Should Jews Own Christmas Trees?

A Couple of Twinkling Lights Can't Erase a Jewish Past
Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Dec. 13 2010 8:37 PM

Should Jews Own Christmas Trees?

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Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Dear Mark,

Jessica Grose Jessica Grose

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

It's funny you mention the Jewish mother-obsessed Portnoy, since my pro-Christmas-tree agenda is in some ways a direct response to my mom's staunch anti-tree platform. Like you, she believes that Jews with Christmas trees are like Jews who put mayonnaise on their Wonder Bread or Jews who name their daughters Catherine: which is to say, Jews who are trying to pretend they are WASPs.

This focus on superficial detail misses the point. Naming my kid Mary or festooning a fir tree does not negate my deeply felt Jewishness, nor does it dilute the Jewish traditions I still follow. I would never have asked my mom to actually celebrate Christmas—I wasn't interested in the birth of Christ. I just wanted some pretty ornaments. As you say, this isn't really about religion. You're not really giving our valuable cultural differences that much credit if you believe a couple of twinkling lights can erase a Jewish past.

I'm also sorry to inform you that Jews have already wholeheartedly embraced the materialism of the Christmas season—we just call it Hanukkah instead. If you're lamenting the homogeneity of December cheer, I suggest you take a time machine back to the 19th century, before American Jews elevated what was once a minor festival to an eight-day gift orgy so that Jewish kids wouldn't feel bad about not getting a Wii like Timmy's.

Speaking of Hanukkah, maybe if the festival of lights weren't such a washout as a holiday, little Jewish girls like me wouldn't be so desperately drawn to the majesty of Rockefeller Center. You stand around a menorah for five minutes, blurt out a prayer or two, shove some latkes down your gullet, and call it a day. It never felt profound the way Passover or Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah did. There is no reflection or atonement associated with Hanukkah, and while I like a good revolt against oppression as much as the next Jew, the holiday feels flimsy. My tree-hating mom agrees: Apparently she and my father have not lit a menorah since the local gallery that sold the high-end candles she liked went out of business. Since there are no longer children in her home, what's the point of continuing to celebrate this charade of a holiday?

We agree that part of embracing our difference as Jews is sharing our traditions with others. I'm so keen on sharing my Jewishness with the goyim that I married one. He schleps up to Westchester every year for my family's Passover Seder, and when we moved in together almost four years ago, it was an excellent excuse to get the tiny tree I'd always wanted. I'm sure that once we have kids, we'll have one every year. I can picture it now, slathered in tinsel, with a shiny star on top, sitting next to a half-lit menorah—the one my great-grandmother took with her when she left Austria in 1938. Does the existence of a measly tree next to this treasured antique completely negate its power?

Don't you think, for interfaith marriages like mine, a tree is a pretty easy place to compromise? And, furthermore, isn't there something positive about couples creating new, hybrid traditions for their families?

Shalom backatcha,

Jess

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