January 16, 2019

Deck the halls or don’t: Jews and Christmas

Patrick Emerson McCormick, an entertainment attorney who was raised Catholic, converted to Judaism after meeting his Jewish wife, Jessica. Even after their marriage, though, he continued to keep a small Christmas tree in his home office. He had grown up with one and felt the tree did not have any religious significance. 

“I struggled with it,” he said. “At first, I wanted one not for religious reasons, but it held personal meaning for me.”

He changed his mind after his daughter told him she’d been teased at school for celebrating Christmas.

“I really thought there was a way to have a Christmas tree in our house that was personal but without ‘celebrating Christmas,’ until one year, our daughter, who is now in sixth grade — I think this was when she was in third or fourth grade — she was complaining to me in the car that other kids were making fun of her. She goes to public school and other Jewish kids in the school, they were making fun of her because she was celebrating Christmas,” McCormick said. “I said, ‘We don’t celebrate Christmas.’ She said, ‘You have a tree in your office.’ 

“There won’t be a tree in our house this year and it’s a unanimous decision,” McCormick said. 

With streets and shopping malls decorated with Christmas lights, music on the radio playing Christmas music (much of which was written by Jewish composers), and decorated evergreens glowing in the windows of people’s homes, any Jewish person — particularly converts and those in interfaith relationships — would be hard-pressed not to experience an inner identity struggle. This year, with Christmas Eve and the first night of Chanukah coinciding on Dec. 24, the challenge may be more difficult.

Nick Soper, who was raised Episcopalian and considers himself non-practicing, and his wife, Stacy, who is Jewish and the owner of a jewelry company, are expecting their first child in January. Every year, they adorn their home with both Chanukah and Christmas decorations. 

“We get around to putting out a few Jewish decorations and a few Christian decorations; that’s about the extent of it,” Nick said. “Both members of the committee have to agree upon the aesthetic. She’s not usually too enthusiastic about traditional commercial Christmas colors, like green and red. We have wood and earth tones and the sprig of some sort of plant. She’ll do red or green, but usually not both.”

More complicated, however, has been dealing with their in-laws. Stacy’s parents celebrate Chanukah exclusively and Nick’s celebrate Christmas. Stacy recalled one Christmas at her in-laws’ home when she found the Christmas tree decorated with a Chanukah ornament.

“I thought it was thoughtful and kind. I knew where the intentions came from,” Stacy said. “I don’t have a personal connection to ornaments or any Christmas decorations, but I knew they meant it to be a recognition [of my faith].”

These types of situations are so commonplace that there even is a term — the “December Dilemma” — to refer to Jews grappling with identity during Christmas. Of the Jews who responded to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center titled “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” 32 percent said they had a Christmas tree in their home the year before, and 71 percent of Jews who were intermarried put up a Christmas tree the previous year. 

Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director of the Louis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University, which prepares individuals for conversion to Judaism, said he often interacts with people who are eager to embrace Judaism but continue to feel a connection to the tree. 

“They are very happy, even overjoyed, to be embracing Judaism, but the Christmas tree represents a transitional object, like a baby blanket, linked to memories and feelings in a profound way,” he said. “People express discomfort about giving up the Christmas tree in the same way a child feels about giving up a treasured teddy bear.” 

Greenwald also has a personal experience with the holiday conflict. His father-in-law — whom he describes as a “ragin’ Cajun from Louisiana” — celebrates Christmas. Greenwald said he believes the Jewish way of handling such a situation is to remember how much value Judaism places on family. 

“Christmas is an incredibly important time of the year to a significant portion of my family by marriage. … [However,] when I travel to be with my family for [Christmas] celebrations, it doesn’t challenge my Jewish identity,” he said. “It affirms my very Jewish commitment to family.

“I believe very strongly that religion should not be a wedge that divides people from one another,” Greenwald added. “If a family gathers to celebrate [Christmas], I can’t imagine God or Torah is served by us boycotting that.”

During a Nov. 29 broadcast of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” Israeli-American actress Natalie Portman, who has been married to her non-Jewish husband since 2012, said that this year she will be having a Christmas tree in her home for the first time in her life.

“It’s kind of every Jew’s secret wish to have a Christmas tree,” Portman said.

Her comment prompted a negative response from Aish, an organization committed to helping nonobservant Jews reconnect with their Judaism.

“How sad and painful it is that this prominent actress is sending such a wrong message at exactly the time we need to embrace our Jewish identity and distance ourselves from the powerful influences of the pervasive non-Jewish culture,” said a recent Aish.com article titled “Natalie Portman’s Christmas Tree.” 

The backlash to Portman’s statement struck a nerve with Rabbi Keara Stein, director of InterfaithFamily/Los Angeles, a resource for interfaith families and couples interested in exploring Judaism. Stein said identifying with Judaism and having a Christmas tree are not mutually exclusive.

“It is possible to maintain one’s Jewish identity while still admiring or even celebrating aspects of Christmas,” Stein, a Reform rabbi whose father was a Jew by Choice, said in an email.

Rabbi Neal Weinberg, rabbinic director at Judaism by Choice, an organization that offers classes on Judaism for those considering conversion, said it’s possible for Jews to feel more Jewish during the holidays, not less. He recalled that when he was in his late teens, his Jewish identity intensified by his reacting against the Christmas season. When he moved to Israel at age 21, he felt like he missed Christmas — which isn’t celebrated there like it is here — because he had nothing to stand against in opposition.

Today, decades later, with two grown children, his perspective has evolved.

“I enjoy Christmas music, the season and the decorations,” he said. “I enjoy seeing homes lit up. I enjoy the season. But I don’t celebrate it in my own home.”