The Jew and the Christmas Tree

th-2As a Jew growing up in suburban Connecticut, I always wanted a Christmas tree. My  parents, raised blocks apart in the Bronx while the Holocaust raged overseas, refused to yield. We celebrated Hanukkah, proudly displaying our menorah in the living room window.

The closest we got to a tree was on Christmas Eve, when we visited family friends who went all out on the decorating. They saved a few stray ornaments for my brother and me to hang on their massive evergreen, and we basked in its twinkling splendor while gobbling cookies from a tiered silver tray. On the way home, we peered through the car windows, wistfully counting the houses sporting Christmas lights.

Occasionally we found small gifts waiting for us by our fireplace on Christmas morning. “You’ve been so good, Santa must have decided to drop off a little something while he was in the neighborhood—even though you’re Jewish!” my mother would say. It was a sweet gesture, but the tokenism merely highlighted my deprivation. If only we’d had a tree, who knows what bounty Santa might have bestowed?

My Christmas tree envy faded with the onset of adolescence, when I contracted an incurable case of contrarianism. Suddenly, my goal was not just to be different from everyone else, but also to openly disdain the status quo. Newly outraged over deforestation—among many other things—I couldn’t believe I had once yearned to kill a tree so I could hang lights on it. Shunning Christmas and its trappings in favor of the Jewish festivals became a point of pride, heightened by my growing awareness of the existence of anti-Semitism.

thFor 15 years, Christmas was a non-event in my life. Then I met Mr. 70 Percent, who back then was so eager to impress me that he actually completed closer to 80 percent of any given household task. For better or worse, he was a devout non-believer in everything except the excesses of Christmas. It was fine with him if we raised our kids Jewish—but the tree was non-negotiable.

The first few years I cried. Each fragrant pine he hauled into our shared living space felt like a violation, a repudiation of my Jewish heritage and my lifelong ambivalence toward Christmas. I looked enviously at the other mixed-faith couples we knew whose non-Jewish partner enthusiastically embraced Judaism—in part to get out of celebrating Christmas.

That wasn’t my husband. And though I wished it were, it didn’t seem quite fair to ask him to forsake something he had grown up with and clearly loved, just because I didn’t want it around. After all, he’d made a much bigger concession in accepting a Jewish upbringing for our children; surely I could make room for something as simple and lovely as a tree.

And so I did, with a little less angst each year.

Our kids, when they came along, thought they’d hit the jackpot: Hanukkah and Christmas! They were the envy of their elementary-school peers. But it was their grandmothers who taught them how truly lucky they were: every year, my mother-in-law–a lapsed Catholic–gave each of her Jewish grandchildren a new menorah for Hanukkah: Mickey Mouse and fire engines, flowers and jungle animals. And my mother presented them with new ornaments for the Christmas tree she’d never wanted in her own home.

thNow the tree is as much a part of our season as the menorah, and the 30 percent of the dinner dishes left unwashed in the sink. I have grown genuinely fond of the rituals I craved as a child and ridiculed as a teen: selecting the perfect specimen, draping its branches with strands of white lights, setting the gold wire star gently on top. But mostly what I love is placing the ornaments that tell our family story: the black Lab, the Yankees cap, the Eiffel Tower, the bassoon and the guitar, the Popsicle-stick frames and glittery pinecones preserved from preschool days. And always, prominently near the top, the delicate, blown-glass Jewish symbols—a menorah, a dreidel, and a Star of David—that we bought together years ago, when we were just beginning to find our way through the thicket of a mixed marriage.

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About Susan H. Greenberg

Susan H. Greenberg spent 22 years as a journalist for Newsweek Magazine. She now works as a writer, editor, teacher, and parent of three children, with whom she strives always to maintain a varnish-free relationship.
This entry was posted in Family life, Holidays, Marriage and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Jew and the Christmas Tree

  1. Love every word! ***Merry Hanukkah!***

  2. Hank says:

    Your mother and I talked about this last night after I asked her to read yesterday’s NY Times, which had a piece on this very subject. We’re happy you are all at peace with this arrangement. And on Friday mom is bringing a noodle pudding for your sister-in-laws to enjoy again.

  3. Sherry Gordon-Shulik says:

    Happy Holidays to all of you. I do love reading your blog. Hope things are well.

  4. Jeanne Greenblatt says:

    Hi Sue I really enjoyed your blog. I hope you and your family have a really nice Christmas and I’d love to connect either in Middlebury or Burlington or somewhere in between) again if you have time. I’ll also arrange a get together with my writer friend, Shelagh after the new year. Take care and hope to see you soon Jeanne Greenblatt

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  5. Andi says:

    I always love reading your blog. We received your family holiday card this week. It was so warm and full of love.

    Last night, Christmas Eve, we went out for dinner to celebrate my birthday. Yes, I’m Jewish and my birthday is Christmas Eve. Of course the Maitre D was mortified when our dinner was nearly two hours in the making. He was so apologetic for ruining our Christmas. Then Rick told him we don’t celebrate Xmas but it was my birthday. He felt even worse. We left the restaurant with the bill paid and a gift basket of Italian treats 🙂 I think everyone’s confused!

  6. KittyHere says:

    My husband was so excited to have a tree the first Christmas we were together. He was not raised in the Jewish faith but his Jewish mother did draw the line at having a Christmas tree. I figure she gave me a special gift in that sense. I write from a hotel room overlooking the giant Boston Menorhah.

  7. Mike Fedell says:

    Hank and Laurie Greenberg, Susie’s parents, are fixtures at our annual Xmas celebrations. My wife Peggy and I look at them as role models, especially for the way they raised their children. We are waiting for a book authored by Susie chronicling the nightly discussions at the dinner table as Susie and Andy grew up!

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