Why I Don’t Have a Christmas Tree

My last Christmas tree was in about 1992, I think. My elder son asked me why we had one if we weren’t Christians. I had not identified as Christian for about seven years, and I decided he had a point. I never celebrated Christmas again in my home.

The kids did not seem to miss it. Their birthdays both fell right after Christmas, and they’d always been overshadowed by that other guy’s birthday. From that year onward, I focused on a big celebration of their birthdays.  They got presents, we had cake, and it was good.

So when I became a Jew, Christmas was easy: I’d not been observing the holiday for years. For me it had been a religious holiday, and once the religion dropped away, I discovered that we could enjoy other people’s decorations. When people asked about it usually Aaron would pipe up with, “We’re not Christians.”  My younger son enjoyed celebrating with Christian relatives, and that was fine too.

So when I discovered that some Jews have Christmas trees, I was a little confused. Why do something at considerable trouble and expense while insisting that it doesn’t mean anything? I’ve never completely figured out the answer to that one.

Now that I’m a Jew, I celebrate Chanukah. I like the idea of a festival of rededication, especially at a time of the year when Jewishness seems to disappear into the dazzling show. I don’t pay a lot of attention to the officious folk who sniff that it “isn’t a Torah holiday.” Partly that’s because they don’t act so sniffy at Purim, which isn’t a Torah holiday either. And partly it’s because I think there’s something in the human spirit that cries out for shining lights and gathering when the nights are long and longer.

I still love those bright shining lights, whether they are for Chanukah or Christmas. My neighborhood is full of lights, and I love them all. But my home is a Jewish home, and I can’t imagine putting up a symbol of someone else’s holiday. This is my mikdash me’at, my little sanctuary, and I work to make it bright and beautiful with Jewish symbols and customs, sweet and savory with Jewish smells.

Those are bright enough, sweet enough, and  warm enough: good enough for me!


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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

17 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Have a Christmas Tree”

  1. I love that you refer to it as “mikdash me’at, my little sanctuary.” Those are the very words that a non-Jewish wife used in explaining why she didn’t have a tree. She said, “My husband needs a sanctuary, a place to escape from the barrage of Christmas and I want that to be our home.” Not everyone can do what she did but she was clearly able and willing to do this out of love.

  2. You know from my blog I put up a tree every year, for the past three years a Jewish-themed tree I term my “Eitz Mo’ed”. Before I was Jewish, Christmas was secular for me, as it is for many. I have often found the idea of a secular Christmas hard for fellow Jews to understand, but just as Christians don’t get to define how Jews experience Jewish holidays, we don’t get to define the variety of ways Christmas can be experienced. Having “lived in both worlds”, so to speak, I know personally the experience of a Christmas that has absolutely nothing to do with religious concepts.

    More importantly, though, I really don’t think Christmas trees are the issue when fellow Jews push back–sometimes virulently–about Christmas. If putting up a Christmas tree might somehow make a Jewish person or their children Christian, the problem has nothing to do with the tree. If you’re comfortable with you Jewish identity, whether you put up a tree, strictly observe Jewish halacha, or live a completely secular life does not matter. You’re a Jew, no matter what and you’re cool with that. And you know it does not matter at all how others Jews think you should be living your life. That’s me.

    And if you’re a Jew who somehow feels an inkling of being religiously moved by putting up a Christmas tree–that’s wonderful, too. Because the point is our relationship with Deity, not the path that that relationship takes. I would rather share a holiday with a righteous ger than with a lukewarm Jew. And oddly enough, this was me, too, in reverse–in my conversion process from gentile to Jew. A process during which several Christian friends expressed shock that I would consider living a life based around Jewish rituals equal to the shock so many fellow Jews express about Christmas trees in December.

    It’s all ridiculous. Sometimes I think our Jews who complain the loudest about Christmas are the ones who are terrified that they aren’t authentic enough Jews in and of themselves. Jewish authenticity comes from being a Jew. Nothing less and nothing more. And any decisions we make about holidays or observance or anything else are valid–for us as individual Jews, because we’re Jews.

