In December (and even before), as I go out and about in the city I live in, I invariably see Christmas decorations. The streets of many parts of this city have been decorated with brightly-colored balls and tinsel and red velvety ribbons and beautiful twinkly lights for the better part of the past month, and it coincides with the weather turning chilly.
I realize that it is, as a matter of fact, beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
I went to public school with kids from all backgrounds: with kids from Mexican and Central American families, with African-American kids, Chinese kids, Korean kids, Japanese kids and a handful of Caucasian kids, and then some Jews. Most of the people I grew up with celebrated Christmas. If they weren’t religiously observant as Christians, they celebrated Christmas because their parents or grandparents had been Christian and it was a tradition they held onto and liked a lot. Makes sense.
In the 1970s and 1980s, I personally did not know any Jewish person who had a Christmas tree. Later in junior high and into high school, I met kids from “mixed” families and that’s the first I heard of Jewish kids having Christmas trees. I personally never wanted one, and I enjoyed going to others’ homes to look at their trees and marvel at the pretty lights and such, but I never wanted one. It wasn’t my religion. I am grateful I have so many traditions and rituals in Judaism that have sustained my people and my family for thousands of years. I’m cool without Christmas.
Cut to the early 21st century. When I posted this photo of a pretty Christmas tree I saw in the lobby of an office building on Tuesday, a small Instagram storm began to brew.
“Does Mayim have a tree!? Why does Mayim have a tree? Isn’t Mayim Jewish?”
And then from the “other” side, “It’s a pagan symbol, why not let her have one!”
And even more surprising, “Why can’t Jews have trees? Stop being so judgmental, it’s the holiday season!”
I know the pagan history of what we now call the Christmas tree. It is a real historical thing that it was a pagan symbol before it was a Christian one (you can learn more about the Christmas tree here at History.com). I know that there are non-religious or atheist people who love a tree, but the people I know who fall into this category are former Christians or are people from mixed homes where one parent is or was Christian and the other isn’t. Meaning, I personally don’t know anyone Muslim or Hindu or Jewish who has a tree. I am sure friends of mine who fit this category and read this post may email me and I will then stand corrected. But I don’t think it’s as common for those people to have trees as it is for former Christians, even if they may be secular or are no longer “identifying” as Christian. Others may be able to make the separation between the tree and its associations, but for me, no can do a tree.
I don’t have a problem at all with Christianity or associating with Christians per se. It’s simply that this tree, decorated and beautiful for Christmas, has become an accepted symbol of a religion I am not a part of. Because this symbol has been so strongly associated with something like Christianity for so long, it is not comfortable for me to try to separate it from that association. So it is my personal preference to not have a tree. But I can certainly admire the trees that I encounter during this time of year, and even post them to Instagram. 🙂
When I try to grok things out here, sometimes I am accused of being judgmental. I hope to pre-empt that by saying that I am not in charge of anyone else’s life or house. If you are Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Jain or anything else and want to have a tree, by all means, enjoy it! I have chosen not to have a tree. But I respect everyone’s right to do what they want.
That’s what America is about, right? Do what you want. Believe what you want. Have a tree. Don’t have a tree. Make up whatever reasons you want to have or not have a tree. It’s all good!
And I hope that as we look at the shiny tinsel and twinkly lights, we can all spread cheer this holiday season by going beyond the Christmas tree, and focusing on making the world a better place.