The Israeli Santa Claus: Old, fat, and likeable
For 25 years, Nicola Abdou has been serving as an Israeli Santa Claus, a mission he took upon himself and fulfills by distributing gifts to children of all religions.
The house of the Israeli Santa Claus is pretty hard to miss. Flags in Santa's trademark red and white hang from the front. Colorful Christmas decorations festoon the patio. Crates full of presents are stand next to Santa's kingly throne.
Guests who march into the house are immediately confronted by a big and glowing Christmas tree, decorated with a bountiful number of colored lights. In a corner of the room, in a generously proportioned armchair, sits Santa himself.
"Everyone knows that this is Santa's house," he says, as he pats his big belly. "It's all original, the belly too. Like the real Santa's," he adds.
The Israeli Santa - Nicola Abdou is his given name - lives in the Wadi Nisnas neighborhood of Haifa. He is 52 years old, a former wedding photographer, married and a father of three. He has been functioning as the semi-official Santa Claus of Haifa and the north for a quarter of a century, on a wholly volunteer basis.
"It started off as a joke, when I sewed a Santa Claus outfit and went to visit the family," he reminisces. "I handed out gifts to all the kids in the family, and gave what was left to a needy family. The mother blessed me and wished me many children."
Exactly a year later his eldest son was born. To this day he has kept the vow he made then: to dress up every year as Santa Claus and distribute presents to children. "I felt that the power of the real Santa had entered me. I guess it's not for nothing that I am named Nicola," he says, and launches into an improvised history lesson. It centers on Saint Nicholas of Myra, a 3rd-4th century Christian holy man, who secretly handed out presents in Lycia (part of modern-day Turkey), and who later became the patron saint of children. His image and name were the inspiration for the myth of Santa Claus - the one familiar to some of us from the Coca-Cola advertising campaign of the last century. As befits the spirit of the times, the Israeli Santa has three mobile phones, which ring incessantly. The ringtone, naturally, is one of the holiday melodies known to all. On the line are people inviting him to make an appearance or to be a guest at various events.
This weekend is the high point of the year for the Israeli Santa. Tomorrow he will be the guest of honor at what Haifa calls the Festival of Festivals, an annual event meant to mark Christmas and Hanukkah. First he will take part in a parade, at the climax of which he will decorate a Christmas tree mounted on a truck. Afterward he will open up his home to all the children of Israel, who are invited to line up to receive a present from Santa.
This year he anticipates handing out no fewer than 3,000 gifts donated by private individuals and businesses, as well as some that he purchases himself. As he does every year, "Santa" will visit Haifa's hospitals and hand out gifts to the children there. "I would like to come to Tel Aviv as well, but I simply don't have the time," he says.
Perhaps out of a bad habit or as a way of dealing with the seasonal pressure, the Israeli Santa smokes non-stop. Later he complains that he is "a little old already," and he has a hard time bending down to pick up a present that has fallen on the floor.
But that is precisely how Santa is: old, fat, and likable. "The kids are nuts about it," he says. "I am here for everyone: Muslims, Jews, Christians - in Hebrew, in Arabic and in English. I do Hanukkah, Christmas and also New Year's."