Trees Are Sensitive


For years now, synagogues and Jewish community centers have been offering “December Dilemma” programs. The programs are centered on figuring out what to do as an interfaith family about the Christmas tree and all that comes with it in a Jewish home with children being raised with Judaism.

One might wonder why a Jewish family would have to figure out whether to have a tree in the home or not, because for some, the answer is clearly not. Yet we all know Jewish families that do enjoy decorating a tree and bringing Christmas symbols into the home.

Everyone has an opinion about this. Does this confuse children? Does this commercialize and secularize Christmas? Religion and identity are fluid and there are more grays than blacks and whites when it comes to emotions. For a parent who isn’t Jewish or even for a parent who has converted to Judaism, even if they are living a Jewish life and raising Jewish children, holidays may bring up feelings that still resonate. Should a parent helping to foster a Jewish family tell children that Christmas is a holiday that some in the family celebrate and keep Christmas separate from the home entirely — perhaps celebrating it at the grandparents’ Christian home instead?

In this open age when Christmas seems everywhere and we celebrate holidays with a multi-cultural mindset, it might seemed outdated, unnecessary, or irrelevant to need December Dilemma programs. Families do a mix of things already — from Buddhist meditation and finding spirituality in nature, to sending holiday greeting cards blending the names of the holidays into one fun, festive, family-centered, gift-giving, giving-back, time of warmth, lights and togetherness.

When a local reporter asked me to put her in touch with interfaith families in the area who could share their approach to the holidays, I thought I would have many emails to share with her. I asked all the participants in any workshop or class we have offered if anyone had time and interest in talking with a reporter. I posted a question to Facebook about what families in the area are doing around Christmas and Hanukkah. And I posted it as a discussion question on the Chicagoland homepage. Nobody wanted to talk to a reporter. Fascinating!

I could be wrong, but it seems that families are hesitant to so publically admit, declare, or share that in fact they are a Jewish family who “does” Christmas. We live such open and public lives and share all kinds of personal information daily… yet there is something about this tree that is still so emotional.

Are parents worried about being judged? Are parents worried that they have to defend their choices and prove their Jewishness more at this time? I look forward to hearing from you to help explain whether you still feel scrutinized and judged for the decisions you make around the holidays. Is this one time of year that still brings sadness, a sense of loss, or conflict because no matter what is decided as a family, one partner still feels that it is not exactly what they feel comfortable with or hoped for? Are December Dilemma programs still valuable if the stigma of attending can be overcome?

3 thoughts on “Trees Are Sensitive”

  • I was raised by a Jewish mother, the daughter of an absent Non-Jewish father. We celebrated Christmas with my grandparents when we were younger, and my Mom didn’t want to deprive us of the holiday we’d loved just because my parents divorced and my father was uninvolved. She made sure that we would get to my grandparent’s house for Christmas no matter what the relationship with her was like, until one year when there was snow. A lot of snow. The great Christmas hand-off in Danbury, CT was not going to happen.

    So she put our feelings over her own, and despite the fact that it was still Hanukkah, bought a tree, and had a non-Jewish friend who knew how put it up for us. we put blue and white balls on it. With no topper around, we affixed a six pointed star for the top. We didn’t pretend it was anything it wasn’t, and didn’t call it a Hanukkah bush, but we didn’t inhibit ourselves from decorating it in a way that pleased all of us. Just a tree, a six pointed star, blue and white balls and whatever decorations we could create, which was plenty. We were still of Santa-believing age, so Mom managed one small present for each of us and told us that Santa would be leaving the rest of the presents at my Father’s parent’s house, and they would arrive soon. We understood, and weren’t totally surprised when our Christmas presents from Santa that did make it on Christmas were books that looked suspiciously like ones we’d seen her looking at at the JCC’s Jewish Book Fair a few weeks earlier. “Santa knows you are Jewish, and wanted you to have wonderful books!” she told us. My brother was elated that Santa knew so much about him, and cared enough to get him something so personal. At age 8 I was old enough to know that these must have been intended as Hanukkah presents for later that week but I also knew enough to keep my mouth shut around my brother. Mom invited neighbors to come celebrate the next day, and this being Newton, and the friends available being Jewish except one Indian family, it turned into a Latke party with a lot of loud “Zoom Galli Galli” being sung by seven kids under the age of 10 at top volume. It was actually one of the best Christmases ever. Also one of the best Hanukkahs ever.

    My Opa died soon after and there were no more Christmases at my Grandparent’s house. Mom reluctantly bought a fake tree. We started spending Christmas caroling and visiting with the elderly and neglected people at local nursing homes, and came home to chicken and latkes. Helping people enjoy their Christmas despite their circumstances helped take the sting off of losing our Opa at that time of year.

