One of the 47 Santas visiting Israel and the West Bank this week stands on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, with the Old City in the background. (Maya Margit)

‘Accredited’ Santas Chill Out in the Holy Land (VIDEO REPORT followed by text report)

Mr. and Mrs. Clauses from around the globe spread a bit of post-holiday cheer

After a busy, winter-like Christmas season, dozens of swimsuit-bedecked Santa Clauses enjoyed some well-deserved January sunshine in the Israeli desert, taking a load off at the Dead Sea.

Santas do float, proving it this week in Israel at the Dead Sea. (Courtesy Israel Ministry of Tourism)

They were among 47 “accredited” Santas from across the United States, Denmark, Germany and Romania – but not the North Pole – who left Rudolph and the gang at home and embarked on a whirlwind four-day tour of Israel and the West Bank. They spread post-holiday cheer from Jerusalem’s Old City to Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity and onward to Nazareth, where Jesus is believed to have been raised.

The participants, men and women alike, were all graduates of the non-profit Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School of Midland, Michigan – yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus school – which has trained hundreds of people to embody Christmas’ holly-jolly, sleigh-riding, gift-giving icon.

Kevin Morrison, of Paw Paw, Michigan, was not anxious to speak with The Media Line about his day job, but was more than happy to talk about his studies.

Santa school, he said, “was a wonderful experience. I’ve gone two years in a row and it’s just phenomenal. We learn the things that we share with each other, and it’s just great!”

Jerry-the-Santa from Colorado – who asked that his last name not be used – told The Media Line some more about their education.

“We learn how to handle kids’ questions, how to take care of ourselves, how to do different types of events, what to do when you get in a tight situation and things like that,” he said, making it clear that Santa can face his challenges.

The trip’s brainchild is Issa Kassissieh, who, having graduated from the school in Michigan, is Israel’s lone “certified” Santa.

Jerusalem Santa Issa Kassissieh sits atop a camel on the city’s Mount of Olives this week in the presence of fellow Santas. (Maya Margit)

He is perhaps best-known for transforming his Jerusalem home, which has been owned by his family for some 700 years, into something right out of the latest animated Grinch-that-stole-Christmas movie. Kassissieh is likewise near-famous for riding a camel around the city in his Santa costume, and for distributing Christmas trees to locals free of charge.

“When I went to Santa school in the United States, I said: ‘I want to bring all the Santas to the Holy Land,’” Kassissieh recounted to The Media Line. “I tried to contact all the Santas on my Facebook, all of my friends, and bring them all the way here. This is the first time ever this is happening…. It’s my dream come true!”

Kassissieh’s message of “love and hope” resonated with officials in Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, to whom he pitched the initiative and who subsequently agreed to help organize the event.

“We liked the idea and thought this would be a good opportunity to market Israel as the Holy Land in a sympathetic way,” Noga Sher-Greco, director of religious tourism at the ministry, told The Media Line. “This tour also brings joy to the Christian community. You should have seen the children’s eyes shining in Jerusalem and Nazareth!”

For most of the Santas, including Denny and Dawn Huss, it was their first time in Israel and the West Bank.

Riding a camel “was a little scary, but it was the coolest thing we’ve done,” the couple from Rehoboth Beach in the US state of Delaware ho-ho-ho’ed to The Media Line. “When you go up, you feel like you’re going to fall off!”

A Bedouin man gives a Santa couple a scary but cool ride in the Judean Desert this week. (Maya Margit)

Denny, a retired Chrysler employee, is a member of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas and has been donning a red suit for five years now.

“Most of our Santa jobs are in a 10-mile radius of our home, and we have been featured in our hometown parade,” he said.

“Our ‘big’ job is to participate in WinterWonderfest, a venue that features holiday lighting, an ice rink, food and drink vendors, a workshop for the children to make Christmas crafts, a child’s train ride, and a village full of miniature homes.”

Reggie Hall, a Santa from Columbia, South Carolina, told The Media Line that most of his peers were volunteering their time during retirement.

“Many of us are on the ‘older’ spectrum,” he explained. “I myself had a stroke four years ago, so I’m disabled – not able to work, except to make appearances as Santa Claus and make people as happy and as fulfilled as I can, and to share that spirit of love and giving.”

Interestingly, he says, the effort is not limited to Christmas time.

“A majority of what Santa is about is the spirit of love and giving, and you must have that in your heart and in your character to even be Santa Claus,” he said, “so yes, it’s a year-long venture.”

Jorgen Rosland, a former Danish ice skating champion, has donned the classic red and white Santa suit each year for a quarter of a century. He first visited Israel in 1969 for the “Holiday on Ice” show.

“[Jerusalem’s Old City] hasn’t changed a bit,” he told The Media Line while peering through binoculars at the nearby Mount of Olives. “I was here just after the war in 1967, and everything looks the same. It’s magnificent!”

Santa Wolfgang Pomp came from Bonn, in Germany.

“If you are Christian and you believe in God, and you go to the place – Jerusalem – all the words you have heard in the Bible and in church are here,” he told The Media Line.

Santas and other visitors wait to enter the grotto inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem this week. (Maya Margit)

Hall added that the group was treated “like royalty” during its stay.

“The visit has been tremendous. The people of Israel – Jerusalem, especially – have been so warm-hearted, so welcoming and so encouraging of us, being from America,” he stated.

“The Tourism Ministry has been involved, Issa [Kassissieh] has been involved and others have been involved to make our experience here one that we’ll never forget – and, I hope, one that will take place year after year after year.”

Morrison, the Paw Paw Santa, agreed.

“This is just unbelievable!” he enthused. “It’s just amazing: the sights, the people. We love it, and we know that they love us!”

Hall, in fact, emphasized the role that love plays in the whole endeavor of being Santa Claus.

“I believe that before Santa can come down your chimney on Christmas Eve, that he must first enter your heart,” he explained. “If people don’t believe in Santa, he can’t provide the warmth of the love and the giving in their heart.”

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