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Fifteen Christmases and a Festival Tree

Originally published on the Chicago Carless blog, under the title Fifteen Christmases and an Eitz Moed. In Hebrew, "eitz" means "tree" and "moed" means, among other things, "festival."

December 8, 2011

I thought about adding, "Or, how to decorate a Chanukah bush" to the title of this post. Except it isn't. It's an Eitz Moed [which can translate to Festival Tree]. I'm very specific about this point. As I blogged last year during my first "holiday season" spent Jewishly, though all my life I've been a lover of big, fat, giant — and in my case, secular — Christmas trees, as a fairly newly minted Jewish man, I just don't have another one in me. And yet, the urge to have an end-of-year tree runs deep. The same eight-year-old in me who did backflips when he realized he was a Jew and put his yarmulke on for the first time just won't let this one go.

An etrog for Sukkot; one of the ten plagues — a frog — from the Exodus story told on Passover; [the bottom of] a beehive, representing honey for a sweet Rosh Hashanah; and a bunch of grapes.

It isn't that my former Christmases were religious; they weren't. It isn't that I ever believed in the virgin birth of the son of God; I didn't. And as I wrote last year, a year of Hebrew calendar holidays fills me up from Kislev [the month during which Chanukah falls) to Kislev with a similar feeling of joy and wonder that I used to get only once a year on Christmas. But in my personal history book, Christmastime was usually the one time of year my dysfunctional family managed for a few moments to pull itself together and rally around a flag of compassion and tenderness.

The seven-and-a-half-foot, 2,000-branch-tip, 1,300-light trees I'd eventually and carefully put together as an adult, year after year in week-long paroxysms of decorating frenzy were, I suppose, some sort of monument to those rare, annual happy moments of my childhood. Seeing my mom alive for the last time on a mid-1990s Christmas Day added even more emotional weight to the season. Last December, temporarily not living in my own apartment, I didn't have to directly face that hackneyed specter of the Jewish "December dilemma." Even had I wanted to put up a tree, mine was in storage. So I threw myself into Chanukah and that was that.

I'll keep Chanukah well again this year, the holiday's message of cultural survival resonates for me. But a year later, I know something in me must survive as well from what has come before. I spent all year trying to explain it to myself. By Thanksgiving, I gave up trying to explain it and tried to figure out what I was going to do about it. As almost any Jewish blog post on the subject will tell you, Jews don't celebrate Christmas so Jews don't put up trees. End of story.

Except maybe not so fast.

I honor the discomfort many of my fellow Jews — most especially Jews-by-birth — feel when faced with the idea of having in their living rooms massive, green, leafy items used by millions to celebrate Christian theology. In fact, I share it. The idea of a Santa Claus-laden (much less nativity scene-laden) tree in my home is unacceptable to me. But as far as my inner eight-year-old and outer forty-one-year-old are both concerned, the idea of a tree in and of itself is a different story. I've read many converts' accounts of hand-wringing and holiday tears surrounding the difficulty with letting go of the tradition of decorating a tree. The easy way out is to label the tree a "Chanukah bush" and go on with your life.

Except, you know, there's no such thing.

So with fifteen adult-on-my-own Christmas seasons and one year living Jewishly under my belt, how on earth to mark the time of year that is so hard-wired within me to mark so deeply that I feel at a complete loss to explain it to non-convert Jews? Could I possibly stop worrying and do my own thing? Forge my own tradition to mark who I am and where I've been in the context of who I've become and where I'm going?

Yadda. Yadda. Yadda. I know. Even considering something like that is grounds for some Jews to throw around the dreaded "S' word: syncretism. That is, merging differing religious traditions into something new–and potentially in conflict with the original traditions. There is, of course, the point that that's how almost all Jewish (and Christian) ritual came to be. Almost universally, our holidays were once someone else's, with different meanings and different theologies attached. But why quibble? I'm not looking to start a new religion, after all, just a new personal minhag (tradition).

Others might find it in poor taste for a Jew to borrow holiday traditions from non-Jewish sources at a time where we're marking a holiday — Chanukah — that is centered on fighting against cultural assimilation. Except the Maccabees, whose military victory we celebrate, were essentially ancient religious extremists whose aim was to force the moderate balance of Jewish society to accept their strict religious lifestyle and to force non-Jews to convert. Or, you know, die.

Why are we celebrating this, again?

According to the Talmud, because two thousand years ago or so the Romans told us we couldn't have political aspirations anymore, destroyed the Second Temple, and in those two things made our formerly most-important religious holiday, Sukkot, impossible to celebrate. So the turn-of-the-Common-Era rabbis (*cough*) made up (*cough*) a new backstory for Chanukah, something about oil in the menorah of the re-dedicated Temple miraculously lasting for eight nights — a crafty ploy to reframe Chanukah from a political holiday into a religious one — thus giving Jews under Roman rule a safe replacement for Sukkot.

A kiddush cup and strands of grapes; a dreidel; an apple for Rosh Hashanah; and a monkey — wearing a tallit?! — might be a wild beast (a Passover plague) or a Purim costume.

