We all know that the Christmas tree can become one of the biggest points of contention in intermarried families. It can cause hard feelings, arguments and problems with the kids. In my family, we have navigated this fairly well — until this year, when I have taken it upon myself to ponder whether a fragrant pine bush in the family room will make anyone uncomfortable — specifically, the new rabbinical student who will be home over the holiday. My daughter.
Maybe it would have been better to leave this prickly issue alone, but I thought it worth examining exactly how important this tradition was to me and whether it should continue. Since we have a Catholic (me) and a Jew (my husband) in the house, and one of our children has expressed a strong preference for the latter religion by announcing that she wants to become a Reform rabbi, I needed a new way to accommodate this in my own mind.
For the past 36 years, I didn’t have to make a choice about tree or no tree. I have not converted from Catholicism to Judaism and I married a fairly secular Jew who could accommodate if not fully participate in this lighted-tree ritual that made me cry happy tears, so I never had to give it much thought. I held tight to the tree tradition. But this year I am up against the numbers and the sneaking feeling in my own heart that we have had a tectonic shift in our house.
I know that at this point I am the only one attached to this tree and the ornament collection that came to me when my mother died. Should I banish the tree tradition so no one will feel awkward, or keep it to make happy my relatives, who include little ones, and myself? Maybe I should light the tree, just for me? It would be an emotional decision linked fundamentally to my upbringing and childhood. After all, the symbol carries more than a half-century of memories, reminding me of the horrible silver tinsel tree we once had and the rich creamed Polish dishes we ate before Midnight Mass.
Over the years I have adopted Hanukkah and have loved the light and latkes of the eight days. I’ve actually come to look at those days as somewhat superior because they aren’t cluttered with glitter, gifts and the loss of religious meaning, as Christmas is. I’ve marveled that a tradition like this one could just offer joy.
I have also come to understand that observant Jews don’t think this symbol of Christmas is something that should be foisted on their children in school and public places. It’s a strong first lesson for Jewish children to learn: They should not mindlessly join in just because something looks like the right and fun thing to do. Parents who can use Hanukkah to teach leadership by way of the Maccabees get my steadfast respect.
Sure, there are jokes galore about blending Hanukkah and Christmas and it can be cloaked as a way to “celebrate everything,” or give a nod to religious diversity. But the two religious holidays have nothing to do with each other. There is no such thing as a Hanukkah bush.
Recently, I have come to see the Christmas tree as an homage to my childhood and my parents and the very white, windy, cold snowy days in Buffalo when the exception in the neighborhood was the house without the tree. People over-decorated to compensate for the long darkness of the Great Lakes and to celebrate their deep Catholic roots. Now I live in a neighborhood where houses that stand unadorned outnumber the ones with blow-up lawn ornaments, fake angels, and lighted trees and windows. I have noted this and have tried to make my tree a bit smaller and less noticeable every year, saying to myself, “What if our rabbi drove by and saw this?”
It turns out I don’t need to worry, because I have just been told by the most Jewish person in my family: “If you find meaning in a Christmas tree, then, by all means, please chop down a tree and decorate it. Think about what you want, not about what I want.”
Wonders. I think of what my daughter said and know that this year, there will be room at home for all four of us — and my tiny tree.
Cindy Skrzycki, senior lecturer in the English department of the University of Pittsburgh, was a reporter and columnist for The Washington Post for nearly two decades.