Christmas tree or Hanukka bush: Do they have their place in a Jewish home?

Mixed families and secular Jews explore the December dilemma.

December 10, 2016 18:38
A giant menorah stands in front of a Christmas tree at the Brandenburg gate to celebrate Hanukkah in

A giant menorah stands in front of a Christmas tree at the Brandenburg gate to celebrate Hanukkah in Berlin December 16, 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS)

NEW YORK – In December of last year, 26-year-old Julia Katz from Philadelphia was wondering in the aisles of Target, one of her favorite stores, when she came face to face with something she had always wanted to have but was never allowed to: a Christmas tree.

“Growing up I remember my dad being very adamant about not having a Christmas tree, not going to visit Santa Claus and I felt very left out from all of my other friends,” she told The Jerusalem Post.

Katz was raised Jewish, and like many other Jewish kids, always loved the holiday season: the decorations, the lights, the markets and sometimes, even the snow. She envied her friends who celebrated the Christian holiday, but her parents never allowed for the Christmas spirit to come into the house, let alone through a Christmas tree.

But last Christmas, living with her then-fiancé in their own apartment, she felt she could justify finally getting one.

Ingrid C and her family with their christmas tree.(photo credit: COURTESY INGRID C.)

“My husband grew up mixed so he did have one growing up and he didn’t really care either way,” she told the Post. “In my mind I justified it by saying, ‘Oh great, we’ll make it a Hanukka bush!’” Before buying the fake white Christmas tree in front of her, Katz still felt she should call some members of her family and ask for their blessing: Her sister didn’t think there was anything wrong with it, her dad wasn’t thrilled about the idea but was supportive either way, and her then-fiancé didn’t care much, but made it a point to ask her, “Are you sure that’s what you want?” Yes, it was exactly what she wanted.

Katz bought the tree and threw in some blue lights and ornaments, so the colors would be reminiscent of Israel and Hanukka. Soon after she got home, Katz had already unwrapped the tree and decorated it.

“It looked gorgeous,” she said.

But only minutes later, as she looked at her creation, Katz was immediately filled with an unshakable sense of guilt.

“The Jewish guilt just built and built. I couldn’t sleep that night, I really couldn’t,” she said. “I felt like my heritage was telling me, ‘What are you doing? This is not who you are.’ Everyone was supportive of whatever I decided, but I myself, couldn’t live with it.”

The next day, Katz took the tree down, re-packaged most of its accessories and brought it back to the store.

“The lady asked me what was wrong with it and all I said to her was: ‘I forgot I’m Jewish,’” she recalled.

“She just stared at me like I was a weird, weird person.”

After she returned her first Christmas tree to Target, Katz kept some of the lights in her home.

“We light it all the time during the winter and it’s like the festival of lights, it’s really about Hanukka,” she said.

“Moving forward when we have kids we have decided not to have a Christmas tree, even though in my mind it would be so fun and it’s very festive, but we decided that we would go to my husband’s grandmother who is the only one that practices Christmas and she has one,” Katz added.

Like Katz, many Jewish families living in the United States and in other countries where Christmas is widely celebrated, face the dilemma of whether or not to incorporate the celebration in their lives as well and put up a Christmas tree. While some see it as a Christian symbol, others completely disconnect it from any religious significance.

In late November, even Israeli-born actress Natalie Portman revealed she may be getting one this year for the very first time, on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

“It’s kind of every Jew’s secret wish to have a Christmas tree,” she said.

Jewish New Yorker and mother of two, Ingrid, always had a Christmas tree at home, since her children were very little. Even though her husband, Bruno, was originally “radically against it,” for her, the tree is simply a decorative object.

“It really brings something special to the house during the holidays: First of all, the smell of it is really unique and the decorations have a very magical feel,” she told the Post. “There is something fascinating about a sparkling Christmas tree and my kids are huge fans. It’s also a really joyful moment when we decorate it all together.”

Ingrid’s tree is what some would nickname a Hanukka bush: It is dressed in white, blue and silver, with dreidels, Stars of David and little hanukkiot.

