Should Jews Own Christmas Trees?

Beware of Bland American Consumerism
Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Dec. 14 2010 10:37 AM

Should Jews Own Christmas Trees?

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Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Dear Jessica,

Look, I feel your pain. Last year, my wife discovered that even Target is closed on Christmas. No wonder it's Chinese food and the movies. It's hard out there for a Jew(ess). And I grant you that Christmas rituals are wonderful. For you, it's the tree; for me it's caroling—last weekend I nearly teared-up at eight high-schoolers in wool sweaters serenading shoppers outside an Urban Outfitters. I would have stayed all day if my 2-year-old had not finally dragged me away. We Jews have chosenness, but Christians have "The Wassail Song."

Notice, however, that you try to have it both ways about our small, durable little religion. First you write, "You're not really giving our valuable cultural differences that much credit if you believe that a couple of twinkling lights can erase a Jewish past." But then you say, "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." But then, referring to a family-heirloom menorah that survived the war, you tack back: "Does the existence of a measly tree next to this treasured antique completely negate its power?"

So which is it? Is Hanukkah so possessed of mystical resonance that other religious artifacts could never overwhelm it? Or is it a "washout" that leads little Jews to crave the majesty of the commercial American Christmas? It can't be both.

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Your contradictions are understandable. You want to believe the Jewish tradition to be so timeless, so mesmeric, that it will persist no matter how much we allow our households (and, many would add, our spiritual lives) to be American amalgams, liberally and tolerantly welcoming all influences. No contemplation required, just parties.

We know how this paradox ends: not with Christianity—I admire Christianity; some of my best friends are Christian!—but with bland American consumerism. Passover at Mom's, Christmas tree in the house, desultory candle-lighting at Hanukkah, Easter egg hunts with the kids' friends in the neighborhood, and lots of useless junk as presents. Such a menu of annual festivity can be pleasant, but it leaves children especially Jewish children—cynical about religion. It leaves them confused about what Judaism (or Christianity) is, apart from its holidays, which they have been raised to believe are interchangeable with all other holidays.

And I'm not sure the parents—or childless couples, or single people—are any better off with this pupu platter of religious experience. From what I see, having too many rituals makes it hard to commit to any of them. And then there's the guilt when one ritual begins to "win" somehow, as inevitably it does.

You wanted to talk inter-marriage, which is your experience, but let me dwell instead on parenthood, my experience. Children really want to know Who am I? A lot of the people I know, and I suspect many Slate readers (and writers), basically identify as blue-state liberals. That is their cultural identity. Or maybe they base their identity around having attended a particular school or really caring about food. All of these identities allow Americans who have transcended Jew or Southerner or Presbyterian or African-American to still claim a subtribe within the big, incomprehensible tribe of Americans.

There is nothing immoral about celebrating multiple holidays and deriving a sense of belonging from politics, or reading habits, or the conviction that wooden toys are superior to plastic ones (wait till you have kids, Jessica; just wait). America's virtue is to allow such hybridity. But real diversity means preserving minority traditions, too, not just eagerly admixing them. If the day comes when we are all Jew-Bu Unitarian vegetarians, the country will be as interesting as an NPR pledge drive.

At times, your commitment to Judaism seems to be about remembering things past: "a Jewish past," "this treasured antique." If that's all we want out of Judaism—nostalgia—then you are surely right that a Christmas tree is no big deal. But you do talk about something more, when you ask, "Isn't there something positive about couples creating new, hybrid traditions for their families?" You recognize the importance of household culture. So do I, and I like to think Oppenheimerness is strong. But kids don't live on Oppenheimerness alone. Which is why we try to keep our rituals kosher. Last year, my daughter Rebekah invented a new one: pajamas on Christmas—which recognizes that all Americans get the day off to laze about, but that Jews need not laze in a Christian fashion. Another Jewish dad and mom we know have a similarly ridiculous, homegrown Christmas practice: Kellogg's assorted cereal fun packs for all. This year, we're joining forces for PJs and cereal. And somehow that seems even better than shopping at Target.

Merry Kwanzaa,
Mark

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Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for the New York Times. He can be found at markoppenheimer.com and followed on Twitter @markopp1.

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