Palestinian Santa brings festive cheer to Jerusalem

In Jerusalem's Old City there are dozens of churches, but as Christmas beckons there is just one Santa Claus -- a towering Palestinian former basketball player.

Each December, the streets sparkle green and red as Christian pilgrims and others arrive to celebrate Christmas in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.

Seven years ago one resident, Issa Kassissieh, transformed the ground floor of his 700-year-old home into a grotto, complete with candy, mulled wine and a chance to sit on Santa's lap.

Welcoming the season's first visitors to Santa House, the red-suited and bearded Kassissieh belted out a "Ho, ho, ho!" at families queueing to see him.

"We are dealing with many religions here in Jerusalem. We have Muslims, Christians and Jews. I have all religions come to my house. I open my hands to everybody," said Kassissieh, himself a Christian.

Among the visitors were a group of Israeli tourists, as well as two priests who blessed the opening with prayers in Arabic and the ancient language of Aramaic -- the language of Jesus.

At 1.9 metres (six feet three inches) tall, Kassissieh's height served him well as captain of the Palestinian basketball squad, and doesn't seem to intimidate the children he towers over.

"I'm not a Christian, but I still love Santa Claus... We have a (Christmas) tree at home too," eight-year-old Marwa, a Palestinian Muslim, told AFP, grinning.

Visitors from around the world also lined up to sit on Santa's lap, and to find out if they were on his naughty or nice list.

Alison Pargiter, from the United States, waited with her children.

"It is important that our kids have fun, but we also want them to know the true story behind Christmas," the 52-year-old said.

While Jerusalem is home to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which Christians believe contains Jesus's tomb, the Nativity story of his birth happened in nearby Bethlehem, according to the faithful.

But at Santa House, Kassissieh said his young visitors have more modern concerns.