“It’s a way to reference our tradition,” she explained. “In New York there is such an incredible amount of decorations to choose from, so when we found [these ornaments] we immediately knew that’s what we’d get.”

Every year, steps from the tree, Ingrid displays multiple hanukkiot and invites friends and family for Hanukka candle lightings. The tree is the only Christmas presence in her home, and to her, it simply adds to the spirit of the Jewish holiday.

“Even though my mother-in-law and sister-in-law are against it, no one close to us has really said anything because they see how beautiful it is,” she said with a smile.

Although many dissociate today Christmas and the holiday season from its religious meaning, the tree’s significance is very much anchored in religion. It originated in a pagan tradition of using an evergreen fir tree to decorate homes during the winter. After much disagreement, many Christians adopted it as a symbol of the Tree of Life. The star at the top represents the Star of Bethlehem.

Reform Rabbi Joshua Davidson of New York City’s Temple Emanu-el told the Post he is sure that many of the parents in his synagogue have already asked themselves the question of whether they could justify having a Christmas tree at home, after their children asked for one.

“Let me begin by saying that I think one of the strengths of reform Judaism is the extent of its welcome to the broadest segment of the population that wants to identify as Jewish and explore Judaism,” he made clear. “We aim to be as inclusive as we can be. We certainly don’t turn anybody away who chooses to have a Christmas tree.”

When Jews have a Christmas tree in their home, Rabbi Davidson said, they are not thinking about it in religious terms. “They still identify as Jewish. They consider it a symbol of a festive time of year, which it has become,” he explained.

“However, pretending that the Christmas tree is not a Christian symbol does a disservice both to Christmas and Christianity on the one hand, and the Jewish identity of a family that incorporates it into their own practice on the other,” he said.

“Hanukka is all about maintaining our uniqueness, our individuality, in the face of forces of assimilation,” Davidson added. “That’s what the Maccabees’ victory over those who collaborated with the Greeks was all about, so to alloy that identity with the trappings of a holiday which has become secularized runs counter to the spirit of Hanukka.”

The rabbi added that Hanukka, which usually falls very close to Christmas, can offer kids who want to appreciate the season the very same joys.

“In my experience, kids who are brought up knowing the beauty of Jewish life, feel less badly about not being able to celebrate Christmas in their own home,” he said.

The Christmas tree, he advises, can be enjoyed while visiting others who celebrate the holiday, which is the case for children of intermarried couples.

“There is nothing wrong with families going and enjoying someone else’s holiday celebrations,” he said.

“You just need to try to draw the distinction between what [they] are celebrating and what we are celebrating.”

Growing up in Russia, 23-yearold Dasha Sominski’s grandparents always had a Christmas tree at home.

“In Russia it doesn’t really have a strictly religious connotation at all,” she explained. “Having a tree just means you’re secular, it doesn’t mean you’re not Jewish or you are somehow relinquishing your Jewishness.”

The question of whether or not to have one however is a dilemma Sominski and her partner Elizabeth Gross have seriously pondered upon.

“Both of us are very intentionally secular and we think a lot about different symbols from our culture and our childhood that are empty of meaning and sometimes with meaning that we don’t appreciate,” she explained.

Both Sominski and Gross grew up in Orthodox Jewish homes and have been married for over a year.

As a queer couple, they have been doing much thinking about religion and what its place would be in their home.

“Our ultimate struggle right now is that having a tree is nice, it smells awesome, but at the same time we worked so hard to kind of shake all the empty symbols that we grew up with and then take on another symbol that’s just as empty if not more, since it doesn’t really have any personal meaning for us, would also be kind of more confusing,” Sominski told the Post.

“I doubt we will get one. It’s nice in theory but pretty artificial,” she added. “We’re going to go to her family’s Hanukka party. We’ll probably make latkes and take my little brother out for coffee and donuts but I think we both are kind of on hold in terms of understanding what parts of all of it we’d like to retain.”

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