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O' Christmas Tree, O' Christmas Tree--You're So Much More Than--Foliage!

When I was first married, had a psychic told me she foresaw a brilliantly trimmed fir tree winking cheerfully through my bay window at Christmas, I'd have advised her to get another crystal ball. I was certain I would never countenance the presence of that most conspicuous of Christian symbols in my home, despite the fact that my husband is Episcopalian and I, though Jewish, am neither religiously observant nor irrevocably bound to tradition.

It wasn't that I tried to ignore Christmas. In fact, I had acknowledged the holiday in some way all my life. As a child, I went caroling with friends and neighbors. I'd always sent "seasons greetings" cards to friends and family--Jewish and non-Jewish. After I married, my husband and I would exchange presents on Christmas morning. (December 25 is our anniversary, a fact that provided a convenient rationale for the gift giving.) But, despite my husband's entreaties for a tree in the early years of our marriage (we've been married for twenty years), I was resolute. A Christmas tree was out of the question. According to my logic at that time, (a logic some would likely call convoluted), it wasn't nearly as culturally disloyal to marry someone who wasn't Jewish as it was to have a Christmas tree.

I was unmoved by arguments that Christmas trees don't really symbolize Christianity but evolved from the sacred pines originally used by Roman priests in their worship of the Great Mother Goddess. In religion, "poetic" rather than absolute truth often prevails. A Christmas tree is a symbol of Christianity, despite its pagan origins.

As the years passed, I sometimes found myself wavering about my position on the tree. When I discovered my daughter Jenny was autistic, I became less concerned with how she would be affected by the presence of a Christmas tree in the house. Autistic individuals often have a great deal of difficulty fathoming the abstract, so my daughter's notions of God, Jewish history, and cultural traditions were--and are--vague at best. When Jenny was about eight, she begged to have a tree, which to her signified nothing other than an object of great beauty. I very nearly acquiesced to her request. She would be deprived of many things in life, I reasoned. If a Christmas tree would give her so much pleasure, how could I deprive her?

But old resolves die hard and deprive her I did. I played up Hanukkah, and, I am now ashamed to admit, contrived to make that year's celebration of the Jewish holiday as similar to Christmas as possible. I hoped that would forestall any future craving Jenny might have for a tree.

But the very next year, with that unnerving logic possessed by so many autistic people, my daughter approached me and said, "Let's get a Christmas tree for Daddy. He's Christian--he needs a tree. I will help him decorate it. You shut your eyes so you don't see it."

That bit of autistic profundity almost had me persuaded--but not quite. She didn't get the tree.

As the years passed, my husband (if not my daughter) stopped campaigning for a tree. In fact, he began to talk about how much better it was without one. After all, it was such trouble to find one with just the right shape. The cost of decent ornaments and lights was outrageous. And the cleanup was an absolute nightmare.

He spoke with such conviction, I almost believed him.

And so it went, until four years ago when my husband suffered from a mini-stroke. He remained in hospital for almost two weeks, and when he came home, he was a changed man. He hadn't lost any physical capacities, but he had become noticeably more sensitive and sentimental. During that period of time he began to speak with a great deal of feeling about Christmases past--the family gatherings, the festivities--and, especially, the tree. It was painful for me to hear all this, because I understood the void he had felt during the holidays for so many years.

That year we had our first Christmas tree. I had made no conscious decision, but was rather prompted by an inner, instinctive voice that told me I had for too long been selfish in my stance against the tree. I knew the time had come for me to let go. I have had no regrets.

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.
Marlena Thompson

Marlena Thompson was part of an interfaith marriage that lasted almost 25 years before her husband died in 2003. She is a writer and singer/storyteller living in the Washington DC suburbs and visits Ireland whenever possible. Her mystery novel, A Rare & Deadly Issue (2004), has an interfaith heroine and can be ordered at www.pearlstreetpublishing.com.

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