If you live in North America, you can't deny the brand assault of Christmas. There is no opt-out for this holiday. From the steady stream of shortbread cookies at the office, to chipmunk carols out of every speaker, to day-glo light displays on neighbours' houses, to fragrant themed coffee blends at your local coffee chain – it’s a holiday that tackles every sense the moment you walk out the door. And I don't buy that it's a non-denominational holiday. Even with its Roman timing, pagan symbols, Coca-Cola Santa, Jewish-scribed caroles and Dickens turkey, it's still Christian.
And for the most part I like the festive moods and generosity of the season. But the traditional tree - often the most attractive of all Christmas tropes - I never thought it would be in MY house. Christmas Trees. More than bacon (which most Jews I know consume with impunity), more than mayo with deli meat on white bread, more than retail shopping. The Christmas Tree in the home is widely considered the last line of Jewish defence and the final step to full assimilation.
Full disclosure: I have sung in TWO Christmas choirs. I went to Anglican all-girls’ school. I have strung popcorn and cranberries before a roaring fire. In other people's homes. But even if I was going to intermarry, I promised myself I would never DO Christmas at home. And NEVER a tree, no matter how beautiful they looked, how great they smelled, and how perfectly they fed into my love of pageantry.
And then one year I changed my mind. On the short dark days of the year, it makes sense that nearly every culture summons up a festival with lights to beat back the winter gloom. Couldn't I just make room in my house for a tree that I've always secretly wanted? My sister and her family had done it. And her kids still went to Hebrew school. And the children took so much delight in the tree. Do it for the children!
My husband sent me into the Ikea lot on a cold night to pick a tree and I came back to the car empty-handed. “They all look the same!” I complained. Subtext: “Please let me be passive in this experience.” I had thought it would be a cheerful outing among fragrant conifers, but I ended up feeling kind of anxious and nauseated.
Last year, we didn’t put up the tree until after our Chanukah party. And when we did, I circled it apprehensively. I didn’t want anyone to DO anything with it yet until I had figured out a way to make it completely our own. My guy tried to be patient, but ultimately was a bit exasperated by my angst.
“I don’t know, honey – when you said you wanted to do a tree, I thought we’d get a big, full one. I’ve had real trees and fake trees. I’ve had punk rock trees. And Charlie Brown broken-down trees. I’ve had them most of my life. What do YOU want to do with our tree?”
I think every Jew I know has ideas of what they would do if FORCED to bring the Christmas home. I mean, if they had to, they would go with “x” types of ornaments and “y” types of lights. Not that anyone asks our opinion.
As kids, my oldest sister and I and I used to have earnest discussions about what we would do if we HAD to have Christmas. “I would have classic egg nog in a punch bowl and a tree with just white lights,” she announced at 16.
I seem to have tapped into something, because as soon as we got a tree, suddenly my Jewish friends were popping by with ornaments (very tasteful ones at that, from the MOMA and the AGO) as if they were busting for the opportunity to vicariously trim a tree. Meanwhile, I've discovered that the tree is the perfect place to hang all the dust-gathering sentimental tzachkes from our travels, a couple of ornaments from my sons' craft endeavours and, naturally, the robots, lego spaceships,monkeys and dinosaurs strung up to keep them company.
It's a mish-mash of stuff, our tree. It's a collection of symbols and memories and a fair dose of Jewish guilt. But each year it casts a beautiful glow. And of course, now I have to make latkes and light the menorah. And then with full bellies, we can all sit back and enjoy the pretty lights.