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The Disappearing Christmas Tree: One Interfaith Step-Family's Complex Holiday Solution

The first year after my Jewish husband and I were married, we still put up a large, beautiful Christmas tree in our living room. Together with our children from our first marriages, we decorated the tree with lights and ornaments, many of which came from the Hallmark store that I had owned and managed.

Christmas trees had been part of our separate lives for more than fifteen years--the time that each of us had spent married to our previous Christian spouses. In each of our homes, a tree--the bigger the better--had greeted our respective children on Christmas day.

My husband had struggled with his first wife's insistence on a tree. Although he tried to enjoy the family trip to the tree farm, and dutifully took along a folding saw to cut down the tree of her choice, he tells me that, brought up as an Orthodox Jew, he had never felt good about bringing the tree into his home.

I, on the other hand, loved the tree--something I'd always wanted when I was a child. The beauty, scent, and glitter seemed to me to be very American, not specifically Christian.

Growing up, I knew I was Jewish and was told that Jews didn't have Christmas trees. But each year my family had walked down New York City's Fifth Avenue, admiring the big tree in Rockefeller Center and strolling past store windows decorated with animated mannequins set in Santa's Toy Shop or in imaginative Victorian homes. I didn't understand why we couldn't bring the sparkle of the season home.

My parents, intellectual and assimilated Jews, attended services at a Reform synagogue on High Holy Days and sent my sister and me to Sunday School. Although we practiced very few Jewish rituals in our home, we did light a Hanukkah menorah every year. We put on "dress up" clothes and stood close together as we celebrated the minor holiday of Hanukkah, made special and different from the major holiday of Christmas. But the beauty of the tiny lights did not fully satisfy my longing for a tree.

So, when I married a Christian man whose sole connection to his religion was a tree and gifts at Christmastime, I was delighted. Each year, I looked forward to bringing a tree into my home. My children loved the process of choosing a tree and moving it around to insure that the "best side" faced front. We selected our decorations carefully. Fortunately Hallmark provides plenty of mice on ice-skates, raccoons peeping out from under pine cones and bright red cardinals that clip on to tree branches. We were always able to find holiday decorations that pleased our family aesthetic without being overtly Christian.

During the years between my divorce and remarriage, I maintained the tradition of the Christmas tree. It was special and provided continuity "for the children"... and for me.

But then my Jewish husband and I married. "We are establishing a Jewish home," he said. "Why should we have a tree?" I replied that, for me, the tree wasn't a Christian symbol... and besides, the children expected one.

And that first year, we did have a tree. But it wasn't the same. That year, the tree really was for the children. I no longer had a desire for it.

We decided to tell the children that this would be the last year of "the tree." We held what we called a "great gift-giving bash," and reminded them that the following year we would only be celebrating Hanukkah--with few gifts.

As Christmas approached in the second year of our marriage, "the tree" became a family issue. My daughter didn't really believe that we meant not to have a tree. Although she enjoyed Hanukkah and loved lighting candles and singing Hanukkah songs, Hanukkah couldn't hold a candle to Christmas.

True to my youthful tradition, our family stood close together, reading from a single prayer book as we watched the brightly colored Hanukkah candles burn. The children always looked forward to the nightly decision--multi-colored candles, or uniform? A white shamas (helper-candle, the one that lights all the others), or a blue one for Israel? But Hanukkah wasn't Christmas.

While they liked Hanukkah, they anticipated the Christmas tree with glee. With its brightly colored glass balls shining in lights that stayed lit for hours, the tree was very special. And there were lots of presents at Christmastime, which were unwrapped slowly, so we could savor the excitement of guessing what was in each box.

Now, we were telling the children that we were taking Christmas away. The loss of multiple gifts was less significant than the loss of the tree. The children were old enough to realize that we were blessed as a family and able to give them what they needed. They also understood that one or two gifts sufficed. But no tree?

The first year without a tree, my daughter begged for one. Even a little one to keep in her room. We said "okay," but it wasn't the same. Not for her, not for us. Hanukkah that year was less wonderful than it had been. The presents were somewhat bigger, but the feeling was smaller. The loss of the tree loomed large in our home. My daughter liked celebrating both holidays, as she felt was her birthright as the child of a Christian father and a Jewish mother.

That year, we went to the home of my Christian step-son for Christmas. He was the child of my first husband's previous marriage and therefore had no Jewish parents. He and his Episcopal wife had Christmas in their home, and we were invited. There, we could enjoy the tree.

My step-son and his family came to our home for Hanukkah; we went there for Christmas. It seemed like a great system. We enjoyed latkes (fried potato pancakes) and candles in a Jewish home, where gifts were tiny and everyone got chocolate-covered coins--and, on another night, went to a Christian home for turkey dinner and lots of presents under a glittering tree.

That tradition lasted for a number of years, until my step-son moved away. Now, my Jewish husband and I celebrate Hanukkah only. My daughter celebrates Christmas and has a huge, but not real, tree. She's looking forward to making the holiday special. On this, her first year as a single mom, she'll invite us to be with her on Christmas day. My husband's son spends Christmas each year with his Christian mother and family. He does like a Christmas tree. He says it's the "pageantry" that he feels drawn to--and the closeness of being with family.

Our Hanukkah is bigger now, because we have more lights. When my daughter comes to visit, at least once during the eight days, each of us lights a menorah from a collection of Hanukkah lamps that has grown in the fourteen years that my Jewish husband and I have been married. Our extended Christian family also enjoys hearing the story of the Maccabees' fight for freedom that happened 160 years before the common era. We eat latkes and engage in the complicated pulling apart of the foil wrappers from golden chocolate coins. Every once in a while I look around for the tree--then I remember. We don't have a tree. For just a moment I still miss it.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." 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. 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.) Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah.
Paula Lee Hellman

Paula Lee Hellman is education director at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire. She and her Jewish husband have a blended family, which includes children and stepchildren, grandchildren and a step-grandchild from their previous interfaith marriages.

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