The convert and the Christmas tree
For me, Christmas was always something other people did. Growing up in a Jewish home, I watched the holiday’s rituals unfold in movies, on TV and in the homes of friends: hanging ornaments on a tree, unwrapping presents and singing songs of Yuletide cheer (whatever that means).
As a kid in the United States, it’s literally impossible to avoid Christmas, unless you live in certain neighborhoods of Brooklyn. The music blasts from every radio station and department store, and the shopping mall Santas beckon you nearer. I secretly wanted to celebrate Christmas so I could be like everyone else. The Chanukah candles were nice, but their soft glow paled in comparison to the tinsel and bulbs of the Christmas tree. And how can “I Have a Little Dreidel” even compare to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” perhaps the greatest Christmas song of all?
I’m now 34 and have never had a Christmas tree in my home. My girlfriend, Amanda, who is not Jewish and who I live with, has suggested buying one, but I always tell her that it feels weird to me. Even though I don’t keep kosher or maintain Shabbat, somehow having a Christmas tree feels like a repudiation of my Jewish upbringing.
We’re now enrolled in “Judaism by Choice,” a weekly class for those interested in converting or at least gaining a greater understanding of what it means to be Jewish. We learn about the history, traditions and practices of the Jews. We were even “married” in a fake wedding in class, to learn about the customs of Jewish marriage. It’s basically Hebrew school for grownups.
In a lecture on Christianity and Judaism, our instructor, Rabbi Neal Weinberg, explained that a Jewish family should not have a Christmas tree in their home. And no Chanukah bush, either.
“There can’t be fusion of different religious groups,” Weinberg told me in an interview. “It can be confusing to children. They’re wondering, why are we doing Christian holidays in our home? If you’re Jewish, you’ve got to get across to your children that you’re Jewish. We have our own holidays. We respect other people and their holidays. But that does not mean that we have to incorporate [them] into our home life.”
After class, Amanda was clearly upset. A Christmas tree, she explained, is symbolic of her childhood. It means family, togetherness and unity. As someone who loves crafting and worships the ground that Martha Stewart walks on, she had looked forward to someday teaching her children how to hand-paint ornaments and hang lights and bake cookies. She wanted to decorate the house and make eggnog and throw Christmas parties.
I feel like a jerk for denying her this. What’s wrong with a Christmas tree? Amanda is not religious and sees the tree as a purely secular object. Why can’t we celebrate both holidays?
I sought a second opinion from Rabbi Susan Goldberg, who mentors converts at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. She also was the consulting rabbi on one of my favorite shows this year, “Transparent,” on Amazon Prime, and is well-versed in the challenges facing young Jews.
Goldberg agreed that Jews shouldn’t have a tree in their homes and acknowledged that December can be the most grueling month for someone wanting to convert to Judaism. Many fear that disconnecting from the faith of their upbringing also means disconnecting from their families.
“For most folks in our dominant Christian culture, this is a big question, and it generates a lot of emotion,” she said. “The Christmas tree is this very powerful symbol when it’s in the home.”
I asked some of my classmates how they’re handling the idea of relinquishing the Christmas tree. Sarah Reeves, a psychotherapist in Long Beach, is in the process of converting to Judaism to marry her fiance, Ben. She had an artificial Christmas tree that he didn’t want in the home because he saw it as a Christian symbol. She didn’t see it that way.
“Because I didn’t grow up in an organized religion, it just seemed like American culture. I never really associated it with any kind of religion,” she said.
Reeves still bakes Christmas cookies with daughter Sophia, 7. They hang stockings and go to Christmas parties. But she agreed to let the tree go.
“I donated the tree to my daughter’s school, and I took all the ornaments, and I had to get creative about how to display them in our home, so I ended up stringing them on ribbon. And I tried to make it a thing for my daughter and I to do together,” Reeves said. “I just couldn’t get rid of all the ornaments because I’d collected them over the years.”
“I’m a little disappointed that we can’t have a Chanukah tree,” sighed Emily Fredrick, a real estate agent in Beverly Hills. “I was really looking forward to that.”
Fredrick was raised in a religious Baptist home in Dallas and went to church three times a week. She’s excited about converting to Judaism but acknowledges that there are some things about Christmas that she’ll miss.
“As a child growing up, we would get up at 4 in the morning for Santa to come,” Fredrick said. “I’m thinking, like, ‘How am I going to make it exciting for my children?’ ”
Danielle Sebring, a first-grade teacher in Los Angeles, had similar concerns. “I had always had this image of decorating a Christmas tree with my children someday, because that’s what I did growing up, and making cookies and leaving them out for Santa,” she said.
Sebring converted to Judaism this year after marrying her husband, who is Jewish. Before converting, she said, “I almost had to go through this grieving process for these expectations that I had around the holidays.”
The first year Sebring and her husband were married, they had a Christmas tree and they also celebrated Chanukah. Last year, she had a small, tabletop tree with lights. This winter will be her first without a tree.
“It’s a very nostalgic thing. For me, it was a big part of my family growing up, and so it really makes me feel connected to them. And that can be hard to let go of,” Sebring said.
Clearly, Christmas is connected to a lot of deep-rooted feelings, and most of them have nothing to do with religion.
“I don’t think, for most of the people who go through my program, that the struggle in giving up Christmas is about a struggle in giving up Christianity,” said Rabbi Adam Greenwald, who leads the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University.
“I think it’s a struggle in giving up a piece of their cultural and family story, at a time that they associate with really warm and wonderful memories.”
Greenwald tells converts to examine the emotions they associate with Christmas and look for ways to celebrate them in a Jewish context.
“The Jewish calendar is replete with holidays, certainly more holidays than are practiced in the Christian tradition. And I think there are opportunities to do all of the kind of sweet family experiences around those holidays that one does around Christmas,” he said.
As kids, we’re taught that Chanukah is a celebration of the rededication of the Second Temple and the last flask of ritual olive oil lasting eight days instead of one. As grownups, we learn that before the Maccabees waged war against the Syrian Greeks, there was a fierce and often violent internal conflict between traditional and assimilated Jews over whether to adopt a Hellenistic lifestyle.
The same debate exists today, and Christmas is a perfect example of a mainstream practice that’s hard to avoid or to resist.
“Wrestling with these questions is very much the heart of the Chanukah story. That’s why it’s wonderful that it happens this time of year,” Goldberg said. “Those questions of assimilation and distinctiveness are really useful conversations to have.”
Amanda is still deciding whether she wants to convert to Judaism, and I’m still deciding whether Christmas is OK to celebrate as a Jew. We spent Thanksgiving at her sister’s house, where we helped buy a Christmas tree and decorated it with Amanda’s 8-year-old niece. It was a beautiful experience, but I’m not sure it’s one my children will have — at least, not in their own home. There are no easy choices or easy answers.