Image: Golden Christmas tree shape on a red background. (monicore / Pixabay)
When I try to imagine the person asking this question in this way, the first person who comes to mind is someone who loves Christmas trees and is living with a Jew who does not love Christmas trees. They have said to the Jewish roommate/spouse/friend, “Why can’t we have a Christmas tree?” and the Jew has replied something like, “Because Jews aren’t allowed to have Christmas trees.”
As a way to get at the real question, may I suggest a little exercise?
You and your partner/roommate/spouse each take a piece of paper, go to your own corner for a bit, and answer these questions in writing. Then come back together to share your answers.
- What feelings do you experience when you see a Christmas tree?
- What do Christmas trees mean to you?
- What is your earliest memory of a Christmas tree?
- What feelings do you associate with that memory?
- What is your strongest memory of a Christmas tree?
- Why is that memory so powerful for you?
- What other things give you the feelings that a Christmas tree gives you?
Notice that I am not even once asking for your rational thoughts. There is nothing rational about Christmas trees, unless you count the ones put up in shopping districts to encourage people to spend money. A home Christmas tree is an object of emotion. Also, don’t try to anticipate what the other person will say. Just write about what is true for you.
Then: trade pieces of paper and go back to your separate corners. Read what the other person has written. Sit with their emotions. Do not judge their emotions. Think about that last question: what gives you the kind of feelings that Christmas trees give that other person? If you love that person, read with the eyes of love, if you can.
Then you will be ready to have a conversation.
The person who loves Christmas trees may talk about any number of things, including: love of Jesus, love of secular Christmas, times of family closeness and warmth, fantasies of family closeness and warmth, memories of a particular relative, colorful lights in a dark room are beautiful! Presents! Or: I couldn’t have a tree as a child, but now I am an adult and I am finally able to have that tree! I want my children to have the experiences I remember from my childhood Christmases.
The person who doesn’t love Christmas trees may have all sorts of things on their list, too: Christmas trees make me feel like an Outsider, they remind me of mean things people did to me when I was a kid, Christmas trees are fire hazards and therefore scary, a Christmas tree has no place in my house because I am a proud Jew, Christmas trees remind me of presents that were never for me, the alcoholic in my family always got drunk at Christmas. I do not want my children to be confused by a Christmas tree in the house.
It may be that as you pay attention to each other’s emotions, things sort themselves out. For example, I do not keep bees because they are horrifying to my wife. My desire to keep bees is not as great as her horror at the thought of them nearby. On other things, we compromise: she collects Star Trek memorabilia but keeps it in her personal space, not all over the living room.
It may also be that the partners can get what they need, without resorting to a symbol that’s upsetting to one of them. There are many ways to experience family warmth and to make memories without having a tree in the house. Shabbat, for instance, comes once a week, involves candles and lovely lights (see The Lovely Lights of Shabbat and Havdalah: A Sweet Finish to Shabbat.)
But it may also be that there is no easy answer, that one partner loves the tree and the other is horrified by it. In that case, getting some counseling to help in sorting things out is vital if you want the relationship to thrive.
Pro tip: Don’t approach a rabbi wanting them to tell you it’s fine to have a Christmas tree in a Jewish home. Most rabbis have strong feelings about cultural appropriation, whether it is about Christmas trees in Jewish homes or the Southern Baptists deciding it’s fun to have a “Christian Passover Seder” for Easter.
8 thoughts on “Ask the Rabbi: Why Can’t Jews Have a Christmas Tree?”
Not all Christians are comfortable with the Yule trees, either. It’s a pagan custom, one my Quaker and Dunker ancestors would have forbidden, and I’ve reclaimed much of their radical faith and practice. Still, as you discuss, the decorated tree is full of emotions that can conflict between partners. My wife has built a winter celebration based on her mother’s German background and our living in New England, where we can cut our own tree only ten minutes from home. We don’t put it up until Christmas Eve, so it has become one way of acknowledging an observance of Advent rather than the maddening shopping spree, and we usually leave it up through most of January, sparkling against the darkness. It’s more an event of family and friends than anything to do with the birth of Jesus.
It comforts me to think the darkness will recede in a few days, and my tree reminds me of this fact.
I also have a creche between a Christmas card and a Chanukah card. It is my effort to acknowledge both Jesus’s birth and Chanukah.
But I am a Jew.
I live alone, so no one’s feelings are hurt.
The darkness can have a very powerful effect on us, can’t it?
I love that you and your wife have structured the tree ritual in such a way that it reflects the ancient observance of Advent rather than the modern shopping frenzy season. Whatever our religious tradition, ritual benefits from consciousness.
Another fascinating post. I’ve often wondered why specifically people of the Jewish faith cannot have Christmas trees. Is it because Christmas trees come from a pagan background or because they’re such a Christian symbol?
Jews are a minority everywhere in the world except for Israel. Our culture is precious to us and there is tremendous pressure to assimilate (become more like everyone else.) Christmas trees are a religious symbol for some people, and for more people they are a ritual belonging to Christian secular society. Either way, they don’t belong in a Jewish home if we care at all about the survival of Jewish culture.
I have a yard full of California native species. Over time, people have moved lots of “exotic” species (meaning, not from here) to the area, and in many cases they have pushed out the native species. One of the things I do when I weed my garden is weed OUT the invasive exotics, because the CA native species are vulnerable and I want to preserve them. Keeping a Jewish home is very similar, to me.
I appreciate your explanation. Thank you so much.