about it, so the following year I came in riding a camel, and rode around the ancient walls. It made people happy.”
After a while, the atmosphere picked up, and people started to approach Kassissieh and take pictures with him, making him want to do it right—”including formal studies and a diploma.” But it’s more than that. “I’m actually living my childhood dream. When I was a kid, there was no Santa Claus in Jerusalem. We only got to see him on television and we didn’t have the full holiday experience. I used to dream that one day, an old man with a beard would walk around my city, spreading magic. And now I’m that old man!”
Don’t you get tired?
“The most important thing is to do it with heart, and then even if I get tired, the children’s smiles give me strength to continue. A good Santa is a clean, neat Santa, who knows how to talk to children patiently, to tell them stories. And sometimes, his job is also to help their parents. For instance, once I had a child whose parents wanted him to lose the pacifier. So I told him a whole story about how Santa would be happy if he said goodbye to the pacifier, and it worked!"
How do you get into character?
I dye my eyebrows white and of course I have a white beard that I put on. I have three suits: one fancy, once regular and a third one I bought in Russia. I plan to get a fourth one sewed with Jerusalem motifs. It’s a surprise!”
Kassissieh said he can easily spot imposter Clauses. “‘I recognize fake Santas, it’s in the way the walk and move. They haven’t learned the trade. I don’t mind them as long as they don’t make a joke of it. I’m happy with anyone who wants to make the effort to make children happy!”
Kassissieh will be at the Jerusalem Christmas market on December 15, near the glittery tree and the stalls. The tree will be lit with 30,000 LED lights and 3,000 decorations and will be switched on during a festive ceremony complete with fireworks.
Santa will be there, of course, walking the streets of the Christian Quarter, doing his best to make children happy in the true spirit of the holiday.