Abba, Can I Have a Christmas Tree?
Our daughter, Avital, was all of two years old when she uttered her first request for a Christmas tree. In response, I burst out laughing and asked if she’d trade me three Shabboses for a Christmas. She said, “Oh, Abba, that’s silly.” And that was the end of the matter. In subsequent years, she refined her request: if she couldn’t have a tree, how about some Christmas lights. “They’re so pretty!”
I got to thinking: if it was like that for the daughter of not one, but two rabbis, what must it be like for unaffiliated Jews? Given the world we live in, it seems inevitable that our children look at the lights, the tinsels and the wreaths with longing. After all, they’re everywhere. And while you may find a Happy Hanukkah banner hidden behind the strata of Christmas lights, the “holiday season” is often a Jewish child’s first experience with Jewish marginality. This year, and it’s only Thanksgiving, I’ve seen three Santa Clauses without even going near a department store. I saw one in a pet store being photographed with dogs; now how’s that for a contribution to our family’s well-being? Can you imagine our dog pleading to sit on Santa’s lap?
I have a good friend who is a priest and when our religious time permits, Avital and I have gone to Midnight Mass at church since she was five. I appreciate having my daughter exposed to the experience of another people’s sacred time. I am struck by how the songs of Christmas have become my folk songs. Avital loves singing them, and so do I. We go home bellowing “Silent Night” and hum through the parts that are too religious.
Some years, we’ve toured the city looking for the best displays of Christmas lights. Michael would yell “1,2,3, Christmas lights!” on our pilgrimages to Peacock Lane.
One year, Avital presented me with a Hanukiyah (a menorah) in the shape of a green tree on a red background with eight lights and a shamash at the top of the tree. Get the picture? Another year, we had some upstart trees out of place. A group from Gesher uprooted them live and brought them to Humboldt Elementary school, an inner city school. The trees were placed in the homes of deserving students. A television news story about the gift caught Humboldt Elementary students singing Hanukkah songs to us. After Christmas, the surviving live trees were replanted on Tu B’shevat. The first grade classes at Portland jewish Academy and Humboldt elementary began a visitation program in each other’s classrooms.
We visit neighbors for Christmas and deliver presents. But not in our home. Our balance is an easy one, but what is like for intermarried families, for Jewish families whose homes are not infused with Jewish sacred time?
My cousins The problem is not Christmas. It is the rest of the year. If you celebrate Jewishly in your home: Shabbat, Hanukkah, Passover— the conflict over symbols of another religion is going to be less. Avital still wishes. Her freshman year at college, she got her Christian roommate a Christmas tree and lights.
My cousins celebrate Christmas to the hilt. On December 24, they fly in, and place presents beneath the tree. They have a Christmas dinner with four other Jewish families and wish each other “Merry Christmas.” Growing up, I envied their family celebration. I don’t today, because I don’t feel marginal being Jewish. I’m happy in my knowledge that my family has so much of the sacred, that Christmas, while they enjoy it, doesn’t fill that need.
But if my cousins asked, I’m not sure I would tell them to stop their family Christmas celebration. They migh never see each other otherwise. I do wince thinking about four Jewish families wishing each other “Merry Christmas,” but the truth is, I worry less about the denial of Jewish identity than I do about the way families have lost their “glue” in a lack of connectedness of any sacred time.
Having a Christmas tree isn’t necessarily wrong. It means you’re in touch with your need for sacred time, that you recognize the importance of celebration in keeping families together. In our culture, it’s natural to look to Christmas first. The thing is, it takes a lot more glue than Christmas to keep a family together. Families also need a strong cultural identity. For Jews, that is something Christmas can’t provide.
This year, try looking past the Christmas lgihts and look for the glimmer of Hanukkah light or Shabbat candlelight in your loved ones’ eyes. Come February, take a nature walk and celebrate Tu B’Shevat. If you must have Santa Claus in your life, Santa makes a great Purim costume. By next Christmas, chances are your family’s Jewish identity will be so strong that you can enoy the lights of Peacock Lane, or a performance of the Nutcracker, without threatening your family’s sense of being Jewish. I’ve offered many Jews a Christmas tree for three Shabboses, but after a year of Jewish celebration, on one has ever taken me up on it.