To Tree or Not to Tree

I adapted this essay from a longer piece that ran in Seven Days newspaper a while back, and that I posted on this blog last year. I had intended to use it for my column in the Jewish Voice and Herald, but the publisher pulled the plug on it. So I pulled the plug on my column. I write about that here.

How one intermarried couple dealt with the December Dilemma

For years, the Christmas tree question sat quietly in the corner of my inter-marriage. Since we celebrated Christmas at David’s parents’ house, I could disavow the tree there as the Christensens’. What finally forced us to face the issue was my mother’s final illness.

I had flown to New Jersey to spend December caring for her. David and the kids would celebrate Chanukah at home in Vermont, then drive to David’s parents’ for Christmas and join me for New Year’s. But after I arrived at my mother’s, David told me his parents were coming to Vermont to help out while I was away. They would celebrate Christmas in our house. With a tree.

Talk about betrayal. Here I was worrying about unplugging Mommy’s oxygen so she could safely watch her last Chanukah candles, and he was suggesting a major rules change. David calmly reminded me how far he’d come to raise our children – his children – as Jews. Compared to their hours of  Hebrew school, their b’nei mitzvah, the seders, a Christmas tree was pretty insignificant. Wasn’t it?

“If you do end up having one, get rid of it before I come home,” I insisted. “I don’t want to see it there.”

“Are you sure?” He sounded hurt. “I wanted to leave your presents there, so they’d be waiting for you when you got home.”

I could almost taste the sweetness of his vision: his home, his tree, his family reunited, gifts for the woman he loved. Though David had been raised without religion, his family did share some long-loved traditions; one of their most treasured was Christmas. Our children also cherished this tradition.

“My parents don’t object to your lighting a menorah in their home,” David argued, his voice tense. “Why should you object to their having a tree in yours?”

Good question. What is a Christmas tree, anyway? A symbol of rebirth? Forgiveness? The cross? For most Americans, including my in-laws, it’s basically a great centerpiece for exchanging gifts. What the tree meant to my family was more complicated. Confession: my family celebrated Christmas. We hung stockings on Christmas Eve, and in the morning awoke to a miracle of gifts. After my brother and sisters and I started spending Christmas with our gentile in-laws, the Horowitz stockings-and-gifts celebration shifted to New Year’s Day. We called it, “Fake Christmas.” Real or fake, we drew the line at public displays. No lights. No wreath. And never, ever a tree.

“It seemed like a fair compromise,” my mother said as we discussed David’s plan. “We did it for the children. So you wouldn’t feel deprived.” But a tree? “A tree makes a very strong statement about the identity of the household,” she declared.

Just because we liked candy canes didn’t make us not-Jewish. But our neighbors wouldn’t understand. Being the only house on the block without Christmas lights declared that centuries of persecution hadn’t erased us. That we weren’t trying to “pass.” That we didn’t consider our religion so ritually impoverished that we had to borrow someone else’s traditions – although that was precisely what we were doing, behind closed doors. Another factor, doubtless, was shame. So maybe we had succumbed to this goyishe holiday. Did we have to advertise the fact? Although I had married out, I had always followed these rules. To my mother, David’s readiness to change them now was a bad omen. What would become of her Jewish grandchildren after she was gone?

As her position hardened, I began to realize that a tree – so loaded with implications for the Horowitzim – was, for the Christensens, simply evergreen and ornaments, beautiful and beloved. We weren’t dealing with some crafty territorial encroachment, but a variation in celebration. A bit of tinsel on a bough.

David was still indignant when he phoned that evening. He called my attitude selfish, hypocritical and intolerant. However, he and his parents didn’t want to add to my stress. They would celebrate Christmas at the Christensens’. The status quo would stand. But this accommodation was only temporary, he assured me. After all, we wouldn’t be spending Christmas with his parents forever.

About 10 years ago, David’s parents moved to Colorado, and we stopped celebrating Christmas with them. But we didn’t stop celebrating. And celebrating has meant having trees. I’m still squeamish about inviting Jewish friends over when they’re up, but I secretly like them. They’re pretty. They smell good. And they make David very happy. Ironically, I’ve felt better about our trees as I’ve grown surer of myself as a Jew. These days, I light Shabbat candles, serve as a gabbi and read Torah (things the Horowitzim never did). I don’t need the absence of a tree to know who I am. I have also learned that shalom doesn’t just mean peace, but wholeness. And the Jewish value of shalom bayit – peace in the home – means a home that embraces the whole family.


One Response to “To Tree or Not to Tree”

  1. Birte Edwards Says:

    I enjoyed this very much. It also reminded me of a conversation I had with my mother many years ago on the issue of being part of some of the Christmas traditions.
    This was in an assimilated Jewish family in Denmark. We would get together for a traditional Christmas dinner and give presents afterward. The problem for me (years later) was that I was never taught about Hanukkah.
    The outcome of the conversation was kind of funny, but that’s for another time.

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