December 17, 2020

The Rabbi’s Very Merry Christmas.

Lisa Tzur

The month of December tends to be an extraordinarily challenging time we navigate difficult conversations pertaining to religion, holiday celebrations, and family dynamics.

Unlike Thanksgiving, which is blissfully devoid of (most) religious conflict, only a week later, we begin the season of debating what/how we choose to celebrate, potentially causing a measure of angst that we simply do not experience any other time of the year.

For those of us who were born Jewish, the Christmas season plays a significant role in how we experience our place in the general society. For those who joined Judaism later in life, the complexity is even more profound.

Ultimately, after reading my story you might question how I ended up on the path to the rabbinate. On the other hand, some of these experiences might resonate with your own understanding of these complicated issues.

I’m a third-generation American, born of Jewish parents who were born to Jewish Eastern European immigrants. My earliest childhood memories consist of the Watergate scandal, the death of Elvis, and finally, our family’s participation in the annual Holiday Home Tour event, where select local homes (all heavily decorated for the Christmas holiday) were open to the public on a Sunday afternoon.

We didn’t display just one Christmas tree every year—we had two. We had too many decorations to fit on a single tree (many of which I lovingly hand-crafted with my mother).

Actually, we had three trees, if you count the tiny one that became the focal point of my bedroom during the holiday season. In addition to my personal tree, each one of my stuffed animals had a tiny stocking that I had lovingly sewed out of red felt and decorated with glitter and rhinestones. And my classic miniature dollhouse had a tree as well (I suppose, technically, that would make four trees).

Strangers, neighbors, and friends eagerly bought tickets to tour our exquisitely decorated home. They entered my room and kvelled at my craftiness, marveling at my resolve to create a perfect Christmas for my “friends.”

Truly, the only signs of Jewish life in our home were the large Star of David that adorned the “main” tree in the formal living room and a barely noticeable chanukiah shoved in the corner of a nondescript shelf in a wall unit.

My annual visit with Santa in the local shopping mall was well-documented by the official North Pole photographer, and promptly framed and displayed with the collection of photos from past years.

We baked and decorated Christmas cookies, left them for Santa, and would wake up on Christmas morning to find an entire array of presents waiting for us.

Early in my teenage years, I realized that our family’s obsession with Christmas traditions did not coincide with our Jewish heritage. This became a source of great strife in our home and a trigger point in my relationship with my parents.

Frankly, I continued to find my family’s determination to celebrate a holy day that had nothing to do with us quite upsetting. It felt out of sync with my deep connection with Jewish thought and practice. I became more involved with the synagogue, fell in love with the Hebrew language and Jewish philosophy, started to write and perform Jewish music, and participated in Jewish youth group events and Jewish summer camps, eventually escaping my household’s Christmas celebrations by attending an annual multi-day Jewish youth convention in a different state.

When I matriculated to rabbinical school in Jerusalem, it took me less than a week to “confess” to my professors and classmates that I was raised with a robust Christmas practice. They were only mildly shocked—perhaps their reactions would be better described as amused. Apparently, I was not the only future Jewish professional who shared this burden.

Many years later after my ordination, I became a mother. I bluntly informed my parents that we would have to coordinate our visits with their grandchildren around the holiday decorations. The thought of explaining my family’s obsession with Christmas to impressionable kids was just too much for me to process. My decision caused great anxiety for my mother, who begrudgingly agreed to hold off on the decorating frenzy until after Thanksgiving (until then, decorations appeared as early as October).

I must emphasize that I have absolutely nothing against Christmas. On the contrary, as a religious professional, I acknowledge the importance of this holy time for so many of my Christ-believing observant friends. I know that many of them struggle with the issues concerning the secularization and commercialization of this sacred day on the Christian calendar.

And I have many non-Jewish friends who fully embrace the holiday as a time to spend with family and friends, even though they are not deeply religious. On more than one occasion, I have eagerly helped my beloved Christmas-celebrating friends decorate their trees and cookies. In fact, when my kids were smaller, one of their neighborhood friends was distraught that our kids would never receive a present from Santa. In his annual letter to request his own gifts, he also put in a word for my three kids. On Christmas morning, my kids would awake and go to the neighbor’s home to retrieve the gifts that Santa would leave for them there.

These same neighbors would join us every year—not only for Chanukkah, but for Sukkot, Passover, and Shabbat on many occasions—and their sensitive kids realized that Jewish kids had many, many occasions to celebrate throughout the year, sometimes with a gifting component, often without.

About 15 years ago, for the first time since my childhood, I found myself with an accidental Christmas tree for approximately two hours.

On a chilly November afternoon, I conducted an adult education class for my congregation on “The December Dilemma.” As a set induction, I had spent a bit of money on odds and ends from the dollar store and placed the objects in a bag—items that were both distinctively related to either Christmas or Chanukkah, and a few decorations that had mixed messages attached (such as blue and silver Chanukkah branded decorations for a Christmas tree).

As an ice breaker, I asked each participant to choose one item and speak about how the object made them feel. Did it evoke childhood memories? Sadness? Joy? Guilt? These conversations, especially among interfaith couples are an extraordinary way to dive into issues that are often complex and potentially painful, but ultimately important. It was an emotionally draining (and productive) adult education experience.

Exhausted, I returned home with my children, gave them the bag of objects to take into the house, and left the kids at home with the nanny while I returned to work for a few hours.

