Oh That Tree Question

Christmas treeThis is it. That time of year that many intermarried Jews dread: Christmas tree time. Especially if you go as far as getting a tree and stringing it up on the roof of your car and driving to your house as quickly as possible (maybe even ducking as you drive by your shul, so the rabbi doesn’t see). It used to feel so wrong, so shameful: “What will the others think?”

Where do our values come from? How do these questioning voices appear in one’s head? Often our values are shaped by our parents and our teachers and our peers. My elementary school upbringing consisted of attending an Orthodox Hebrew Day School and the message growing up was clear: If a Jew has a Christmas tree in his house, he has gone “too far.” If you bring a tree into your house, you might as well put a swastika on top for you have betrayed the Jewish people.

My mother would mourn for the Jewish people if she saw it, and fear I would have lost focus on my roots. Oy, assimilation-1, Jews-0. My environmentalist friends would moan the betrayal of the earth, to drag a tree into one’s house for one week of the year. How horrifying! Don’t get me started on the gifts. The commercialism of Christmas is horrendous and the wrapping paper and packaging is tantamount criminal. The spoiling of kids with gift after gift. The plastic. The cookies. The elevated levels of acidity in one’s blood sugar as one holiday party bleeds into another. The drinks. The decadence.

But of course, I went to Hebrew School. My brother and sister and I would watch all of the holiday Christmas specials and feel like outsiders. We loved the cartoons and the stories of spreading cheer and goodness and charity. Charity and community service that we were taught to do regularly were emphasized on one special day for the majority of Americans, and we were on the fringe and couldn’t (or didn’t know how to) really participate at all.

And there I was 30 years later, a grown adult making decisions of my own. It’s true, if both people in a relationship are of the same religion, these kinds of things are rarely a problem. The best we could hope for would be to go out for Chinese food and play cards, which was the running joke of many of our childhoods, the thing that all American Jews do on that holiday.

But things have changed. These are different times. Would I choose to get a tree for my family like my friends from Baltimore? No. Not in a thousand years. Is it a ritual that I embrace and make my own filled with meaning? No, not that either. So what changed? For me, it is about respecting my wife’s background. Deb pointed it out like this: We have a very Jewish household. We light Shabbat candles, do Kiddush and blessings, make challah, send our kids to Hebrew school, sing Hebrew songs, have mezuzot on our doorways, give Tzedakah regularly, celebrate all the holidays, engage in Chevurah groups, the list goes on and on… But there is just one thing—just one thing—from her past tradition that she wants to keep and it shouldn’t be too much to ask.

She never converted, and to her, Christmas had nothing to do with religion (I know, I know, that one is really tough for me), but was about hot chocolate and sleigh rides and getting cozy and thankful and making snowmen and caroling and decorations and parties with friends and family and creating magic for the children. Time to relax as a family.

Well when you put it that way, it shouldn’t be too much to ask. So I go along for the sake of Shalom Bayit (peace in the house). I assure you that it’s not easy. And I still have a hard time with it since I am a committed Jewish educator (who is coming out of the closet with the confession to having a tree over the years). But relationships are about giving to the other and not ruling with an iron fist. Would I recommend that Jews have Christmas trees in their houses? Do I buy into the commercialization and environmental waste associated with Christmas? Not at all on either count.

But do I love my wife? Yes! Is this tradition really important to her and her family? Yes! If I grin and bear it for one week of the year, will my kids continue to go to Hebrew School and have bar and bat mitzvahs and identify as Jews throughout their lives? Yes! So all that was stopping me was closing my mind to honoring what my life partner wants. And that was no longer acceptable to me.

I am not the only Jew who struggles with this. So I wrote this blog to allow people to open up and share with their partners what they care about. There is more than enough evidence that children who grow up in committed Jewish households survive the Christmas Tree thing just fine and live their lives as committed Jews.

If you want to hear more perspectives on how intermarried Jews approach the Christmas tree issue, check out this insightful packet with some meaningful questions.

Trees Are Sensitive

For years now, synagogues and Jewish community centers have been offering “December Dilemma” programs. The programs are centered on figuring out what to do as an interfaith family about the Christmas tree and all that comes with it in a Jewish home with children being raised with Judaism.

One might wonder why a Jewish family would have to figure out whether to have a tree in the home or not, because for some, the answer is clearly not. Yet we all know Jewish families that do enjoy decorating a tree and bringing Christmas symbols into the home.

Everyone has an opinion about this. Does this confuse children? Does this commercialize and secularize Christmas? Religion and identity are fluid and there are more grays than blacks and whites when it comes to emotions. For a parent who isn’t Jewish or even for a parent who has converted to Judaism, even if they are living a Jewish life and raising Jewish children, holidays may bring up feelings that still resonate. Should a parent helping to foster a Jewish family tell children that Christmas is a holiday that some in the family celebrate and keep Christmas separate from the home entirely — perhaps celebrating it at the grandparents’ Christian home instead?

In this open age when Christmas seems everywhere and we celebrate holidays with a multi-cultural mindset, it might seemed outdated, unnecessary, or irrelevant to need December Dilemma programs. Families do a mix of things already — from Buddhist meditation and finding spirituality in nature, to sending holiday greeting cards blending the names of the holidays into one fun, festive, family-centered, gift-giving, giving-back, time of warmth, lights and togetherness.

When a local reporter asked me to put her in touch with interfaith families in the area who could share their approach to the holidays, I thought I would have many emails to share with her. I asked all the participants in any workshop or class we have offered if anyone had time and interest in talking with a reporter. I posted a question to Facebook about what families in the area are doing around Christmas and Hanukkah. And I posted it as a discussion question on the Chicagoland homepage. Nobody wanted to talk to a reporter. Fascinating!

I could be wrong, but it seems that families are hesitant to so publically admit, declare, or share that in fact they are a Jewish family who “does” Christmas. We live such open and public lives and share all kinds of personal information daily… yet there is something about this tree that is still so emotional.

Are parents worried about being judged? Are parents worried that they have to defend their choices and prove their Jewishness more at this time? I look forward to hearing from you to help explain whether you still feel scrutinized and judged for the decisions you make around the holidays. Is this one time of year that still brings sadness, a sense of loss, or conflict because no matter what is decided as a family, one partner still feels that it is not exactly what they feel comfortable with or hoped for? Are December Dilemma programs still valuable if the stigma of attending can be overcome?