Ask the Rabbi: Why Can't Jews Have a Christmas Tree?

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.

Just Say “No” to “Chris-muck-kah!”

Image: Santa, a menorah, and “Say NO to Chrismukkah” in red letters.

Once upon a time, Elijah hosted a potluck supper. He asked all the guests to bring a dish from their own tradition.

  • Sarah brought sufganiot, those fabulous jelly donuts that Israelis eat at Chanukah.
  • Mike brought Irish Soda Bread.
  • Jacob brought latkes with applesauce and sour cream.
  • Louise brought a Christmas ham.
  • Ruth brought hush puppies and fish, fried in oil.
  • Jessie brought cranberry sauce.
  • Erin brought sugar cookies with red and green icing.
  • Aaron brought green bean salad, from his mom’s recipe.

As each of them arrived, Elijah welcomed them and had them put the dishes on the dining room table. Then, when everyone was there, he uncovered a big food processor and began to dump all the food into it, whirling it together into a paste.

The guests were horrified. The delicious food they’d brought was turned into muck! What a horrible thing to do!

That’s how I feel about “Chrismukkah” – it turns delightful holidays into “muk.” Christmas is beautiful on its own. Chanukah is beautiful on its own. Mixing them together is dreadful, like blendering ham with sugar cookies and latkes.

Chanukah is about the rededication of Jews to Judaism. Christmas is about the birth of Jesus – or in “secular Christmas” about warmth and giving. They are two separate holidays that truly don’t go together.

Enjoy the lights! Enjoy each other’s holidays! But keep them separate, so we can still taste them both.

 

Jews in December: 12 Survival Tips

Image: Blessing the Shabbat candles. (Photo by Linda Burnett.)

For Jews in North America, December can a challenging month. Here are some tips for maintaining your Jewish equilibrium amongst the cacophany of Jingle Bells:

DO keep Shabbat. “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel,” said Ahad HaAm, one of the wisest of the early Zionists. If you don’t know what he’s talking about, try tasting Shabbat for a month and see what happens in your life.

DO celebrate Chanukah. Yes, it is a minor feast, but it is a celebration of dedication to Jewishness, exactly what we need in the Christmas season. The modest little lights of Chanukah remind us that it’s worth the effort to maintain our identity as Jews.

DO make your home a sanctuary. Home can be Jewish space where other traditions don’t intrude. Read 10 Ways to Enhance Your Jewish Home for ideas on how to do that.

DO have clear and loving  boundaries in your interfaith home. Exactly what those boundaries are is up to you and your beloved, but clear communication about them can save a lot of pain. If you are already in a place of pain about it, get a counselor to help you sort things out. Check out Interfaith Challenge: When December Isn’t Wonderful for some ideas.

DO reach out to and support other Jews. December is a challenge for most of us. Invite people for Shabbat, or for a little Chanukah gathering. Set up a movie date for Dec 25. Remember that other non-Christians may be feeling it too; check in with Buddhist, Muslim and agnostic friends for some non-Christmas socializing.

DO be proactive with your children’s school. Make sure your child’s teacher knows that little David or Sarah is Jewish, and what your boundaries are on Christmas-themed activities, ideally before these things become an issue. Combine with other Jewish parents if there are any to offer to bring a Chanukah lesson to school, etc.

DON’T feel guilty that your children “don’t get Christmas.” Use these tips (especially Shabbat!) to give them the rich and sustaining tradition that is their birthright. Christmas is once a year. A strong Jewish identity is a treasure year-round and for life.

DO keep consumption under control.  This is the season for marketing and partying. Don’t overbuy, overeat, or over-consume, no matter what the culture at large is pushing you to do. If you have children and the grandparents are going overboard with presents, or God forbid in a competition, share A Tale of Two Grandmothers with them.

DO give yourself permission to enjoy. Christmas isn’t our holiday, but perhaps you enjoy the decorations, or the lights, or the music. I love my neighbors’ light displays. Enjoying them as I drive by doesn’t make me a traitor to Judaism. They can enjoy the light of my chanukiah, too.

DON’T spend time in retail space unless it’s required. Cocoon at home. Add a new mitzvah to your life. Watch Jewish movies. Find a new Jewish blog or two. Enjoy a hobby. Exercise. Enjoy your family.

If you work in retail, you have my sympathy!

DO have a reply ready for “Merry Christmas.” My favorite reply is, “I’ll take a happy Chanukah and wish YOU a Merry Christmas.” If you have a stock reply on hand, then you can deal with it “on automatic.”

