Diana Zankowsky (nee Jacobson) was raised in New Jersey, went to college in Massachusetts and California, and now lives in the Bay Area of northern California. She is married (31 years) with two grown children, runs her own consulting business and is on the board of her synagogue.
The Gift We Couldn't Refuse
Christmas arrived at my home early one December with the assistance of the UPS delivery man. He was not carrying a large box or even a few smaller boxes. No, he was lugging a 6-foot-long, burlap-wrapped parcel up the walk. He propped it against the house, adjacent to the front door, and rang my doorbell. He was just getting into his truck as I opened the door. Puzzled, I yelled to him, "What’s this?" Smiling, he turned back towards me and said, "Looks to me like you've received your own piece of the North woods for Christmas."
Now, I live in a suburban home in the San Francisco Bay Area. What could he mean by the North woods? I looked more closely at the parcel. As I studied it, I realized that I was looking at a pine tree, wrapped in burlap with a Montana return address. I sighed deeply and hauled it inside.
My husband Fred's family lived with a mix of several religions. My father-in-law Mike's family emigrated from Russia where they had belonged to a Russian Orthodox Church. When they settled in western New Jersey, they switched to a Catholic church because that was what was available. My mother-in-law Doris' family had been in the United States much longer; she was raised as a Presbyterian but the local church was Dutch Reformed, so she went there with her son, who became my husband. I was raised as a Reform Jew.
For the first eight years of our marriage, these apparent religious issues didn't seem to matter; in theory we had agreed to raise our children as Jews but we didn't have any children and neither of us practiced any religion! Eventually, however, we had one child and five years later a second. And with little children around, holidays and traditions began to matter. But we had the unresolved question of whose traditions?
Christmas-versus-Hanukkah, when it was just the two of us, had never been an issue because usually we weren't home. When we lived on the East Coast, we went to visit my husband's family and celebrated with them. And even once we moved to California, we would travel, either to New Jersey and the rest of my husband's family, or to Montana, where my in-laws lived. Oh, we had acquired a menorah and sometimes remembered to light it. And we also had acquired a few tree ornaments over the years, gifts from clients and friends, so we would sometimes decorate the 18-inch Norfolk pine houseplant. Certainly we had no "December dilemma" question in our household.
The year of this story we were not going to visit my mother-in-law in Montana. Maybe the weather forecasts sounded dire or the school break was unusually short, but we had decided to stay home. Doris must have felt the need to make sure that her grandchildren celebrated Christmas. In her characteristic fashion, she took matters into her own hands. She went out into the woods near her home and found the right pine tree. She cut it down and trimmed the base properly, then wrapped it in burlap, labeled it and sent it via UPS to us in California! And it landed on my front porch.
How could we not have Christmas now? And how could I not face this question?
Once I dragged the tree into the house, I looked around my living room for a place to put it. We had no family room, so out of the way was out of the question. I wasn't going to put the tree in front of the bay window; that was the window for the Hanukkah menorah. (And, of course, Hanukkah and Christmas overlapped this year so we would be celebrating both at the same time.) Finally, I moved this piece and that piece of our furniture and cleared off the table top. Then I could make room for the tree on the low end table in the corner of the room.
I tried to get into the spirit of the occasion. I certainly understood why Doris had sent us the tree. It was important to her that her only grandchildren not miss out on her traditions just because they were being raised as Jews. And I must admit, the tree smelled good and our living room looked festive once it was decorated. It was just not my festival. Making my home look Christmas-y was going to take some personal adjustments. It was different than visiting someone else’s home that was decorated for Christmas.
Ultimately though, I overcame my discomfort when I came to realize that having a decorated tree made my husband happy. Apparently, Fred had been missing that part of his childhood and the opportunity to pass those observances onto his children. I also came to realize that my children were able to realize the difference: that a gift at Christmas, even the gift of a Christmas tree for Christmas, does not automatically make one a Christian. And finally, I came to realize that for myself, choosing to participate in this seasonal celebration did not threaten my sense of being a Jew. So I was able to relax and enjoy the season with my family.
Doris continued to send us trees for Christmas for several more years, until she was no longer able to harvest them herself. The presence of a tree in our living room made December a bit easier for all of us as we were able to incorporate the traditions of both original families in our new, interfaith family.