The evergreen interfaith dilemma

With abundant commercials, carols and \"holiday specials\" crowding the airwaves and bright red and green decorations adorning most neighborhoods, American Jews can scarcely ignore Christmas.
December 14, 2000

Rabbi Mark Levin planned to attend a bris this holiday season just a few feet away from a Christmas tree.
The Reform rabbi didn’t know about the decorated evergreen until the baby’s mother, who is Jewish and one of his congregants, called to make the arrangements and mentioned the tree as an afterthought.
Levin, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park, Kan., said he’ll still go to the ceremony. But it doesn’t make him happy to see a Jewish child grow up with what he considers a Christian symbol in the living room.

“Clearly, I don’t agree that people ought to have Christmas trees in their homes,” he said. “On the other hand, I do agree that people have autonomous rights to do in their homes as they please.”

With abundant commercials, carols and “holiday specials” crowding the airwaves and bright red and green decorations adorning most neighborhoods, American Jews can scarcely ignore Christmas. Many complain of the “December dilemma,” the feeling that Chanukah is overshadowed by the holiday commemorating Jesus’ birth.

But for Jews married to Christians, December creates an extra dilemma: It is the time of year when the cultural differences between husband and wife are most evident.

Even in interfaith families where the children are being raised solely as Jews, the gentile spouse often wants to have a Christmas tree.

For many people not reared as Jews, even those who have converted to Judaism, the tree is simply a nostalgic symbol of family togetherness.

“I will have people say, ‘Don’t make me give up my tree – I could care less about Christian theology, but it reminds me of a fun time in my childhood,’ ” said Levin.

Ellen Morgan, a Catholic married to a Jew, Sheldon Zenner, in Evanston, Ill., said, “Non-Christians tend to view the tree as something religious, much more than Christians do.”

Trees have “nothing to do with my Catholic upbringing,” she said. “For someone raised a devout Christian, Christmas is a Nativity scene.”

As for the Jewish partners, while some “are delighted to have a tree in their house – it’s something they have always wanted,” a lot “can’t stomach it,” observed Rabbi Sandra Cohen of Temple Micah, a Reform synagogue in Denver.

For some, the failure to tolerate the tree stems from having an explicitly Christian symbol in the home, while others worry about being embarrassed when Jewish friends and family visit.

Families deal with the issue in different ways.

In a column in the current issue of the Internet magazine interfaithfamily.com, Marlena Thompson of northern Virginia writes about her angst over whether or not to allow her Episcopal husband to bring a Christmas tree into the house. Initially, she writes, it was “out of the question.”

“According to my logic at that time (a logic some would likely call convoluted), it wasn’t nearly as culturally disloyal to marry someone who wasn’t Jewish as it was to have a Christmas tree,” Thompson writes.

Thompson ignored the pleas of her husband and daughter for a tree until her husband had a stroke four years ago. Moved by his nostalgia for Christmases past, Thompson relented, writing, “I had for too long been selfish in my stance against the tree.”

For years, Morgan’s family also avoided a Christmas tree in the house, a decision eased by the fact that they visit her relatives for Christmas each year. Most Decembers, they also spend a weekend with friends at a Wisconsin farmhouse, where they do “Christmasy things” like cutting down a fir tree and decorating it.

But 11 winters ago, their eldest son, then 4, asked his father if he could bring home a tree. His father said, “We’ll cut one down that is just your size.” That has become a family tradition, although if they don’t go to Wisconsin, they don’t go out and buy a tree.

Morgan’s husband is “comfortable having a tree in the house given how the tradition developed,” Morgan said, noting that the tree has become a symbol of the family weekends with friends, rather than of Christmas.

“His mother, who’s a Holocaust survivor and very observant, is not at all offended by it,” Morgan said.
Regina Woontner, one of Cohen’s congregants in Denver, said her family has avoided Christmastime conflict because – although she’s a “generic Protestant” and the family visits her sister for Christmas – she doesn’t want a Christmas tree at home.

“I want to give my kids a Jewish education, and how can you do that if you have all this Christian stuff in the house?” she asked.

But her family is atypical, she said, noting that many of their fellow congregants do have trees and “rationalize it as not really a Christian thing.”

Sometimes the Jewish partner feels guilty asking his or her spouse to give up the cherished symbol.
Cohen knows of a family in which the children are being raised Jewish, even though the mother is not. “The father said, ‘She does so much, she brings the kids to synagogue, she’s willing to raise the kids Jewish. How can I deny her this one thing?’ ” Cohen said.

“The tree becomes the ‘Here is my nod,’ ” said Cohen. “We’re not going to do church, baptize the kids or any of that, but we’ll have a tree.”

Traditional rabbis, who take a strong stand against intermarriage, generally do not have any dealings with Christmas trees. But in the Reform world, where congregations have actively reached out to interfaith families, rabbis have a range of attitudes toward trees in their congregants’ homes.

Levin and Cohen say Christmas trees are more Christian and more confusing to children being raised Jewish than most interfaith couples would like to admit.

People think that “because they’re calling it a secular symbol it is in fact that, but our culture has a great deal to determine what it means,” Levin said.

“In American culture, it’s a quasi-religious symbol, and how children will read that is not entirely the parents’ determination,” he added.

Cohen said, “At its heart, Christmas is a religious holiday; it’s about God coming to earth as a human being.”

“I think it’s better for children to know which community they are part of,” said Cohen. “On the other hand, I don’t think having a Christmas tree means you can’t walk into my synagogue. It means you’re on a path and have to figure this out.”

Like the upcoming brit milah Levin will attend, Cohen once showed up to do an in-home baby-naming ceremony, only to discover that the family expected her to do it right in front of their Christmas tree. She insisted on moving the ceremony to a different room.

“I was out of seminary six months, and it didn’t occur to me to ask about whether there would be a tree,” Cohen recalled. “I didn’t feel I needed to say, ‘I can’t give your child a Hebrew name because of this,’ but I also didn’t feel like I had to do it in that room.”

Such experiences are so common, Cohen said, that the issue has come up on the e-mail bulletin board for the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis. “A number of people have said the easiest thing to do is just not do ceremonies in the home in December,” she said.

Rabbi Sam Gordon of Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Ill., said, “My feeling is that the Christmas tree is just a tree.”

Gordon does not tell congregants what to decide but urges them to use the tree debate as a “catalyst” to explore the larger issues about the values and traditions they want to share with their children.

“It can be a time for the family to have great battles or a time for the family to talk values,” he said.

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