Abigail Klein Leichman
December 19, 2023

For the 15th year in a row, Santa Claus is coming to town. In Jerusalem. 

Even, or maybe especially, when Israelis are feeling anything but festive.

“It’s different because of the war,” acknowledges the famous camel-riding Jerusalem Santa, 45-year-old Issa Anis Kassissieh, a Christian Arab and the only certified Santa in the Holy Land.

“People are so stressed, and there are no tourists. It’s a hard time, but I need to give my message of hope, love and peace from the city of Jerusalem, which to me is the heart of the world,” he tells ISRAEL21c. 

“If we have peace in Jerusalem, we’ll have peace all around the world.” 

On December 1, Kassissieh opened his Santa House in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, a tradition he began in 2017 after completing certification at the Charles W. Howard Santa School in Michigan. 

Taking up the entire ground floor of his own stone residence, this Christmas wonderland is outfitted with a sleigh, Santa’s chair, Santa’s toy workshop, chocolates and candy canes, “and of course a cookie kitchen.” 

Issa Kassissieh, the Jerusalem Santa, welcoming children to the Santa House in Jerusalem’s Old City. Photo courtesy of Issa Kassissieh
Issa Kassissieh, the Jerusalem Santa, welcoming children to the Santa House in Jerusalem’s Old City. Photo courtesy of Issa Kassissieh

Kassissieh says he never considered not opening the house this year. “I will never stop,” he declares.

“I welcome everyone — Jewish, Muslim and Christian. Last year, I had 25,000 people visit in a month; this year maybe 10,000 will come because there are no tourists, but I have people coming from all over Israel, from Ashkelon and Ashdod, people who were evacuated to hotels because of the war.”

We need a hug

In the last few weeks, children approached Kassissieh to ask if Santa would be coming in this difficult year. He assured them he would.

“Children love to see Santa Claus. This season they and their parents need something happy to look forward to. I want children to be happy,” says the six-foot-three former basketball player. 

“They are in a stressful situation and they need a message of peace and love.”

The Jerusalem Santa brings reindeer to the HoHoHoly Land from the North Pole, but keeps them near the airport. Photo courtesy of Issa Kassissieh
The Jerusalem Santa brings reindeer to the HoHoHoly Land from the North Pole, but keeps them near the airport. Photo courtesy of Issa Kassissieh

Three years ago, he recalls, “we couldn’t hug during Covid-19. This year we need to hug.”

Wearing a Santa suit and sitting on Santa’s chair, he encourages visiting kids to put in their requests for gifts. The most popular wish is an iPhone. 

“If we have peace in Jerusalem, we’ll have peace all around the world.” 

Wisely, he doesn’t make any promises. He tells the children to pray and do their best to stay on Santa’s Nice List. He even writes out certificates for good children. 

In mid-December, the Jerusalem Santa took his annual camel ride from the Mount of Olives around the Old City. He borrows a friend’s camel for this highly anticipated photo op.

Issa Kassissieh, dressed as Santa Claus rides on a camel at Mount of Olives, overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, ahead of the upcoming holiday of Christmas, December 4, 2023. Photo by Jamal Awad/Flash90
Issa Kassissieh, dressed as Santa Claus rides on a camel at Mount of Olives, overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, ahead of the upcoming holiday of Christmas, December 4, 2023. Photo by Jamal Awad/Flash90

“The children ask about the reindeer. I tell them that I went to the North Pole and brought the reindeer to the HoHoHoly Land but I have to keep them near the airport,” he says with a jolly wink. 

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