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To Tree or Not to Tree

When the mood strikes her, our daughter Samantha loves to explain the religious background of her family. "Mommy, Daniel, and I are Jewish...Daddy helps us be Jewish." Sometimes she even delves into genetics--"Daniel and I have Irish blood, even though we're still Jewish." I have to admit it--she does a pretty good job of summing it all up!

When Bill and I decided to get married and eventually have children, we had already agreed to raise them Jewish. Since Bill was an atheist and had not practiced Catholicism since he was a child, neither of us felt that this decision would have any negative impact on him. During all the years we had spent together before marriage, he had never seemed to have any religious observances or traditions that were important to him. Except Christmas.   

But Christmas was a tough one. Did Bill want to go to church on Christmas? No. Did he feel the need to hang stockings by the fireplace (or bookshelf, since our little one-bedroom apartment did not have anything resembling a fireplace!)? No. Did he want a tree? Yes, and that's really all he wanted--a Christmas tree. Bill explained to me many times that for him, a tree was not about Jesus, or church, or Wise Men. Bill believes in honoring nature and the seasons. For him, celebrating the winter solstice with an evergreen predates Christianity; it's a beautiful symbol of nature; and boy, does it smell good!

He was right--a Christmas tree is beautiful. There is no denying that. At the time, we did not have children yet, so what was the harm? Bill had agreed to have a Jewish home and raise Jewish children. How could I deny him this one request--a request that, to him, had no religious significance at all?

But in the end, I knew I could not give in on this. Sure, we could have had a tree on that first Christmas together, but then we would have been setting a precedent. Picking out and bringing home a Christmas tree would have enabled Bill to share a wonderful childhood experience with me, but I wondered what would happen the next year? I feared that if we started doing this, it would feel impossible for Bill to give it up once we did have children. And since we had both agreed that we wanted to raise our children with only one religion, I could not in good conscience give in to this request. For me, this is the crux of the argument. Whether one is religious or not--to me having a Christmas tree means that you are celebrating (or at least acknowledging) the non-Jewish holiday of Christmas. While I am very happy to help others celebrate this holiday in their home, I am just not comfortable having such an overt symbol of a non-Jewish holiday in my own home.

In my heart, I think that we made the right decision for our family. As Thanksgiving approaches, we all start to feel giddy with anticipation--this is our favorite holiday (secular and religious combined) of the year, and our son Daniel has a birthday at the end of November. December brings Hanukkah, my birthday, and Samantha's winter holiday concert at her preschool. Yet despite all these celebratory events, I always feel a little sad for Bill. He has done such an amazing job of adopting, understanding, and finding a comfort level with many of the practices of Judaism. He has, in every way, lived up to his end of our agreement--to raise our children Jewish. At this point, Bill has no real desire to even celebrate Christmas in a secular fashion. The tree itself would have been more than enough for him. I know that there are many people who, like Bill, see a Christmas tree not as a religious symbol, but as a celebration of a season. As a Jew, though, I am unable to make that distinction. While Bill has accepted this decision, a part of me still wishes I had been able to say yes.

To compensate, I have tried to make Christmas a special time in our home. We actually begin our festivities on Christmas Eve with Chinese food and a movie. Christmas day is a family day. We spend much of it in our pajamas, enjoying each other's company. We take a family walk (even when it's just too cold!), we cook a delicious dinner with an annual menu (chosen by Bill) that has become a Kennedy Family Tradition, and we visit with extended family members. I believe that Bill is just as comfortable and content with how we spend Christmas as I am.

Since it is very important to us that our children have an opportunity to learn about other religions and share holidays with close friends, we spend a wonderful evening each year during the Christmas season with our good friends who do celebrate Christmas and have a tree. We go there with our menorah, candles, and dreidels, have dinner, exchange gifts, and talk about the meaning of the holidays. It's a wonderful tradition that holds great importance to both families.

In the end it is clear that, unlike many husband/wife decisions, we were not able to compromise on the issue of the tree. I know Bill has accepted this. I hope, though, that as the years progress and our children grow, we will be able to add to our Christmas-time traditions and continue to find new ways to make the day special--without compromising our family's Jewish beliefs.

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.)
Staci Kennedy

Staci Kennedy is a clinical social worker living in Ann Arbor, Mich. She is married to Bill and has two children, Samantha and Daniel.

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