How I Became a Jew With a Tree

I have a Christmas tree this year, for only the second time ever.  I spotted a place selling them for $15 when we at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving — oy, such a deal! One of my husband’s favorite nicknames for me is “Cheap Bastard,” which I have to admit is well-deserved.

But this tree acquisition wasn’t without some conflicted feelings.  My family, as I mentioned previously and you will now not have trouble believing if you are one to stereotype, is Jewish, and so I am that as well somewhat by default. This meant, if nothing else, not having a Christmas tree — or a “Hanukkah bush,” which everyone knows is just a lame imitation of a Christmas tree, so much so that I don’t think anybody has had one since the 70s. My parents aren’t terribly Jewish at any other time of the year, at least not in a religious way. Our main holidays are Passover, because it involves getting together and eating, and Thanksgiving, because it involves getting together and eating (and since we race through the first half of the Haggadah and never get to the second half at all, they really aren’t that much different aside from the menu).  We briefly joined a temple when I was a kid after we moved from Newark to the suburbs, but we never went.  As I mentioned in my last blog, I only went to Hebrew School for one year, in third grade, then quit because it was on Saturday mornings and Scooby Doo and Superfriends were way more important to me than Moses or the Macabees (except for maybe once a year, when The Ten Commandments was on, because who could help being fascinated by that Biblical chemistry between Charleton Heston, Yul Brenner and Anne Baxter, none of whom really look Middle Eastern aside from the eyeliner?). As a result, my perspective on what it meant to be Jewish was a bit of an odd pastiche. The one thing I remember taking some pride in at Hebrew School was the Escape from Auschwitz board game I made, which, needless to say, was not really appreciated by anyone. And this was after I’d spent the previous year of second grade at Catholic School, so I probably understood as much about the Torah as I did about the Trinity (which, to be fair, my Catholic School friends Eileen Fitzpatrick and Carla di Buono couldn’t make sense of either, judging by the confused conversations we had that year about who exactly Jesus was).  

But the point is, my family mainly did Hanukkah when I was a kid because it’s a bulwark against Christmas, an excuse for us to have presents and chocolate, because they have presents and chocolate (and we actually had their chocolate, because my father buys chocolate Santas on sale after Christmas, partly so he can tell this joke: “What happens to Santa after Christmas?  He gets eaten!” Yeah, it’s funny if you’re under nine, or my dad).  We used to light the candles and sing the prayers when I was little, but then that part of it slowly eroded until, by my teens, we just did the presents. Now, my brother, who I like to refer to as the Jew in the family, does a real Hanukkah with prayers and candles with my sister-in-law and their kids, so the rest of us do it one night every year, when we get together to exchange — you guessed it — presents.  (Thanksgivukkah truly is the perfect holiday for my family because it combines getting the family together for food and presents, so it’s too bad it won’t happen again for another…well, basically ever).

So do I really care about Hanukkah?  No.  But do I care about NOT caring about Christmas?  You better believe it.  It’s because all of us in this country who don’t celebrate Christmas — Atheists, Baha’is, Buddhists, Chinese Folk Religionists, Hindus, Jews, Black Muslims, Muslims, New-Religionists, Sikhs, and Tribal Religionists, if you’re talking about the top twelve categories in which Americans classify themselves with regard to religion aside from Christian — have always felt uniquely both excluded and smothered by it.  Hey, I was a child of the 70s and 80s, and as such, I grew up glued to the television set like any other kid, watching it all every year, from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, to Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, to The Year Without a Santa Claus, to Merry Christmas Charlie Brown, to The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, to Miracle on 34th Street, to It’s a Wonderful Life, to every version of A Christmas Carol — am I making my point here? And we have, uh, A Rugrats Chanukah? – and I enjoyed them all (at least, everything pre-1975 or so.  Even as a youngster I had standards, and I knew that Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July was crap).  I like eating chocolate Santas, and, truth be told, would eat them any time of year (although they can start to get disgusting after about March).  I even like Christmas carols for the first, oh, five days of the season.  And I know that most of what we associate with Christmas, including trees and Santa and reindeer, and red and green, and Christmas lights, and tinsel, and Frosty, it’s all so disconnected from the actual Christian part of the thing — and much of it was stolen from paganism to begin with — that I really shouldn’t have a problem with getting into all that. You see the occasional creche or angels as a little reminder that, oh yeah, this is about the birth of Jesus, but generally, you could easily make it through several Christmases in America without ever having a clue that there’s a connection there.  But…it’s still CHRISTmas, and I don’t want to feel like I have to celebrate something that starts and, really, ends, with Christ. That might be the dominant culture in this country, but that was not my parents’ culture, and it is not mine, so why should I be forced into assimilation?  And then, in the aughts, of course, when the whole “War on Christmas” idea was conceived of by angry white males in the conservative media, the type of people who actually think there could possibly be such a thing as a “War on Christmas” in a country that essentially starts celebrating it en masse on Thanksgiving, my identity as a non-celebrator of Christmas was crystalized — or Christalized.  Yes, I want to tell those assholes that there’s that little clause right toward the beginning of their beloved Bill of Rights about no establishment of religion that says that we are not supposed to celebrate your holiday on public property even if yours is the dominant religion in this country, so shut the fuck up.  But I also like just shouting and waving to everyone from behind the red and green, well, everything that engulfs us all around this time of year, that being American doesn’t mean being Christian and celebrating Christmas, that just like the Who’s in Whoville (the ones that Horton heard, not the ones that the Grinch stole Christmas from), WE ARE HERE.

