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December 18, 2007

To Tree or not to Tree?

J0436386 It’s easy to make parenting decisions before you actually have any kids.

Take, for example, our “no baby in our bed” rule, which lasted until the first night home from the hospital. Or the “no-TV before age two” rule, which ended when my daughter stopped napping at 18 months.

But the one I’m having the most trouble with these days is the no Christmas tree rule. I’m Jewish, and my husband – who was raised with little religion although Christmas was always celebrated as a secular holiday – converted when our daughter was born. Back when both marriage and children were still far off possibilities, we discussed how important it was for me to raise my kids as Jews. And after we were married and starting to discuss repopulating our small apartment, we had yet another serious discussion about what it meant that we were going to raise our children as Jews, and what it would mean to have a Christmas tree in our home. Although I was the one who obviously felt most strongly about this, my husband agreed that a Christmas tree is a strong religious symbol, and that we could not have a Jewish household yet while still allowing for a tree just because it’s merry.

For the first two years of my daughter’s life, this wasn’t much of an issue. We lived in a very diverse community with intermarriages between all kinds of faiths, and Christmas was just one of many things going on. And we spend the holidays with my in-laws who have a tree, so it’s not like we noticed the absence of one back home in our small apartment.

But now things are different. We moved to a Christian neighborhood, where the sheer number of front lawn nativity scenes has overwhelmed me. It seems like ours is the only house without twinkling lights outside. We might as well stamp a big Star of David on our driveway.

But more than that, now that our daughter is just about to turn three, she delights in things like Santa Claus and big trees adorned with shiny objects. And I can sense the nostalgia my husband has for Christmases past, where the smell of pine swept through his house. I feel more and more like the Grinch as the holiday approaches. But as a friend says, if we give in, aren’t we just Jews with Trees?

When we were little, my sister and I would hang socks on the chimney in the vain hope that Santa might be fooled into swinging by. We always awoke to oranges in our socks, because, as our mother reminded us, “We’re Jewish, and we don’t celebrate Christmas.” My kids will celebrate Christmas, and I want it to be a joyous time for them. But I also want them to understand that a Christmas tree is not a generic holiday symbol; it is a religious one. And as Jews, we won’t have it in our house. I want them to find joy in Jewish traditions – and not just overblown holidays like Hanukkah, but the more simple, yet constant ritual of Shabbat – even if they’re the only ones in town celebrating.

Besides, it would be way too much trouble to hide a Christmas tree every time my mother came over.


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