    We make it so hard and it doesn’t need to be.

    1. Yes: your experience of Christmas trees is rooted in a secular past, mine in a religious one. I grew up in a conservative Catholic world, and Christmas trees have a religious subtext for me.

      They are freighted symbols for many people, which is why I find the “It doesn’t mean anything” argument disingenuous.

      For some Jews, especially older ones, the tree evokes memories of antiSemitism. Even for some younger Jews, it evokes feelings of exclusion. I know one guy who was made to sing Christmas carols as an orphan: no caroling, no dinner. That guy hates everything to do with Christmas and I can’t blame him.

      These trees are powerful symbols, carrying tremendous emotional freight. That’s why everyone gets so worked up.

      1. I disagree. I think trees are negatively freighted symbols to as as Jews only to the extent that we decide to conceive of ourselves individually and as a people as victims. I didn’t mean my response as an argument, I think this post is a very thoughtful one.

        But I am adamant in my belief that we don’t get to say what a Christmas tree symbolizes for anyone else, no matter if they are Christian or Jewish. It is the same thing as an non-Jew saying opining negatively on a Jewish symbol For example, the kippah in France of Quebec, or circumcision in many places.

        If someone feels victimized by a tree, that’s a problem deeper than Judaism or Christianity. I don’t know younger Jews who feel excluded by Christmas. I know lots of younger Jews, however, who feel interdenominationally joyful at this and other times of year.

        I do admit I know older Jews who carry around painful memories of antisemitism, and exclusion, and images in their heads of ancestors being run out of their homelands. Framing one’s identity as a Jew that way is a choice. That choice doesn’t give us the right to make choices for others.

        Don’t want a tree? Don’t have one. But Jews who feel some sort of eternal hurt by being reminded of religions beyond Judaism don’t get the right to label non-Jewish symbols negatively just because they bring up personal pain. Where to stop once you start? Label churches? Label Christians in toto? Where else to lash out? Who else to blame?

        If a Christmas tree makes a Jew feel uneasy, then that Jew has work to do. The problem is not the tree. The problem is a victim identity that keeps so many younger fellow Jews away from synagogues and organized Judaism. It doesn’t connect for us at all. It’s tiresome. It makes us tune out.

        Younger Jews by birth are not their ancestors who suffered. Younger Jews by choice are not their ancestors who made the suffering happen. Maybe it’s just a total disconnect already, I don’t know.

        1. To a large extent the trees are not a private symbol, Michael. They are part of a public civil identity.

          Over the past 2 decades, white “christian American” nationalists have blanketed them with their aggressive nationalist, exclusive pitch.

          When I object to the sight of them, I do not do so as a victim.

  3. The tree is, as you say, a powerful symbol, Rabbi.

    If it meant zero to you, Michael, you wouldn’t bother with the expense and mess. But it means something – maybe not Jesus related, but something powerful that has a hold on your gut. It is that hold, whatever it is for each person, that is real and worth looking at. It certainly isn’t a Jewish thing and that’s what gets Jews anxious, especially the Jews who want to have a tree and don’t want it to mean anything important.

    I wish we could have a calm communal conversation about this thing we call a tree, because is so much more than a tree. A young woman in an interfaith relationship who does not define herself as Christian, but as ‘spiritual’ told me that she was having anxiety attacks about the idea of giving up the tree. That’s NOT nothing. That is something that plays a significant role in her life. To ask her to give it up cold would be cruel. But more importantly, what is the power behind this ritual and ritual symbol? It has layers and I describe some of them here. (http://buildingjewishbridges.org/?p=3013)

    We should try to be kind, take this slow, and sort out the highly complex role that Christmas and the Tree have in people’s lives.

