When Is a Tree Not a Tree?

Published: 1998-08-11

This piece illustrates something with startling clarity, a something that is often lost in the vulgar and vicious rhetoric which any hint of holocaust revisionism seems to attract. Which is that the attackers aren't just being nasty, they are responding as any human might if their cultural legacy were one of more than 2,000 years of being obsessed with the potential dangers of the world, in particular an ever-present possibility of deadly attack from all outsiders, said possibility being drilled relentlessly into their minds from birth by the highest authority figures in the community. Priests trying to keep their flocks in thrall can conjure up calamitous alternatives to submitting to their authority that would produce a cold sweat on a telephone pole.

The imminence of great danger to Jews in the modern world is somewhere between non-existent and easily avoidable, but the central fact of this matter is that the fear itself is real, very real, and it explains the legitimate causes behind what we are too prone to view as gratuitous socially unacceptable behavior. We generally associate such superstitious defensive reactions with primitive societies who are unable to understand the causes and effects of the world they find themselves in. But when glib and relentless propagandizing creates an image of believable contemporary evil ready to pounce and rend, the effect, even in an urbane modern mind, is the same. Unseen phantoms direct actions with more force than steel bands. And if you happen to be standing in the path of a grownup who's afraid of the dark when something goes bump in it, there's a good chance you'll get run over as part of a reflex response, ill will having nothing to do with it..

In the real world, of course, we display very little tolerance for irrational fear, presuming it always to be something that the affected one could control if they really wanted to. This inability to conceive that others view the world much differently than ourselves is a cause of much needless strife and suffering. The average human is capable of feeling (or afflicted with a prediliction for) pity, fancies it to be compassion, and has a near religious experience under the occasional sway of semi-objective empathy. As noted – not so far from the cave as we like to think.

David Thomas, 8/11/98

My Turn

When Is a Tree Not a Tree?

… When you're Jewish and your husband wants a Christmas tree in your living room

By Jane Praeger

Newsweek, Dec 21, 1998, p. 12

Our argument always centers on the height of the tree. I want a small one, no taller than a kitchen chair or a stuffed panda. My husband wants one towering, bursting. Usually he indulges me. But last December he came back from our local Greenmarket with a specimen the size of a large armoire. My panic was both instinctive and irrepressible. "That's all they had left," he said flatly. "Can't you just try, for once, to enjoy it?"

But I can't. I'm Jewish. And the size of the Christmas tree in our living room has become the barometer for all my ambivalent feelings about being a Jew who has let Christmas into my home.

My reasoning, if you can call it that, goes like this: A small tree, tucked in a corner, is less likely to snuff out the menorah on top of our piano. A big tree, on the other hand, is a glorious, glittering spectacle against which the slender candles of the menorah don't stand a chance.

"Lately I've been polling my intermarried friends to see how they deal with the problem. No one has it quite figured out. One woman tops the Christmas tree with a Jewish star, then has Santa leave Chanukah gelt beneath the boughs. Another sets a giant flag with a menorah on it right next to the tree. Another will hang only ornaments that are blue or white, the colors of Israel. Then there is my Jewish friend who volunteered to buy a tree for her husband. She came home the next day with a bonsai.

Have my friends and I lost all perspective? Are we being unfair? Especially in families like mine: my husband, raised Irish Catholic, has agreed to bring up our two children in the Jewish faith. When the Jewish holidays roll around, he's more than willing to read passionately from the Haggadah or play dreidel with the kids. He even fasts on Yom Kippur. So why, once a year, can't I be gracious enough to let him celebrate with his children the holiday that recalls the happiest moments of his childhood?

In my hometown in the '50s, December meant Christmas, and Christmas was everywhere. Newly outfitted in their strings of colored lights, the undistinguished tract houses on my block suddenly became beautiful. So many ordinary things – cups and napkins, even the plants in people's windows – turned red and green and special. Christmas music coursed its way, in one endless loop, through every drey cleaner, gas station and supermarket. There was the occaasional menorah in a store window or construction-paper dreidel tacked to a classroom wall, but for the most part Chanukah stayed home. It wasn't for public consumption.

My parents were not observant Jews. They celebrated the Jewish holidays with food – brisket on Rosh Hashana, potato latkes on Chaukah. Without a structured religious education, I came to define my Jewishness as much by what I didn't do – didn't take holy communion, didn't go to catechism, didn't wear fancy clothes on Sundays – as by anything I did. Rejecting Christmas made me Jewish.

Now Christmas is inside my own house, invited by my husband, charming my children. Last December, when I slipped a children's Chanukah tape into the cassette deck, my 2-1/2 year-old son lunged for the "stop" button, demanding, "HO! HO! HO!" – a reference to the sing-along Christmas video sent out by the post office. I explained that we were Jewish and that Jews celebrate Chanukah. "Want HO! HO! HO!" he whined. "Want Santa's elves!" I tried negotiation. "How about we play the Chanukah tape first, then –" "No! Don't like that tape! Like HO! HO! HO!" Sensing a tantrum brewing, my 5-year-old daughter reassured her brother, "Don't worry, sweetie. If you don't like your religion, you can always change it when you grow up."

So that night, after the kids were asleep, I tried, and not for the first time, to make my husband understand – truly understand – my reaction to the tree that nearly reached the ceiling of our living room.

I reminded him again of why Jews still perceive themselves as a threatened minority. I told him that no matter how tenuous my own faith or haphazard my observance, I still consider myself, forever, a Jew. And that this birthright, this primal identification with my tribe, carries a fierce desire to protect it against outsiders, even if the outsider is my husband.

I told him that I cannot look at our tree, at its twinkling lights, its whimsical wooden pigs and clay reindeer and tin drums, without also seeing 2,000 years of persecution and genocide, of horror and sorrow. And that having a Christmas tree in my home, inside my refuge from the world, stirs in me nothing less than a fear of utter annihilation.

"You make it sound like Santa's coming down the chimney with a bag full of swastikas," he said finally. "I mean, it's only a tree with some lights on it."

He has a point, I know. My reaction is irrational. But when was religion ever rational? Can this most intimate of territories, where heritage and culture, faith and ritual, feelings and belief collide, be subjected to a test of reason? And what light can reason finally shed on the problem of how to make Chanukah – and Judaism – meaningful in a house with a Christmas tree?

No more, I suspect, than it can shed on the meaning of love. Because I love my husband, Christmas trees will always be a part of my life. Because I love my children, I will feel joy – real joy – as I watch them run to the living room on Christmas morning and discover the overfilled stockings, the scribbled note from Santa and the the bounty under the tree. But as much as my heart opens to their bliss and softens to their fleeting holiday faith in a benevolent universe, my heart is, finally, not open enough, not selfless enough, to embrace the tree. I will probably always wish for a bonsai. I will probably never shake the fears that make me want to huddle and clan, to gather and ruthlessly protect my own, even as those fears drive me further from my inclusive ideals and the spiritual acceptance that is one of the lessons of Chanukah. Perhaps the most I can hope for is the day when the tree in my living room is just a tree.

Additional information about this document
Property Value
Author(s): Jane Praeger
Title: When Is a Tree Not a Tree?
Sources: Newsweek, Dec 21, 1998, p. 12
  • David Thomas: comments
Published: 1998-08-11
First posted on CODOH: Aug. 9, 1998, 7 p.m.
Last revision:
Comments: Review; plus: Jane Praeger, "When Is a Tree Not a Tree?," Newsweek, Dec 21, 1998, p. 12
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