    Now I am married to a wonderful Atheist man who’s family celebrates a largely secular kind of Christmas. We have a two year old that we are raising Jewish with my husband and his family’s full support and blessings, and my son loves the Christmas trees at our Christian family’s houses the way he loves the menorah at our house and our neighbor’s house. I don’t know if we will put one up, but I will let my son be our guide. If we have one, it is bound to be a very, very Jewish tinted Christmas tree the way the tree was at my Mom’s house, but at the same time, I have no fear that the presence of a tree in our home for a few days will make my son more or less Jewish than he would otherwise be because we don’t treat the Christmas Tree as a major religious symbol. We treat it as part of the culture of his father and my father’s family. The fact that we are raising our son Jewish doesn’t change the fact that his family is made up of people of many other cultures (and I mean MANY others…5 religions in all, 7 if you count different denominations of Protestant.) I want him to respect and embrace all cultures. Even all of his own.

  • Very thought-provoking article!

    As the non-Jewish spouse in an interfaith marriage, here’s what a Christmas tree means to me: long afternoons as a child going through boxes of ornaments with my mother, who told me the story of each ornament: some from her childhood, some given to us or made by friends or relatives, some souvenirs from vacations. Sitting on the couch, cuddled up next to her, singing Christmas carols to the tree. Evenings spent not watching TV but reading a book or playing a game by the light of the tree. The outside lights providing some light and color in the dreary midwinter, as well as a source of warmth for birds. Coming home from college to a decorated house and drinking hot cider with my parents. The first Christmas after my dad died, when we couldn’t bear to put up a tree, and decorated a potted plant instead. These memories of Christmas trees to me are not specifically religious in nature, but rather are memories of family, of togetherness, of warmth. And so we do have a Christmas tree now, which we put up the weekend after Thanksgiving, and which reminds me of my childhood and the warm and secure feeling I hope my children are also lucky enough to have.

    We celebrate Hanukkah too and over the years that has become one of my favorite holidays, its warmth reminding me of my childhood Christmases, with its shimmering candles and family dinners and games and arts and crafts and songs. In our house, the thing Hanukkah has that Christmas does not have is a religious aspect – prayers, study, introspection. I have grown to see Christmas more as a cultural holiday and Hanukkah as a religious holiday.

    In regard to the request to talk to a reporter, I would have responded but the email said the reporter was interested in talking to folks from three specific towns that I don’t live in. Even if I had responded, though, I probably would have asked to be quoted under a pseudonym, because yes, definitely, I would have been afraid to be judged by my relatives who do live in those towns that my choices were too Jewish or too Christian or too confusing to my children.

  • Dear Ari,
    I loved your article about the December holidays. It brings up many of my own thoughts to share.
    I never had a shortage of Christmas Holiday experiences. As a young child, I went caroling with my friends, Christmas Tree Shopping (very similar to the Griswald Family Christmas scene), decorated the Christmas tree, and giving gifts at secret Santa/snowflake exchanges.
    I always saw the tree as a part of the commercial experience of the December holidays. What does it stand for? Why does anyone saw a tree down, killing it, just to bring it inside and throw it away a month later? To look pretty? Is that really enough of a reason to kill a living thing.
    Both my parents are Jewish and I was raised in a conservative Jewish household. We never had a Christmas tree, Chanuka bush, or stockings, but we did have dreidel bags, similar to stockings that hung from the wall. Around Christmas time I feel alone since most of my friends celebrate Christmas with their families. In addition Chanuka was always a weird holiday because it keeps changing what dates it’s celebrated.
    Until recently, I had been dating someone Non-Jewish for 2.5 years and things seemed to be going fairly well. I had made it clear when we began seeing each other that if we were to get married and have children, I wanted to raise them Jewish. He didn’t seem to have an issue with this until I mentioned something about the Christmas tree. He couldn’t fathom the Christmas holiday without a tree in his home, it literally blew his mind. I thought his reaction was odd since he had never set up a Christmas tree in his house before we were together. On the other hand, I have always lit a menorah, even if I had to take it to someone else’s house and I was the only one who knew the blessings while lighting the candles. After speaking about bringing up children and raising them Jewish, obviously to me, meant having no Christmas tree, but this was a surprise to him and it was something he could not compromise.
    This is not the first time I have experienced rejection because of this issue. I have even expressed that I’d rather go to church with someone for the holiday than have a tree, or go over to a relative’s home for Christmas activities, or only hold Chanuka at my family’s house, but this is to no avail.
    Needless to say, this holiday season will be pretty bleek for me this year and some of my friends say that if this is what I want for my future, I will probably not find it with someone who is Non-Jewish. I don’t believe that statement is altogether true, but I’m definitely looking for someone who recognizes the spirituality behind the commercialism of the holidays. I hope there are still some of those people out there.

    Thanks for Reading.

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