№26 Jewish Christmas
On Monday, after dinner, my wife, Vicky, our son, Sebastian, and I went to the Firefighter’s Christmas tree lot and picked out a tree. Tashi, who’s 14, stayed home to do her hair.
Sebastian, who’s nine, dragged the tree inside and Vicky directed him to put it in the corner of our living room, right in front of a giant window facing the street. Sebastian closed the wooden blinds to make more room for the tree. The blinds have never been closed before, but I haven’t opened them. I don’t want the neighbors to see our tree.
I found a box of Christmas decorations stashed in our garage. There were kid-made Santas and a Rudolph made out of popsicle sticks, even a popsicle-stick Star of David. We also had a string of lights, we’d never used, and an unopened box of ornaments — quarter-sized animal faces.
Sebastian got to work. Tashi came down the stairs and with none of her usual teenage snark, she said, “Smells so good.”
For once, our house didn’t smell like dog.
Vicky’s Catholic and I’m Jewish. When we got together 11 years ago, Vicky said she wanted religion for our children, but she knew Catholicism wouldn’t work for our lesbian family. So we agreed to raise the kids Jewish.
I don’t even know if I believe in God. I don’t keep Kosher. I don’t rest on of the Sabbath. I don’t pray. But I’m Jewish. And I’m committed to my Jewish identity (and the Jewish identity of my kids) the way I’m committed to my lesbian identity. It’s just who I am.
My mom often asks, “Why do you always have to announce you’re a lesbian?”
It matters that people see a lesbian when they see me. It matters that people see all lesbians. Once you really see someone, you have a much harder time discriminating against people like them. The same is true for Jewish people.
This is why a Jewish home should NOT have a Christmas tree. The home becomes no different than all the other homes, which in the United States are primarily Christian. And there’s another danger in not keeping a Jewish home: assimilation.
This week, I asked two of my Jewish friends if they have Christmas trees. They do. One has grown children who sometimes identify as Jewish and sometimes identify as nothing. The other has little kids who don’t even know what the word Jewish means.
Two other Jewish friends who had Christmas trees while we were growing up are not raising their kids Jewish today. This isn’t a scientific survey, but I see the Christmas tree as the gateway drug to Christianity.
Vicky says, “That’s crazy. If I put a menorah up in my sister’s house, would her children become Jewish after eight days?”
No, because the dominant religion in Venezuela, where her sister lives, or in the United States, where we live, isn’t Jewish. The societal pressures aren’t Jewish. No one drives around looking at the Chanukah lights; you don’t hear Chanukah carols in department stores; and the menorah isn’t pretty and fun, like the Christmas tree. Christianity is everywhere, especially around Christmas. Christians have the majority and a really good marketing campaign.
It is possible that Jewish families with Christmas trees have already abandoned Judaism. And if this is true, we’re probably safe because my kids both went to a Jewish elementary school. Sebastian is still there. Tashi had a Bat Mitzvah in Israel! And even though I don’t want to, we do go to synagogue for High Holiday services, twice a year. But is that enough to stave off Christmas and Christianity?
A few years ago, Vicky’s sister and kids visited from Venezuela and she and I got into a fight about the tree. She argued that there was no place to put the gifts. She insisted that since she was visiting, we should have a “proper” Christmas.
Vicky stepped in and said, “If we were Muslim, you wouldn’t insist we roast a pig, just because you were visiting.”
This year, something changed, not just for Vicky, but also for me. Vicky said she wanted us to host her family’s Christmas party. She said she’s afraid her family thinks that without a tree, our house is sad. I thought: Vicky thinks our house is sad. And I felt heartbroken. Not for me. But for all the years she’s been in our house without a tree.
I had just read a story on Narratively.com by Jeanna Kadlec, a lesbian who left the Evangelical church to be free of judgement. She wrote that now people, queer people, don’t seem to understand her loss. They say the church was so hateful and damaging, she should be glad to be out of there. And she is, but she also deeply misses her community. She feels like she lost her entire identity.
The article made me wonder if I understood Vicky’s loss. She lost the church when she came out, then she lost it again when she married a Jew.
I have said equally callous things about the Catholic church. But the church is so much more than its views on sex and sin. It’s the smell of incense, high ceilings, the Virgin Mary, prayer. It’s childhood memories of decorating the Christmas tree.
This is №26 of my #weeklyessay challenge. When I turned 50, I challenged myself to write an essay a week. I’m on the downhill.