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Bethlehem Santa Gives Joy in Cool Shades

Each year, volunteer Santas fan out across Bethlehem and the nearby West Bank Christian communities of Beit Jalla and Beit Sahour to deliver presents to children at home.

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DIAA HADID (Associated Press)
BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK — In biblical Bethlehem, Santa makes his rounds in cool shades.

The sunglasses are a Palestinian addition to Santa's garb of red suit and black boots, meant to ensure that children in the tiny, tight-knit Christian community in Jesus' traditional birthplace don't recognize the bearded man bringing presents.

Each year, volunteer Santas fan out across Bethlehem and the nearby West Bank Christian communities of Beit Jalla and Beit Sahour to deliver presents to children at home. And this season there is a spirit of optimism, with tourism boosted by Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts.

Khaled Rishmawi, a 21-year-old Greek Orthodox Christian, volunteered for Santa duty this year "to give back the joy Santa gave me as a child."

"Every child must feel the joy of Christmas because they don't have much joy. Their joy is when Santa Claus brings them a present," he said.

Rishmawi will deliver about 50 presents bought by parents from Yasmina's Gift Shop in Beit Sahour, owned by a distant relative, Hana Rishmawi. Popular items include Lego blocks, remote-controlled cars and dolls.

For the shop owner, these are good times. Seven years of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians ravaged tourism. Now the number of visitors is up following last week's pledge to resume peace talks.

In October, 40,000 tourists entered Bethlehem in buses passing through a checkpoint in the separation barrier - the most in years. Although tourists stay only an average of two hours, it's one of Bethlehem's best years since the second Palestinian uprising began in 2000.

The Palestinian government in the West Bank says it will spend $100,000 decorating Bethlehem and nearby villages - double what rival Hamas spent on the town when it was in power last year.

Prime Minister Salam Fayyad also promised a $1,200 bonus to bankrupt shopkeepers to keep their stores open for the next six months, starting with the Christmas season.

Hana Rishmawi said his business has grown a little every year, a small miracle considering that Christians are a diminishing minority - just 2 percent of the West Bank's 2.4 million residents. Economic hardship and growing Muslim fervor have fueled the Christian exodus.

In Rishmawi's shop, families spend up to $50 on each gift, even if they have to pay in installments.

While Santa Claus is largely a Western custom, he has become a beloved Christian tradition in the West Bank.

Bernard Sabella, a 62-year-old social activist, remembers waking up as a child to candied nuts, chocolates and balloons on Christmas.

"When we'd ask where the presents came from, our parents said Baba Noel, but we never saw him," Sabella said, referring to Santa by his Arabic name.

For the past 20 years, Hana Rishmawi has dispatched about six Santas to deliver presents to more than 100 children. Most Santas are young men, though there are few women and even Muslims in the bunch.

The Santas follow strict rules: They're expected to ring a hand-held bell, call the children's names, take a photo, and - occasionally - remove the fake beard and dark sunglasses to reassure teary children there's nothing to fear.

At times, the Santa tradition can be a headache.

It always seems to rain on Christmas, and the gifts get wet. Aging cars get stuck on muddy roads or break down. Once they reach the children's houses, Santas are often shooed away because "the children are asleep, can you come back later?"

Hana Rishmawi has given parents an alternative to deliveries by Santa: picking up a gift from a hall decked with Christmas decorations, where Santa will be on hand to take photos with the kids.

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