Every year, on December 26th, a large green pine tree appears in my house.
Yes, I’m Jewish. I promise.
But I am an American-born Russian Jew.
A Russian tradition you may not have heard of is celebrating New Years. Sure, in the US, we celebrate New Years too, but NOT on the same level as in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Since religion was banned, they had to think of something to celebrate that rivaled the West. So bam: New Years was born.
It bore and continues to bear an eerie resemblance to Christmas. There was a pine tree, decorated with tinsel. There tons of presents. And there was, of course, Ded Moroz, Grandfather Frost, who wore a red coat and hat with a large black belt and left presents under people’s trees. No resemblance to Christmas at all, right?
Superficially, New Years was secular Christmas. There were presents, there was Santa Claus (of sorts), there was a tree. But allow me to stress the word secular. Western Christmas and Soviet New Years looked alike, but the reasons for the celebrations were entirely different. For this reason, Soviet Jews (who were only vaguely aware of their Jewishness) could celebrate the holiday without fear of in some way going against their religion.
My family consists of Soviet Jews, and thus, we celebrate New Years. And that’s fine with me. I grew up celebrating it and love it. It’s a part of who I am. I love giving and getting gifts and spending time with my family. I don’t, however, love being asked why there’s a Christmas tree in my house if I’m Jewish.
“It’s a New Years tree,” I always have to explain.
Then I get a funny look. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I sigh. “I’m sure.”
I am not unlike thousands of Russian-American Jewish kids. On one hand, we’re Jewish. On the other hand, there’s a New Years tree in our houses and a bearded man who puts presents underneath them (rabbi, is that you?). (Something to note is that our parents have been brought up to believe that they are Russian first and Jewish second, so many Russian-American Jewish teens feel very Russian when they really are not.) Even though the tree and Ded Moroz had no religious meaning in Russia, they certainly do in the United States. And while my Russian family doesn’t have much of an issue celebrating New Years, I’ll admit that I do because of its resemblance to Christmas.
I dread the confusing time of the year when the menorah shines brightly in front of the New Year’s tree (with a Magen David ornament, mind you). Part of me grew up with the New Years tree; the other part of me wants the Christmas tree out of the house. Part of me wonders about what could be wrong with this fun-filled celebration; the other part of me wonders if a good Jewish girl like me should have a big Christmas tree like that in her house.