Over the past few weeks, my daughters and I have been spending a lot of time in front of the Christmas tree.
An artificial yet attractive pine decked out with shiny red and green balls and multicolored lights, it’s especially enticing for 18-month-old Sophie. Crying “ball, ball,” she gleefully brings her chubby hands close to the glittery ornaments. After a few days, she has, for the most part, learned not to grab.
At age 4, her sister Ellie now has the self-control not to touch, no matter how enticing and sparkly it all is. And she knows that although this tree — which our building super puts up in the lobby every year right after Thanksgiving — is just a few feet outside our apartment door, we are Jewish and thus don’t have one on the other side of the door.
Of course, as Ellie gets older and discovers the wide range of interfaith Christmas arrangements, she’ll realize it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Unbeknownst to her, from the age of 6 on, I actually grew up with a tree. Although an ardent atheist, my stepfather Peter was committed to all the yuletide bells and whistles — selecting and decorating a large evergreen, singing the carols, hanging stockings on the mantel and presiding over a multi-hour gift exchange. Until the marriage started to sour (they divorced 10 years ago), my Jewish mother was happy to join in.
I can’t say I didn’t enjoy Christmas, especially at first, when I believed in Santa and reveled in the novelty of participating in traditions I’d only heard or read about before. But celebrating also felt weird, especially by my sophomore year at Oberlin, when I started eating at the kosher dining co-op and decided to spend a semester in Israel. Some years when we trimmed the tree, Christmas tunes piping from the family stereo, I’d just sit back and watch. Other times, I’d put up a few ornaments but abstain from singing. When Jewish friends came to our house in December and saw the tree, I’d feel embarrassed, certain they would conclude I was not really Jewish.
Now, although I have some nostalgia for Christmas, I’m relieved not to partake. Fortunately for me, my non-Jewish husband Joe is not a Christmas guy: he hates exchanging gifts, dislikes the seasonal music and has absolutely no interest in a tree. This year, although we’re going to his sister’s Christmas party on the 22nd, he’s content to spend the holiday itself visiting his (Jewish) best friend in suburban Boston, hanging out at the local JCC and maybe eating some Chinese food.
I know it’s the rare interfaith couple that avoids the notorious December Dilemma — and the tree, that ultimate Christmas symbol, often holds as much emotional baggage as ornaments.
Of course some Jews thrill at the opportunity — my friend Amy enthusiastically picks out and decorates one each year even as her Christian husband David is blasé about the whole project. But she’s not sure she’ll want to continue with a tree once they have children, whom they plan to raise Jewish.
And some former gentiles are happy to go tree-free. Maria Matasar-Padillo, who converted to Judaism a few years after getting married, said that she and her husband Matt — who are members of the Upper West Side’s Ansche Chesed — had a Christmas tree the year they first began living together. However, after they got married, in a Jewish ceremony, “it no longer felt right to include a tree in our holiday celebrations.”
“This was a decision I came to on my own, and I think that Matt was sort of relieved about it,” she said, adding that “It was a little hard the first year. The house looked so bare, but it got easier with each passing year.”
Not all families work out the Dilemma so harmoniously. Many Jews agree to a tree, but then feel awkward or guilty once it’s in their living room. On the other side are the Christian partners who agree not to have a tree, only to find themselves, er, pining for it.
I know many Jews see Christmas trees as the ultimate litmus test, believing that one simply cannot raise Jewish children with an evergreen in the home. They may be right. However, I’ve encountered enough families that do have trees that I’m skeptical that one tradition can trump everything else — not unless Jewish identity is defined primarily as “I don’t do Christmas, therefore I am Jewish.”
Rabbi Lev Baesh, who runs InterfaithFamily.com’s “resource center for Jewish clergy,” pointed out in a recent blog post that “honoring family and family traditions, from both parents’ history … helps foster respect for others and allows [children] to grow with a wider vision than they might otherwise develop. And what value is there in Judaism if it is not to teach respect and connection to family and the wider world?”
In that post, he also wrote, “It seems to be that the less we fear the traditions and religious expression of all the members of our household, the more our connection to Judaism is out of a love of it, rather than a fear of losing it.”
In The Mix appears the third week of the month. To read past columns go to http://intermarried.wordpress.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.