My relationship with Christmas trees began when I was a child. In my upstate New York suburb in the 1960s, mine was one of very few Jewish families. Despite my mother’s annual protests to Mr Hermann, the elementary school principal, and, occasionally, the Bethlehem School Board, every year, I dutifully made Christmas tree ornaments and Christmas decorations in school. Later, I would take the creations of red and green construction paper, cotton balls, glitter and pipe cleaners to my friends Kathy Molloy and Beth Biggane who lived down the street to hang in their houses.
On Christmas morning, I would wait just long enough for Kathy and Beth to open their presents and then head down the street to inspect the haul. Once, Mrs. Biggane asked me if I felt badly that I didn’t have a Christmas tree. No, I said, mustering some pride and a bit of indignation, Jewish people celebrate Chanukah. We have menorahs.
Although I became accustomed to explaining why I didn’t celebrate Christmas to my non-Jewish neighbors, at times it was wearying. Yes, I would explain, we believe in God, no we don’t believe in Jesus Christ. Then, in fifth grade, the Kurland family moved to the neighborhood. Alexandra Kurland, who was in my grade, one day announced in school that her family were atheists. There was a stunned silence. I, however, was secretly thrilled. There were people stranger than us! Atheists! At least we believed in God, I whispered to myself.
Many years later, when I brough home the man I was planning to marry — a non-Jew — the first thing my mother asked was whether we planned to have a Christmas tree. All her fears and anxieties about an interfaith marriage were embodied in the Christmas tree. The power of this fear is hard for non-Jews to understand. “What’s wrong with a glittering tree in the darkness of winter?”, they ask, “they are so pretty!” Or, most often, “Christmas trees aren’t really religious, you know, they’re secular” But to many Jews, like my mother, a Jewish home with a Christmas tree is a betrayal, the final blow of assimilation into a hostile world.
When I married Pete, over thirty years ago, his children were still young — seven and twelve. As our first Christmas approached, I realized that celebrating Christmas was going to be part of blending our then-still separate lives. I’ll admit that first…