Should Jews Own Christmas Trees?

There Is Only One True National Religion: Shopping
Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Dec. 14 2010 10:41 AM

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.

You keep mentioning flavorless American consumerism as it pertains to Christmas, but you don't address my earlier assertion that Hanukkah is similarly compromised. However you do mention—twice—your wife's disappointment that Target was closed on Christmas Day. I bring this up not to dis' your wife (I, too, would be miffed!), but to reiterate the idea that it is impossible for most unorthodox Americans, Jews, and non-Jews alike, to avoid our true national religion: shopping. The Christmas tree is irrelevant here.

I couldn't disagree more with your assertion that having a tree—or just focusing on celebrating holidays rather than learning theology—confuses Jewish children about their identities. As someone whose parents have no talent for spirituality, though they are both Jewish, I was raised with lots of "desultory candle lighting," as you put it. My grandparents were known to purchase chocolate Easter bunnies for my brother and me on Passover. And yet, I was never confused about what being Jewish meant. It remains the core of my cultural and ethnic self-identification.

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You emphasize the importance of preserving minority traditions but also say that "having too many rituals makes it hard to commit to any of them." This puts interfaith couples in a tight spot: You're basically saying that we should only celebrate the minority—in this case, Jewish—traditions, lest we have "too many rituals." my husband and I aren't especially religious, so to provide our as-yet-unborn children with only Jewish traditions would feel arbitrary and strange. And what would you suggest for a Jewish woman married to a Muslim partner? Whose minority tradition should be preserved then?

You're not sure if anyone is "better off with this pupu platter of religious experience," but I know several "Jew-Bu Unitarian vegetarians" of mixed Jewish and Christian heritage, who seem perfectly dandy. They aren't especially confused about their place in the world, and they're certainly not bland. Though, to the last one, these pals identify more as Jewish than as Episcopalian or Catholic or Methodist. I don't wish to speak on their behalf, but I can venture that it's because Jewishness is something different and special to latch onto, whereas the various strains of Christianity feel like the default in America. As such, I'm reasonably confident our kids will feel their Jewishness even with a Christmas tree, as I was able to feel mine even while gnawing on sweet, sweet, bunny ears.

I also think it's worth noting that, just as the Christmas tree appeals to those beyond the flock, many Jewish rituals have caught on among the population at large. I've seen many a shiksa eating matzo, and unleavened bread in April is a more explicitly religious item than a decorated tree in December.

Since this debate has been so personal in nature, allow me to close it with my holiday plans: I am spending this Christmas with my husband's Episcopalian family, and we're going to go see a movie about the old West made by Jews. Enjoy your pajama Christmas, Mark, maybe when it's over, you can join us at True Grit.

Joyful Winter Solstice,
Jess

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