I remember several years ago, before the town acquired a boom truck, when my husband Pat climbed to the top of this very same tree to set the lights. Pat is a lapsed Catholic and he doesn't much care about Christmas, but he does enjoy climbing to high places, so he volunteered for the job. That was when our daughter Terra was little, and I had decided to celebrate Christmas. I wanted desperately to see what it was like to be part of the sparkling festivities surrounding me, instead of being perpetually "apart."
That first time, when Terra was a baby, I invited Pat's whole family over for Christmas. It was the first winter in our modest not-quite-finished log home up the Icicle Canyon, exceedingly cozy with the influx of all those in-laws. As we sat down to the sumptuous Christmas dinner I had remarkably managed to prepare on our dilapidated kitchen stove salvaged from the dump, my father-in-law asked us all to bow our heads to say grace. I felt a momentary panic in my heart as I looked up and saw him make the sign of the cross (in MY HOUSE!!!) before gently folding his hands in prayer. "Hold everything!" I thought, "I wanted tinsel and lights! THIS was not part of the bargain!!!"
The next Yuletide I did not invite my in-laws. At my insistence Pat went out and cut a spindly little fir tree that was growing precariously next to our driveway, and hauled it inside. I was momentarily daunted when this Charlie-Brown tree seemed to fill up half the house, but I persevered in my quest to finally join the mainstream culture. Terra was my excuse to celebrate Christmas. Pat didn't care--the nostalgia was all mine. I wanted what I had never had: lights and trees, stockings and Santa. Terra and I strung popcorn and cranberries and made brightly colored ornaments. I took many pictures of Terra toddling about elfin-like in her rainbow-striped jumpsuit, decorating our Christmas tree and tearing open presents. Yet my vague sense of uneasiness grew with each picture I snapped. I felt as if I was play-acting. I knew that no matter how much I wanted it, this was not an authentic celebration from my inexorable Jewish heart.
The year following my second experiment with Christmas we spent the last half of December with my family in Israel, where December 25th passes by just like any other day, extraordinary in its ordinariness. That year I snapped pictures of Terra making a menorah from rocks and shells, in the tradition of Israeli children. At our family Hanukkah party I stuffed myself with latkes and soofganiyot --the jelly doughnuts of Sephardic tradition, as ubiquitous in Israel in December as candy canes are in North America. As I gazed at the collection of the cousins' handmade menorahs glowing together in a mass of soft candlelight, I felt suffused with the warmth of true belonging, to a people and tradition of light that is authentically mine.
Now Terra is nine years old, and there have been no more Christmas trees in my home. Instead, I have a kitchen cabinet filled with menorahs she's made for Hanukkah over the years. My favorite is the mama cat with eight kittens, fashioned from Fimo last year by Terra in honor of her cat's prolific motherhood. For a week each December we dine on crispy latkes smeared with applesauce and sour cream, and play games of dreidel by the fireplace until we are falling asleep over our piles of chocolate gelt.
As American Jews, we each need to make peace with Christmas in our own way. My uneasy flirtation with Christmas led to a renaissance of Jewish identity that has brought great joy to my family. However, this December we will be having some very early Shabbat dinners, so that Terra can arrive punctually to sing in her choir's Christmas concerts and I can rush off to play handbells in our town's annual Christmas gala. Others may choose to celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday, or to have the Christmas tree and call it a Hanukkah bush. We each need to search our own hearts and do our best to cope with the relentless December angst.