I had walked by this place while I’d been alone in Jerusalem. And I scoffed. It bothered me that here in the land of Jesus, there’s a place devoted to Santa Claus. Come on, no Santa here.

When we were out on an evening excursion for gelato, we walked by this house again. There’s a large canvas sign on the second story touting a basketball player. Below are multiple signs wishing us all a Merry Christmas from the “Ho Ho Holyland.” We could hear Christmas music — and there was a gregarious face peering over the balcony. We exchanged greetings and he asked us if we wanted to check out his Christmas display. The ladies were all over that. More than gelato. I lost.

This friendly guy came downstairs and opened the door for us. It was clear pretty quickly that he was the player touted for his basketball prowess. He’s a bit famous. And he uses his fame for God. His energy was contagious — and after a day of touring, we needed that energy.

His current mission in the world has changed. He played basketball for 25 years, but now he’s the Jerusalem Santa. He has a two-room Santa studio below his house (his family has lived there for well over 100 years). The first of his two rooms has a sleigh — and it is used for photos. And it has a snow machine that showers the occupants for even better Christmas pictures.

Inside the second room there is more Christmas kitsch than any room should hold. There’s a desk for Santa to do his correspondence. A Christmas tree, of course. Tons of Christmas decorations. And, there are “Santa School” diplomas on the wall (three of them if I recall). He’s been to three Santa schools in the US — a couple in Denver and one in Gatlinburg.

His name is Issa Kassissieh, and he had more energy than all of us put together.

He uses the Santa gig to tell the story of Jesus. He tells people Jesus was born here and yet we don’t do Christmas right. We don’t decorate. We don’t tell the story. We just don’t do it properly. So, he has decorated everything to the max — and when children come to visit, he tells them the story of Jesus. And…this Jesus was born here — in Israel — in Bethlehem. Last Christmas over 12,000 children came to his home to meet Santa. And hear of Jesus. They are Jews and Christians and Muslims. They all come. They all hear the story, a story few know. But because of the Jerusalem Santa they know of Jesus.

In January, he is bringing almost 100 Santas to Israel to tour the land and see what he does. The Ministry of Tourism loves him. And he was the only Middle Eastern Santa at the convention of Santas. Who knew such things existed?

I, who scoffed at the concept of Santa in the Holy Land, have repented of my scoffing. This guy uses Santa to tell the story of Jesus. And there is a missions project in there:  he has a hard time getting candy canes in Israel, so on my next trip I will bring candy canes to the Old City. He’ll use them to share the Gospel. It’s a great excuse to go again, right?