No, Isabella, You Can't Have a Christmas Tree
Let me say up front that I love the holiday season as much as the next person—the parties, the lights displays in homes and elaborate store windows, the ever-present Christmas music (well, to a point), the annual watching of It's a Wonderful Life and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. People are in a warm mood, ready to celebrate with family. The whole thing feels so festive.
But the holidays are a bit different if you're a Jew. You might get invited to a tree-trimming party, a Christmas concert, or even caroling (though you might be more inclined to watch than to participate). You might even have a holiday tradition that seems "Christian." In my case, the season is never complete until I've seen the tree at Rockefeller Center, at night, with my kids.
In the end, though, you are acutely aware that this is not truly your holiday. You have your own: Hanukkah (which started last night, by the way). It's a nice little holiday. There is the menorah you light to commemorate the victory by Judah Maccabee, who restored worship at the temple in Jerusalem nearly 2200 years ago. There are latkes and jelly doughnuts and chocolate coins and dreidels to spin. And as Adam Sandler's comedic Hanukkah song points out, rather than just one day we get "eight crazy nights." Let's be honest, though: Hanukkah is no Christmas. It's not a major holiday on our calendar, like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, and a host of others. Were it not for the proximity-to-Christmas timing—with the exception of last year's Thansgivukkah—it would barely move the needle at all.
Which brings me to my daughter, Isabella. She goes to Hebrew school and loves learning about Jewish history and traditions. She is proud of her religion and loves saying the prayer as we light the menorah each evening. Yet she also desperately wants us to get a Christmas tree. She's been asking me for years, though her persistence recently reached a new level.
My answer, reinforced by her older brother (who is not nearly as caught up in the spirit of the season as she): "No. We are Jewish. This isn't our holiday. We have Hanukkah." She was hardly dissuaded. She's pointed out that we give out presents both at Hanukkah and on Christmas Day. This is true, and a concession to my wife, whose family always celebrated this way. She's suggested we could have a little mini tree to decorate—what she has cleverly called a "tree of life," which also happens to be the title of a popular Jewish song they sing in class.
Still, I've refused. I've explained that we have our own traditions, and that Christmas trees aren't one of them—and never will be. I explained that wanting a tree made it seem like being Jewish wasn't enough for her. And I asked her to please stop asking. It made me feel like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof when he disowned his daughter Chava for marrying outside the faith. Or, to cite a more contemporary example, like the Grinch before his heart grew ten sizes plus two.
Isabella gave up, sort of, but she didn't give in. A few days later, she came home with a small branch that had fallen off at a nearby Christmas stand. She put it in water, added an "Isabella" ornament she had once been given, and put it alongside a singing snowman that her mom had once bought her. Every day on her walk home from school she scoped out more branches and added them. It was a bit pathetic—reminiscent of Charlie Brown's droopy little tree (before its absurd transformation at the end courtesy of his friends' decorations)—but also oddly charming.
I have to hand it to her: Isabella found a way to embrace a symbol of the season without technically going against my wishes. Call it a pine-scented loophole. I decided to let her enjoy it, her own little Christmas miracle—even though I'm sure she envisions this "tree" (like the one in her favorite ballet, The Nutcracker) growing magically bigger and bigger in future years.
David Sparrow is a senior editor at Parents and a dad of two. He knows "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" by heart.