We’re Jewish and we have a Christmas tree. In fact, we’ve had one since 1929.
That’s the year my immigrant grandmother traveled home to visit her family in Hungary. While Grandma was away, my mother somehow convinced her father, an observant Jew, that a Christmas tree was an American secular tradition.
Thirty years later, my family didn’t just celebrate Christmas, we also benefited from it. Three seasons of the year, my father’s electrical business kept busy installing, servicing and storing window air conditioners. In the winter, however, Daddy’s crews (including my big brothers) put up Christmas lights along New York City’s famed Park Avenue, and up and down the streets and lampposts of numerous Long Island towns.
Now married with children of my own, I have two huge black trunkfuls of ornaments and lights that I happily haul out each season. My husband isn’t Jewish, but we were married by a rabbi under a chuppah and our children were reared as Jews. And as I am getting older, I am finding my personal connection to Judaism growing even stronger. Yet, for all that, I will never stop celebrating my American tradition of Christmas.
Each year I eagerly anticipate selecting a tree, decorating it and recalling the history of each ornament. I love the lights and the needlepoint stockings I carefully stitched for my children and husband. And while I am not a shop-till-I-drop kind of gal, I delight in the search for perfect presents to place under the tree. Most of all, I love the sight of family and friends gathering around that tree.
Of course, all this Christmas fun is tempered with a bissel of Jewish guilt.
Growing up, singing Christmas carols in the school chorus was a challenge. Not believing in Christ, every time it was time to say his name, I mouthed it. And every time I needed to write the word Christmas, I wrote Xmas as my personal faith work-a-round.
This Christmas guilt has carried over to my children. When my daughter was 4, she attended a Chabad winter camp. On the bus during a field trip, the counselors asked if the children knew any songs (I guess they couldn’t countenance another round of “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel”). My daughter proudly piped up. Having just memorized a song from start to finish, she belted out the first words of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The bus screeched to a halt. And faster than you can say “dreidels and reindeer,” the children started one more chorus of “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.”
A few years later, while attending a Jewish day school, my children balked when it came time to buy our Christmas tree. They worried that the school principal would see it. This was a valid fear. I was president of the school and the principal frequently stopped by to discuss school issues.
I tried comforting them, saying we could express Judaism in a way that felt right for us. I even pulled out my mother’s 1929 line about Christmas trees being “an American tradition.”
In the end, the desire for Christmas fun won out. The kids jumped into the car and the tree hunt began.
Yet, for all this seasonal guilt, I welcome my mother’s early championing of our Jewish American Christmas tree tradition. It was her way — and it is my way — of being part of the Great American Melting Pot.
Yet, no matter the actual timing of Hanukkah, our menorah and dreidels are always on equal, prominent display with our tree. Dreidels and reindeer. American and Jew. I am both. Not more of one. Not less of one.