“No way! I’m telling your zayde,” my mom jokingly responded to the picture I sent her of the new addition to my living room.
I am 19 years old and for the first time in my life, I have a Christmas tree.
I am a Jewish woman in all the ways that work for me. I attended Hebrew school and became a bat mitzvah. I went to Jewish summer camp for years and returned this past summer as a counselor. I call my bubbe and zayde nearly daily. However, I don’t keep kosher or attend services regularly, and now I have a Christmas tree in my small college home.
When trees started popping up in stores this year, it was a no-brainer for my Christian roommates that we would have one, and don’t get me wrong — I had no objections. What’s not to love about hanging ornaments in the perfect spot while Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is blaring and cookies are baking in the oven? I love my roommates so this time together was precious to me, the kind of moment that turns to a memory you’ll tell your kids about.
Yet, as I sat in the living room later that night, my mom’s playful text sank in. This is not who I am. I don’t do Christmas, or trees, or carols. While my mom was only poking fun at me, I was guilt-ridden thinking of the generations before me who risked persecution just to stand proudly by their faith. Was I letting down the Jewish people by enjoying this Christian tradition?
What other Christmas traditions had I accepted without batting an eye? From sipping eggnog to watching “Elf,” I don’t exactly reject the mainstream norms of the holiday. I thought of all the times that someone had wished me a “Merry Christmas” and I hadn’t told them that I actually celebrate Hanukkah.
I wrestled with this uncomfortable guilt for a few weeks, but as Hanukkah came and went, it brought me a new perspective. As my own winter holiday rolled around, I felt excited to bring a menorah and chocolate gelt to my college house and roommates. I sought out Jewish community at my school’s Hillel. For the first time in a romantic relationship, I communicated that I would like to receive my “Christmas gifts” during Hanukkah because that’s the holiday I celebrate.
While a saleswoman helped me check out at Nordstrom, I found myself telling her that the purse I was buying was a Hanukkah present. Funnily enough, her eyes lit up and she confided in me that she’s Jewish, too.
So many times before I would have just taken the easy route of saying, “It’s for Christmas.” No one gives you a second glance when you say Christmas. It’s easy and comfortable, especially with strangers here in North Carolina.
Growing up in the South, I have often been the first Jewish person someone has met. And I mean very often. I’m used to questions like, “Do you go to Jewish church?” and, “What do you all believe?” Neighbors would ask my parents each year where our lights and tree were, a dash of pity in their questioning, as if my parents were neglecting me by not having a Christmas tree in our window.
Honestly, sometimes I did feel shorted when my friends bonded over Bible study and Christmas traditions. For so long I have passively allowed myself to assimilate to Christian traditions, but having a Christmas tree in my home this year was a wake-up call. I love the twinkling tree, but now I know how to show pride for my traditions, too.
This lush green tree in my house is not a Hanukkah bush, as much as I may joke to my family. It is a Christmas tree, and that’s OK. Being a Southern Jew, there is duality in my identities and I no longer need to pretend that my Jewishness cannot coexist with my love of a decorated house, Hallmark holiday movies and shared experiences with friends. When you think about it, Christmas is actually filled with Jewish values: family, charity, community — and good food.
This holiday season has brought me many firsts, including my first Christmas tree, but most importantly, it has brought me the desire for outward expression of Jewish identity that I have always longed to share — all thanks to a tree.