Growing up one of five Jewish families in my high school there was always the dreaded post-holiday break question, “So what’d you get for Christmas?” which was followed by me explaining (read: defending) Hanukkah. “Oh I’m Jewish. We don’t celebrate Christmas. We have Hanukkah.” This was always met with a look of sorrow, confusion, and pity by my peers as if to say, “No Christmas? How can you live?” Then I went on to explain (read: defend) that Hanukkah was better, “We get eight presents.” This seemed to assuage the masses until they realized that no Christmas meant no tree.
Up until I became a parent, I was fine with my no Christmas tree stand. I’ve never subscribed to the Madonna school of religion where one takes what seems convenient, trendy or cool about religion and discards the rest. I’ve always been fine to lick my holiday wounds, appreciate other friends’ trees and go home to my disappointing menorah over run with last year’s wax remnants. I’ve made the best of Hanukkah, enjoying an excuse to eat fried (read: deep fried) potatoes and donuts with a Hebrew surname. And no matter what, I’ve always defended Hanukkah from the naysayers or husbands who think a house full of blue and white decorations just can’t replace the smell of a sparkly tree topped with a bright shining star.
But now I find myself speechless driving down Wilshire Boulevard at dusk with my four-year-old boy. In effort to divert him from one more endless conversation about which Ninja is the most powerful, I tell him to look at all the holiday lights. Wilshire Boulevard, in the heart of Beverly Hills, California is retail heaven, which can only mean one thing at this time of year, holiday decorations. And despite Beverly Hills having a potentially higher Jewish population than Jerusalem, the streets are head to toe in Christmas.
“Ooh,” my son says, “Why is it so shiny?” I explain to him that all the lights and decorations are for Christmas. He asks what that is. I’m stumped, fairly certain that the birth of baby Jesus might be a bit lofty of a concept for this Jewish toddler. So I explain to him that some people are Jewish and have Hanukkah and some people have Christmas and that all the decorations are for Christmas. “Well then I don’t want to be Jewish,” he proclaims proudly. “I want Christmas.” Then he sticks it to me, “Can we get a tree?” I say no. But for the first time, I’m not sure why.
Truth be told, sometimes I wish I were a Madonna kind of gal, borrowing traditions from the potpourri of life. Being rigid can be no fun, but if we don’t have rule and standards, what do we have? Once or twice, I’ve considered getting a tree surrendering to the “a tree is just a tree,” defense that Jews who have trees use to support their choice. And occasionally, I think about my aging Dad, a product of an orthodox Jewish upbringing, walking in my house, seeing the tree, and me having to break out a defibrillator to bring him back to life, and a good mood. And then I wonder, what is the harm in a tree? It’s my house, not my Dad’s or anyone else’s; I’m allowed to adopt whatever tradition I want, right? Right? Right?
To be perfectly honest, I love Christmas. I love the smell of the tree, the shine of the ornaments, the anticipation of everyone waking up together, opening gifts and not only sharing, but creating indelible happy memories. On December 25th, I always feel like an outsider watching the world shut down to hunker down with family while I’m left to my own devices at the movies or favorite (crowded with Jews) Chinese restaurant. But when I think what gives me the most Christmas-envy, it’s the idea that every family is warm and cozy in their home and happy. Christmas seems happy and unfortunately a lot of Jewish holidays celebrate sadness and self-reflection. We are not a religion of Chocolate bunnies and shiny trees. On our biggest holiday, we spend the day starving only to spend the whole night afterward inhaling bagels. It just doesn’t sound as good as gift-wrapped iPod on Christmas morning.
So in effort not to be rigid, I’m going to steal a bit from Christmas. I don’t need the tree and the manger scene, but I do need a happy, joyous holiday that my kids will anticipate for years to come. It doesn’t take a tree to make a happy holiday and it doesn’t take a tree to create a happy memory.
So I explain to my son that having Christmas is wonderful as is being Jewish. And that the traditions of our people and the bonds of our community have made us last despite what we’ve come up against. And the while Christmas is undoubtedly amazingly fun, eight days of fried food isn’t so bad either. So for this year, we’re going to be tree free and I’ll continue to peak in my Christian neighbors’ windows and wonder if they’re having as much fun with their family as I am with mine. My son seems content with that answer and so, I am too.
A day later, there’s a knock at my door. I open it to find a man delivering a Christmas tree to my house. He’s got a truck full of trees and he’s got my address on his route. “This is south, right?” I’m north. But the tree is paid for and it’s waiting in my driveway. He’d never know if I simply signed for the tree and accepted delivery. My husband would be thrilled and my son would be happy. It’s wrong, but I’m tempted. Tempted, but Jewish. I send him on his way.