DON’T take every mention of Christmas personally. A great deal of of the “Merry Christmas” we get is highly IM-personal, which is irritating, but if I got mad every time I heard it, I would have to double my blood pressure meds. Good self care sometimes means “let it go.”

This post appeared a few years ago in a slightly different form.

 

 

A Prayer for December 25

May all my Christian readers have a Christmas of holiness and love. And may the rest of us find a respite from our routine today.

Tonight’s full moon will be beautiful, reflecting the light of the sun. May it remind us that lights of celebration (of whichever holiday) are merely a reflection of the true light, the Source of light.

May each of us find the strength to reflect the light of heaven, bringing warmth and light to this poor world of ours. May all those who are suffering be comforted, and may each of us be a comfort to someone in need.

Interfaith Challenge: When December isn’t Wonderful

Right about now (late December) the world seems full of Christmas, and many liberal Jewish publications seem full of stories about interfaith families that are having a wonderful December.

But what if your interfaith household is having a tough time this year? Here are some tips for you, in this moment:

  1. Know that you are not alone. The holidays hit a lot of people hard. Your particular issue may be “interfaith” but there are also people in single-faith households that get stressed out, fight, or feel horrible this time of year. Depression is not unusual, either. So even though the marketing on TV tells you that everyone else is happy, don’t you believe it.
  2. Kindness is more important than holiday spirit. We can’t control how we feel, but we can choose what we do. Choose kindness whenever you can.
  3. Keep your agreements if you possibly can. Let’s say you have agreed to something, and now you find that it is uncomfortable. You can say to your partner, “This is harder than I thought it would be.”  You can renegotiate for next year after December is over (see #7 and #8 below) but for now, keep the agreements you’ve made. It will make any future renegotiation easier.
  4. This year is just this year. It isn’t how it’s always going to be. Next year might be completely different.
  5. Make a little time and/or space for your tradition. If the house feels too Christmasy, this might be a time to go to synagogue, mosque, or temple. If it feels not Christmasy enough, it might be a time to go to church, or to any of the places where Christmas is in abundance.
  6. Make a little time and/or space for yourself. What restores you? Go do that. Go for a run or to the gym. Get that pedicure. Meditate. Listen to your music. Be kind not only to others, but to yourself.
  7. Don’t try to process December during December. If it’s already December, the Christmas goose is in the oven, and the Chanukah fat is in the fire. Yes, you and your beloved may need to have a conversation, maybe even a conversation with a skilled counselor helping, but now it’s all too raw. Be as kind to one another as you can, survive to January, then have a conversation when you aren’t in the middle of it.
  8. Know that help is available. If that conversation is going to be tough, or you don’t know where to begin, call your rabbi or minister and ask for help. That may be enough, or they may refer you to an individual or couples counselor who can help. One thing: you want a counselor with experience in interfaith issues. It’s OK to ask for what you need.
  9. Take depression and other mental health issues seriously. Sometimes the only issue is December, but sometimes December can highlight deeper troubles, like mental health issues or addiction. Don’t brush those things under the carpet and hope they’ll go away. Seek treatment for mental health issues. If the sick person won’t seek treatment, other family members need the support of counseling, Al-Anon, or a NAMI group.
  10. December will not last forever. I promise.

December 25: What’s Your Plan?

What’s your plan for December 25?

Some things I have heard people planning this year:

  1. Trading with co-workers – working on Dec 25, then being able to get time off at Passover or at the High Holy Days.
  2. The American Classic: Chinese food and a movie. (Which movie?)
  3. Family party – hey, everyone’s off! Let’s get together!
  4. Family reunion – It’s going to be a long weekend! Let’s get together!
  5. Quietly hiding out.
  6. The Adar-Burnett Classic: Thai food and a movie
  7. All day Netflix binge (which show?)
  8. Cleaning out closets
  9. Gathering with Christian family members for Christmas dinner.
  10. Nothing much – how delicious is that?

What’s your plan for December 25? Is there anything about the day you find particularly wonderful or particularly irritating? Looking forward to your comments.

Love My Neighbor

 

One of my neighbors has the brightest, most colorful light display imaginable. Last year I found out why he does it: he lives in that house with his 90 year old mother. Years ago, everyone in that cul-de-sac had holiday lights. Now most of them are elderly and he has gradually added to his light show as theirs have become too burdensome. He enchants the whole street, including me.

This year I noticed something else: the first lights he puts up are all blue and white. It’s only after Chanukah that the red and green lights are lit. That can’t be a coincidence.

I am fond of my neighbor: he’s a good man. I smile every time I round the corner and see his light display. It isn’t my holiday, but I love to see his lights shine.