My menorah and my Christmas tree
For me as a youngster, Christmas was always something others did. But I married a non Jew and in our early years together, experienced a great deal of conflict over his desire for a Christmas tree. For several years, each December, we engaged in the same heated discussion that went something like this:
“We’re not getting a Christmas tree,” I insisted. “It represents all we are not. It is at its heart a celebration of something Christian and I am not a Christian. To participate in Christmas, for me, would be an insult to my Eastern European ancestors who died in the Holocaust. It’s just not our holiday. And every year when Christmas rolls around the fact that we are ‘other’ is rubbed in my face. I am a Jew in a non-Jewish world.”
“But for me Christmas has nothing to do with religion,” he replied. “It’s secular. I don’t go to church. It has nothing to do with Christianity for me. It’s about family and being together, showing appreciation for each other, exchanging gifts, bringing light to each other during the darkest, longest days of the year.”
I couldn’t accept that. “Nope, not for me. Sorry. I cannot insult my parents or my ancestors. I will never have a Christmas tree or a ‘Chanukah Bush’ in my home, ever!”
But to be honest, I was conflicted. The girl in me who went to Yeshiva through 8th grade, and Jewish summer camp every summer, never drove on the Sabbath, and didn’t eat shrimp until she was in her 20’s, was saying, “Watch out! Danger! No tree! No Easter eggs either while you’re at it! We are Jews!”
On the other hand, do I decide that, although my home is of mixed cultural and religious background, my husband must deny his own heritage and be forbidden to bring his family traditions into our home? Should I prohibit my twin daughters from participating in anything even remotely related to my husband’s non-Jewish family customs, due to abject fear of assimilation? Would my children catch these traditions like cooties with the power to poison their Jewish identity? At the very least, won’t they be extremely confused?
In the end, we decided to break the “no tree” rule, and no lightning came down to strike me.
Our annual arguments came to an end when the kids were small, and after we joined the Sholem Community and participated in their annual “December Dilemma” discussion on this topic. (Sholem is a 60-year-old secular Jewish cultural, and social institution with a Sunday school that teaches Jewish history, culture, and ethics.) For the first time I heard other Jews who, like me, were married to non-Jews, and struggling with this question: To tree or not to tree? It was here that I was reminded not only of the differences between the two winter holidays, but of their similarities. Both festivals have their roots in the changing of the seasons and in ancient and universal desires to dispel the darkening days and to return to light, warmth, and springtime. Through the course of their evolution, these seasonal holidays have been reinvented and imbued with religious meanings. But we can all find beauty and purpose in the use of light and fires, of evergreen trees and feasting. These rituals speak to a common need to end the darkness and to hope the the sun will come back.
Yes, I recognize the role of tradition, and I share the desire to honor the history of my ancestors. But I also understand there are all kinds of historical complexities around the holidays, and I see no reason why our intercultural family can’t share a celebration of community, light, joy, generosity and good cheer. I love my husband and even though I do not share his cultural or religious history, having a tree in my home does not diminish me any more than having a menorah dishonors him.
Frankly, our Christmas tree is not that important to me. I don’t even care about the lights hanging from our awning. I hate obligatory gift giving. But my husband loves it, and so do our kids. I love the way it brings us all together. And that is the critical point here: these are our kids. Not my kids. That means we bring our family together, celebrating all that we are. No one is asked to give up “…a piece of their cultural and family story, at a time that they associate with really warm and wonderful memories,” as a recent Jewish Journal article (“The convert and the Christmas tree,” December 11) suggested, citing two rabbinical authorities.
The article, without citing any evidence, repeated the old trope about how having a Christmas tree “can be confusing to children” in a household in which one partner is a non-Jew. In my own experience, and in the experience of other multi-cultural families I know, that’s just not true. In fact, I believe that it would send a horribly confusing message to my children if I were to teach them that ultimately a family must choose to adopt the traditions and rituals of only one parent, one culture in a multicultural partnership. What would that teach them about how to live in a world that is more globally connected than ever before and in which the rates of inter-marriage are multiplying?
Although I strongly disagree with those who say that Jews should never have a Christmas tree in their homes, I do agree with Rabbi Susan Goldberg, quoted in the article as saying that “questions of assimilation and distinctiveness are really useful conversations to have.” Ideally, those discussions, at this or any time of year, should focus on what traditions mean for us not be for the purpose of deciding whose family traditions to erase.
That said, these more open approaches to traditions that involve investigating, celebrating, and cherishing the diverse cultural and ethnic histories around us are likely to work better in more secular households than ones in which religious views or dogma predominate. I acknowledge that. And it’s worked for us. Our kids have been raised with a powerful Jewish identity in a secular and deeply spiritual home. Their Jewish identity has been nurtured by the Sholem Community and is based on the history, values and shared culture of the Jewish people, rather than religious doctrine and dogma.
As for our daughters, who will turn 18 next month, they are not at all confused. They understand that identity is complicated and not tied in a neat ribbon. This week, as we celebrate Hanuka together, they will light our two menorahs and decorate our Christmas tree. At Sholem, they have received a solid secular Jewish education where they have learned about the Jewish part of their identity and discovered that the presence of a tree does not undermine their heritage. Actually, in many ways they are far less “confused” about their Jewish identity than I was or may ever be, Christmas tree, lights, gifts, cheer and all.
Marilyn McLaughlin is a Movement Therapist, Fall Prevention Specialist and Adjunct Professor of Dance at Loyola Marymount University. She is also a member of the board of directors of the Sholem Community, www.sholem.org