So basically, for most of my adult life, I was a person of principle who did nothing except for presents and chocolate, on principle, because it was better than being a person who did something I didn’t believe in or supported a festivity that had oppressed me all my life.  It was okay to appreciate Christmas at other people’s houses and parties — and they were holiday parties, because I live in New York City, where there are a lot of people who aren’t Christian, and those who are know that the rest of us exist. Things eroded a bit when one of my good friends, who is a half-Jewish, half-Christian, lesbian, invited me to a party to make latkes and ornaments to decorate her tree.  It was a party that involved crafts and alcohol and fried potatoes and lesbians, so it was hard for me to have a problem with that, even if there tree trimming involved.  Perhaps I’ll admit that I even enjoyed it.  Eventually, making latkes and trimming the tree with her and her partner and children became something of a holiday tradition for me.  But I could still always argue that it wasn’t my tree.

Then I fell in love with a Christmas-loving atheist.  Even though my husband does not believe in God, he firmly believes in Christmas. I asked him why recently.

“Because Christmas is awesome!  It’s a great holiday.  You get a tree and presents, and spend time with family.”  
“But what about the fact that it’s really about Jesus?”
“It’s not about Jesus.  It hasn’t been about Jesus for generations.  It’s about Santa.”

And this is where his attachment to Christmas lies: deep within his inner child. As with many people, Damon’s views about Christmas haven’t really evolved much since he was four. When we spend Christmas at his parents’ house, it works just the way it always did, just the way it does in the movies, with the whole family (his parents, us, and his brother) waking up and heading into the living room in our pajamas and each taking a turn at opening a gift, including one for each person from Santa, then we get to sit around and play with them pretty much all day, until, at some point in the late afternoon, we have a ham. Back in Brooklyn, Damon has his own huge box o’ Christmas in our storage unit. It contains a tree skirt and ornaments made by his grandmother, old holiday cards from past years, a snowman candle that we aren’t allowed to light, teeny tiny stockings appropriately-sized for a Brooklyn apartment, and other things that he associates with Christmas, including old toys — Matchbox cars, a whirlibird, a slinky — that go under the tree to make it look extra festive. There is nothing rational about this.

Still, we probably could have gone on not having Christmas forever if I hadn’t been the one who bought a tree. Damon was always talking about getting one but waffled between not having the time to deal with it and thinking there was no point because we wouldn’t actually be in town for Christmas itself, since we are always away either visiting his family or traveling with mine. But I could tell he really wanted one. So when I finally saw one at the deli next to the Tibetan restaurant near our house that was cute, petite, and yes, cheap, how could I resist when I knew I would have a chance to see his face light up with the joy these things have inspired in him for the past 40 plus years? I caved. 

I feel like it was worth it.  It’s easy to be against things on principle — just ask the angry white guys — but maybe it’s better to be for something if that something is making somebody you care about happy. This doesn’t mean that I have to love and support Christmas, just love and support someone who cares about it by no longer actively opposing it. And I think I’m starting to get why people start celebrating their family traditions, or at least some kind of traditions, when they have kids: the best way to show that WE ARE HERE is to do something, not nothing. I’m not saying I’d send my children to Hebrew school – even the idea of singing the Hanukkah prayers makes me a little queasy as an atheist, and how could I deprive them of the lazy Saturday mornings I got to enjoy growing up?  But candles and potato pancakes and presents and chocolate?  I support that.

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