December 16, 2004
To Tree or Not to Tree
For the first time in my adult life I'm dating a Jewish girl.
Her father's Catholic -- an Italian -- but according to my
rabbi, "She's all good."
(Maybe he didn't use those exact words, but something to that effect.)
Carrie and I bicker but never have any real fights; that is not until Christmastime. She was raised with Christmas in her house. Chanukah was a pool they may have dipped their toes into out of some traditional obligation, but it was Christmas that they jumped into cannonball style.
Their house is covered in multicolored lights and adorned with cheap plastic Santa wall hangings. A gargantuan Douglas fir, rivaling the one in the center of The Grove, is squeezed in between the ceiling and floor. And gifts wrapped in red and green piled three-deep high surround the tree as if out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Her childhood memories are filled with Christmas as the happiest day of the year.
Then, she started dating me. And, like a Jewish Scrooge, I decided over dinner to let her know there would be no more Christmas. Well, at least not for us. I said that if we ever moved in together she would need to get used to the fact that there would be no Christmas tree in our house. She looked like she would drop her pork chop.
"I was raised with Christmas!" she said. "And I want a tree in my house."
"I know," I answered. "But, I wasn't. And if we're raising our kids Jewish why would we have a Christmas tree?"
"Because I like Christmas."
"But, you're Jewish!"
"My dad's not."
"But, you are. You were raised Jewish for the most part, you don't believe in Jesus, why would we have a tree?"
"It's got nothing to do with that," she explained, quickly losing her patience. "It's an American holiday."
"Look, Carrie. You're Jewish and I'm Jewish. What the hell are two Jews going to do with a Christmas tree?"
Two weekends ago we had to stop by her parents' house she could pick up something she left there. Her mother proudly showed me the decorations on their tree and excitedly clicked on all the little lights strewn about the house.
"Isn't it beautiful?" she exclaimed. She opened the front door. "Look at this wreath I made. I made it by hand."
I smiled, uncomfortably. Ironically, it was Carrie's Catholic father who saw my discomfort and said, "Some Jewish house, huh?"
Carrie's mother once told me that when she married her husband she was very excited to have her first Christmas tree. She had been raised in a WASPY Long Island neighborhood and had hated feeling like an outcast. So, she looked forward to finally having a Christmas tree just like everyone else.
I suppose I understand her feelings -- Christmas always looked like so much fun when I was a kid. We were inundated with music, TV specials and movies that showed families gathering together around the Christmas tree, tearing open gifts and singing uplifting songs. The plain menorah and a crappy song about a dreidel was no competition.
I tried to explain to Carrie that for most of us assimilated Jews there is something important about growing up without a tree.
We basically fit in with our non-Jewish friends and colleagues, and are careful not to stand out too much as Jews.
But, one time a year it becomes evident that we are different. Our houses are not decorated, we don't have a Christmas tree and when people wish us a "Merry Christmas" we debate whether or not we should say, "Well, I don't celebrate Christmas but thank you, anyway."
"Once we allow ourselves to start appropriating another religion's traditions in order to fit in with our neighbors, we have compromised who we are," I told Carrie. "By taking away the wonderful things that separates us from non-Jews, it only damages us."
Carrie's mother joined in on my side, telling her daughter that it would be a little silly for us to ever have a Christmas tree in our house.
"I married someone who wasn't Jewish, so it would be wrong for me to ignore my husband's traditions," her mother said. "But you are both Jewish and going to raise Jewish kids. You're not going to celebrate Christmas. Instead, you can celebrate that other holiday -- you know, the one with the candles and the spinning top."
Carrie looked at me with resolve. "Fine, we won't have a tree. But, I'm going to my parents' house on Christmas."
"Fine with me," I answered. "If you need me, I'll be at the movies."
Seth Menachem is an actor and writer who lives in Los Angeles.
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