As a New Yorker, I see Christmas tree stands pop up every few blocks every holiday season, but as a non tree-buying Jew, I never paid this phenomenon much attention. All of this changed a few years ago when I made Tree Man, a documentary film about Francois, the Christmas Tree Man of Broadway and 102nd street. Every year, Francois leaves his wife and small kids to sleep in his van for a month and sell Christmas trees to Christians and non-Christians alike on the Upper West Side. What I learned while making this film is that the Christmas tree can serve as a vehicle to transmit values and personal histories, even to Jews.
During the five weeks of filming Tree Man, I witnessed children jumping up and down, squealing with joy as their parents bought their Christmas trees. I listened to Francois’ stories of watching children grow from year to year and of young couples starting their own families, and in doing so I saw the neighborhood’s life cycle through his eyes. I went into peoples’ apartments and saw families trimming their trees together, singing songs and passing their rituals on from one generation to the next.
According to the 2013 Pew Portrait of Jewish Americans, about one-third of American Jews have a Christmas tree in their home, with more than half of unaffiliated Jews celebrating the holiday season with a tree. Over 70% of intermarried couples have a tree. It’s no longer a question for these Jews whether they should have a tree, it is a question of what meaning their tree has for them.
I still don’t think that I will ever have a tree myself — it’s a beautiful ritual, but it’s not my ritual. It’s okay for me to love it and still not have a tree. But I don’t judge those non-Christians who want to put a tree up in their homes; it’s a beautiful symbol of neighborhood, community, family and home. After all, that’s what holidays are supposed to be about.