A Christmas Tree: The Right Decision for Us
I never thought I would contemplate - or ever utter - these words: We're having a Christmas tree in our house this year, and I think it's the right decision.
I was raised as a Jew by two secular Jewish parents. Our family didn't do much in the way of Jewish rituals, but each Passover, my father presided over the extended family seder, and every Hanukkah, my mom, dad, and I lit the menorah. More than the presents, none of which stick in my mind (perhaps I was a strange kid, or received too many pencil sharpeners), I remember the sweet feelings of peace, love, and safety washing over our little nuclear family as our faces turned a warm shade of orange - the refracted glow of a cheap electric menorah proudly handed down through a couple of generations.
In contrast, my wife E. was raised Unitarian by two Jews-by- birth who some might describe as "self-hating Jews." Membership was brimming at their Unitarian church, in part because of all the Jewish moms and dads like them trying to escape their religious roots and fit into Long Island society. An aware child, E. was privy to the stories of certain marital indiscretions that had their locus in this religious community. She grew distrustful, then disdainful, and finally distant from all religion.
But she loved Christmas, probably even more than I loved Hanukkah. I think that's because I grew up in an imperfect but fairly loving family, whereas hers was rife with flare-ups, instability, and fear. All the more sweet, loving, and safe was her experience of Christmas - the one time of the year she could depend upon dad, mom, brother, and herself to be that picture-postcard family, and she could glow inside like the shiny gold ornaments she hung upon the family tree.
Interestingly - and perhaps unsurprisingly, given how much these traditions are associated with love, togetherness, and safety - how to handle the so-called "December Dilemma" became one of the most tense issues in E.'s and my 14-year-relationship, especially in the seven years that we've co-owned a weekend home in New Paltz, N.Y.
Once we had a house of our own, E. wanted that bright green tree by the living room fireplace.
And I was horrified.
I felt I was betraying not only myself but my entire line of Jewish ancestors. High on my ancestral betrayal list were my now-deceased parents, who might have eaten with gusto many a shrimp chow mein at Brooklyn's best Chinese restaurant but would be appalled at the sight of a treif tree in their daughter's home. Yes, as E. often softly reminded me, for her the tree was a secular symbol, but it wasn't secular to me. I wanted to maintain a Jewish home, as we'd long been doing together, lighting the menorah, hosting seders… all practices essential to me which she supported largely out of love for me. I would not show disloyalty to my Jewish heritage.
Still, five years ago, knowing how much it meant to E., I decided to try out the tree. Her tree. She set it up and added posh ornaments she'd collected over the years. But every time the lights pulled my eyes its way, I felt ashamed. I began taking alternate routes through the house to avoid eye contact with "it," but "it" seemed to cast shadows and light on every surface. I had to live with "it" through New Year's Day, as had been her family tradition. I kept my emotions to myself until E. took the tree down - then, my space back, I broke down and wailed. She was stunned and pained.
We haven't had a tree since.
This past May, E. and I were married. I didn't think marriage would affect our relationship - we'd been together for 13 years before tying the knot (a move precipitated by New York State's legalization of gay marriage) - but I was wrong. Knowing you are bound together by an institution that is, at its ideal, about respecting and honoring the individual you have committed to spending the rest of your life with changes you. It has changed us.
I began to think thoughts I never would have imagined-including that I have not only an obligation but perhaps even a Jewish obligation to give E. the respect, honor, and safety she craves at this holiday time.
And so: We're having a Christmas tree in our house this year, and I think it's the right decision.
Although I can't be sure, as the tree's not yet up, I also think it won't be so painful for me this time. Because I now recognize that a tree is has nothing to do my Jewish identity, which is unwavering. It is symbolic only of my love.
Joy Weinberg is managing editor of Reform Judaism magazine.