After I completed my work obligations, I returned home—completely exhausted—to discover that the nanny had taken the kids on a walk around the neighborhood, where they had chanced upon a fake Christmas tree on the sidewalk with a sign that said “FREE.” With the nanny’s enthusiastic permission, together they acquired the tree, carried it home, lovingly set it up in the living room, and used the decorations from adult ed to decorate the tree in glorious blue and silver regale. One of the kids even made a lovely Star of David to adorn the top of the tree, eerily reminiscent of the stars on the trees of my own childhood.

It took every ounce of strength to calmly explain to the children and to their Spanish speaking Guatemalan nanny why we could not keep the tree, and why we would not be able to slaughter the (very much alive) chicken for the following month’s Christmas dinner that the nanny’s sons had brought to her while I was working that afternoon.

I don’t really speak Spanish, by the way. It was a rough conversation using the 20 words that I had mastered for emergency communication.

This year, I have observed a variety of antidotal social media posts from famous people who identify as Jewish—they are posting pictures of their beautiful homes filled with Christmas decorations. By doing so, they are creating space and tacit permission for thousands of Jewish followers to post their own trees, wreaths, and holiday wear. These posts make me cringe—not because I am “anti-Christmas”—but because I feel highly conflicted about our people’s general acceptance of these practices.

Perhaps this would be an appropriate time to offer a rabbinic teaching, a thought-provoking statistic, or a positive reminder of how rich and full Judaism is—a reminder that we do not need to assimilate/acculturate one more inch more into American culture and society more than we already have. But there are plenty of fact-driven articles and resources that are readily available on a multitude of platforms. This is a day to share my personal experience as a committed Jew, and to an extent, a few examples of my professional interactions with a few of my former students who have grappled with these issues on many levels.

You may consider my trajectory and contend that “if the rabbi had trees in the home and came out with such a formidable Jewish identity, what is the problem with Jews celebrating Christmas?” The truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this extremely complex issue. While some of what I have shared might feel familiar, the journey of seeking one’s religious identity (or the rejection of that identity) is precious and unique. One would assume that the answer is fairly simple for those of us born and raised as Jews.

But what about those who are not born into Judaism, but rather, those who choose Judaism? As a rabbi who worked extensively with the interfaith and conversion community, there are so many stories that have touched me and broken my heart over the years—stories of families who have truly struggled with these complex issues.

I remember one student who wholeheartedly embraced the entirety of Jewish thought and practice. She had no issue giving up her relationship with Christ (she had given that up long before she walked into my rabbinic study). But to give up her Christmas tree? Those discussions were extraordinarily painful for her, as the tree represented something that was filled with incredible love and memories of family. For so many Jews by choice, the tree is a symbol of family and love and sweet memories of childhood and has absolutely nothing to do with theology. But the fact that one does not connote the tree or the holiday with theology does not make it kosher in the context of Jewish life.

This student’s story became much more complex after she agreed to give up Christmas before her conversion and to fully build an authentically Jewish home, but eventually came to the realization that a significant number of Jews in her community (regardless of whether they were born into the faith or joined later) have trees—simply because they want them. I can only imagine how painful, confusing, and frustrating this must be for those who have given up the practice of decorating for Christmas because the rabbi said that it was imperative that one do so.

I wish that it wasn’t so very complicated—for this student, who did give up her observance (as secular as it was) and for so many others for whom the ultimatum to give up the tree or give up conversion became a deal-breaker that led them to pass on conversion altogether.

There is no doubt that Christmas has become a secular celebration for many who observe. It is no longer about faith and divinity, about the birth of a messiah, but rather, a celebration of connection to community and family.

Once, I worked with a wonderful married couple who were deeply ensconced in Christianity throughout their entire lives. But over the years and after deep study, the wife decided that she ultimately believed in a monotheistic approach to her relationship with God, and chose to become Jewish. Eventually, her husband joined her in that decision, despite the fact that his parents had dedicated their entire lives’ work to Christian missionary work, and that his conversion to Judaism could potentially cause tremendous tension within his family.

Ironically, giving up the celebration of Christmas was much easier for this couple than it was for my other student because they understood the deep theological connection between the symbolism of the tree and other ritual practices associated with the holy day, and their connection with Christ. I’m sure it would have been absolutely bizarre for them had they tried to separate the secular aspects from the spiritual ones—even though there are so many who have managed to do so without a struggle.

While my musings and memories are generally focused on Jews who choose to celebrate Christmas who do not have non-Jewish members of their immediate households, what about those who are in committed interfaith relationships (with or without children) who struggle to find the right path through this intense season of spiritual/secular celebrations?

There are no easy answers. I am painfully aware that this holiday season can bring tremendous stress and tension into otherwise beautiful partnerships, and I pray that those who are struggling will find an authentic path filled with unconditional love for each other and their respective extended families.

Clearly, every one of us brings our own unique perspective to these discussions, and it is not my intention to condemn nor condone anyone’s current practice in regards to these sensitive issues.

Over the years, I have evolved to the point where I can truly enjoy the beauty of Christmas from afar. However, it is not my holiday, nor will, nor should it ever be mine.

I can fully appreciate Christmas as a secular celebration for those who choose to celebrate it as such, and as a deeply religious experience for those who are guided by their understanding of God and faith. I can continue to help my friends and neighbors engage in their celebrations when appropriate.

Ultimately, and most importantly, I am abundantly grateful for the blessings of Jewish practice, tradition, peoplehood, and faith that guide me, and there is not a tree in the world that can compare to the wealth and depth of Jewish wisdom that guides me throughout my life.


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