That tells me two things. First, although it's often derided as a minor holiday, it's perfectly okay to celebrate mightily around Chanukah — that seems to be what the rabbis intended. And second, if the metaphorical meaning of Chanukah is more important than the actual, messy details, then I think any Jew is on firm ground who wishes to celebrate their Jewish journey in equally metaphorical ways.

Just not with Christmas trees, because we're Jewish. Or with Chanukah bushes, because that's just cheating. And then I had an idea...

I thought about the details of what I felt I would be missing without a tree. It occurred to me I used my non-religious tree-trimming tradition to honor the one time of year in my personal story that God (not a Christian God, just plain, you know, God) and goodness used to make sense to me. It wasn't necessarily ever about a religious Christmas for me. It was about what Christmas emotionally represented in my life. That is, a few secular moments of peace and happiness.

I wondered if I could find a way to adapt the same tradition to honor the many times of year that God and goodness now make sense to me as a Jew? A way to mark everything that came before, as well as everything that I've found in Judaism? And most importantly (because you wouldn't know it from this post, but I can be a purist about ritual matters), a way not rooted in my observance of Chanukah, but simply rooted in the secular calendar? December comes, the tree comes.

Since I'm a conscientious Reform Jew, I thought about it and thought about it until I made everyone around me crazy. And then it hit me: if I'm dead set on having a holiday tree, then why not really have a holiday tree? Not a Christmas tree. Not a Chanukah you-know-what. But a literal "holiday tree"? Every Shabbat we sing that the Torah is an Eitz Chayim, a tree of life. The order of the Talmud that deals with the Jewish holidays is Moed, festival. And on my Jewish journey, the times of year that now help me find my way back to goodness are the parade of Jewish festivals that march across the Hebrew calendar.

So, why not instead of a secular tree full of folk ornaments riffing off of someone else's tradition, a secular tree full of folk ornaments riffing off of my own? Not because I'm marking a holiday on a Hebrew calendar, but because my soul is yearning for a way to embed the celebration of my spiritual journey in my secular experience?

And the next thing I knew, I was looking for frogs... and wild beasts, and hail, and lulavs, and etrogs, and apples, and honey, and shofars, and masquerade masks, and chanukiahs, and dreidels, and kiddush cups, and first fruits, and every other Jewish holiday symbol I could think of. Hopefully, all in a convenient holiday ornament size, perfect for hanging on a...

That trail-off perfectly describes how hard it is to find overtly or accidentally Jewish-themed tree ornaments. I mean, seriously, it isn't like Jews who actually put up trees in December go around publicizing that fact, so the market for such ornaments is understandably understated. (God knows I've Googled the topic in earnest.) But with a little ingenuity, numerous trips to Judaica stores, Macy's, Target, Wal-Mart, and World Market, and not a little bit of repurposing (read: hot glue-gunning by Ryan), the job got done.

Last year, I considered donating away my tree. This year, tree luckily still in hand, I do have four sizable bags of gently-used Christmas ornaments to gift. They sat off to the side as I finished my (uncharacteristically only three-day-long) old-school, fully manual tree constructing, lighting, and decorating frenzy early this morning. Stepping back to take in the finished product, I was taken aback. I expected to see a tree that was a pale imitation of a Christmas tree — my old Christmas tree. I also expected, somehow, to feel wrong about it.

However, from the sparkling Star of David tree topper, handmade by a stained-glass artisan in Wyoming to celebrate her interfaith family, to the lulavs and etrogs that we somehow managed to create out of thin air and lack of sleep, I felt an unexpected sense of pride. Not in my handiwork. In the Yiddishkeit of it all. Before me, where myriad reindeer and Santas and snowmen once hung, in their place I saw Purim, and Passover, and Shavuot, and Rosh Hashanah, and Sukkot, and Chanukah, and Shabbat smiling back.

Christmas Tree? Chanukah Bush? Say what you will, I make no apologies. But one thing I know for sure. To those ornaments holding fast to her, she is, indeed, an Eitz Moed.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Known in Hebrew as "magen David" (literally," shield of David"), it is more commonly recognized as the star of David, a six-point star. The symbol has origins in the Torah, and has been used as a symbol of Jewish identity and Judaism in Europe since the Middle Ages. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Yiddish for "skullcap," also known in Hebrew as a "kippah," the small, circular headcovering worn by male Jews in most synagogues, and female Jews in more liberal congregations. Traditional Jews were kippot (plural of kippah) all the time. Yiddish for "spin," a four-sided spinning top played with during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Hebrew for "sanctification," a blessing recited over wine or grape juice to sanctify the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A Summer holiday commemorating the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, it is also known as the Feast of Weeks, as it comes seven weeks after Passover begins. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "Booths," it's a fall holiday marking the harvest, like a Jewish Thanksgiving, complete with opportunities for dining and sleeping under the stars. Hebrew for "prayer shawl," a ritual item that is worn and has knotted fringes (tzitzit) attached to the four corners. Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. A custom or accepted tradition or group of traditions in Judaism. Plural is "minhagim." Hebrew word for a yellow citron, used ritually in the holiday of Sukkot. Hebrew for "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Michael Doyle

Michael Doyle is a member of Emanuel Congregation in Chicago, Illinois.

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