  4. I agree with you that building Jewish identity out of victimhood is a losing proposition, particularly when the experience being referenced is second or third hand. I would make a distinction, though, between this sort of second hand stuff and actual lived experiences. The interesting thing, when you get down to cases, is that it can go lots of ways: I know Russian Jews who love Christmas trees because it was one time of year that was happy for them, and some American Jews who knew it was one time of year they’d be bullied mercilessly. When I spent Christmas in Israel, I know it felt bizarre to me that it was just another workday; I may not celebrate it, but I am used to having it off! I’d like to think we can find a way to make room for everyone’s feelings and experiences, positive, negative, and sideways.

    So far, you’ve talked about what you think trees mean to other people, Jews, non-Jews, secular folk, religious folk. What does your Christmas tree mean to you, personally?

  5. <<<<>>>

    But….memories involve feelings, and feelings are not a choice: someone can’t tell me not to feel something. I m still traumatised by my mothers death in a fire two years aGo; the feelings are dreadful. If I could choose not to feel them I would, but I can’t. Feelings are individual, personal, whatever the circumstance. I use my own experience as an example …. It’s not as simple as choosing not to feel something.

    1. Thanks, Alex, that is an important point: we choose our actions, but we cannot choose our feelings. I am so very sorry to read about your mother’s death. I wish you what comfort you can find in the embrace of family and friends.

      1. Thank you, rabbiadar….it is difficult, as my husband is now in a nursing home(I was his carer for eight years prior to that) and I have no other family. I get a lot of comfort from online support and my cats. Again, thank you for your kind thoughts.

  6. Tried to quote, and it disappeared: the part between the <<>> was Michael’s :

    ……..I do admit I know older Jews who carry around painful memories of antisemitism, and exclusion, and images in their heads of ancestors being run out of their homelands. Framing one’s identity as a Jew that way is a choice……..

    I also meant to day that although I was born but not raised Jewish(began my Jewish journey just over two years ago) I have no happy memories if Christmas . Tree, decorations, cards….feeling obliged to send cards to people who sent me one, it all felt stressful and depressing, and never ever sat right with me. It all feels like such a relief not to do these things.

  7. While for Christians, a tree can be secular, for Jews they are a symbol of a Christian holiday. When one enters a new religious community, it is important to understand what the symbol means in the context of that community. It isn’t our holiday; we don’t participate in the ritual or in the trappings of the holiday. This is what we call fully acculturating to Judaism in all its varied components.
    I think it’s also an insult to religious Christians to call their symbols “secular” and to strip them of their religious connotations.

  8. This is an issue that the Soviet Jews faced when they came to USA in the 1970s & 80s — there is the tradition in the FSU, and in (Muslem!) Turkey of the ‘new year tree’ — in Turkey it is called Yılbaşı Ağacı. http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/157346/why-soviet-jews-have-christmas-trees. Some of my relatives have ‘holiday trees’ laden with silver and blue ornamentation. I appreciate the beauty of the holiday decorations, and I say each to his/her own. If they enjoy it, who am I to judge?

  9. I was raised Jewish by divorced parents – a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father. I love the Christmas tree that was in my dad’s house growing up. Even though my dad’s house was also my house, the idea of having a tree in my house now, in my 30’s, is strange. I’m always surprised when I see trees in friends’ houses, probably because I think of them as a family creation, and these friends don’t yet have kids. But I do think about, hopefully far in the future when the tree is no longer at my dad’s, I will make room for it in my home, and will have to negotiate that if I have a Jewish partner. The reason can be summed up in one sentimental ornament, though we have dozens with touching stories. This one is an empty nest, marked “1971” in careful script. My grandma, now gone, bought it when my dad left home. There is something so special about the family moments that decorate the tree each year, I could never give up having those in my life.

    1. Thanks for sharing those memories and point of view, Sarah. Sounds like, for you, the tree is one way of making and retaining family memory. Have I got that right?

  10. Sarah, just a thought, some people who converted told me that they use their beloved ornaments to decorate their sukkah. A little nest sounds so appropriate hanging from the leafy roof of a sukkah.

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