The 1996 Tony Award-winning play The Last Night of Ballyhoo opens on an idyllic scene of a well-to-do Southern family decorating the Christmas tree in their living room, the daughter gleefully singing “The First Noël” in an affected drawl. She prepares to put the star on the tree and is stopped by her parents and aunt—for, you see, “Jewish Christmas trees don’t have stars.”
I always had the slight sense that Christmas was something that was off-limits for me. At a social justice training I attended earlier this year, we were asked, “What were the first messages you received about your culture?” Without even thinking, I said, “As Jewish kids, it was the learning that all the Christmas hype was not for us.” That message was reinforced in religious education, where we were reminded that Hanukkah was a minor holiday, a hanger-on with an inflated sense of self due to its proximity to Christmas. If Hanukkah was a consolation prize, though, it meant that latkes were, too, and I like to eat my feelings.
I identified with the family in The Last Night of Ballyhoo because I, too, grew up in a Jewish family that loved Christmas. My dual-holiday-celebrating aunt and uncle included my brother and me in tree decorating and other festivities. At the end of Christmas Eve dinner, our parents would pile our sleepy bodies into the backseat of the car and drive to Sauganash in Chicago to look at the awe-inspiring Holiday Vegas of lights. My grandmother, a synagogue cantor, led the Christmas Eve caroling at her Florida condo every year until she passed, and even knew all the words to “Good King Wenceslas.” No stopping at “Rudolph” or “Silent Night” for Grandma Alma. She was no yuletide poseur. She knew the deep cuts.
As we grew older, all suspicion that my family’s Christmas-related enthusiasm was just a ploy to make us kids feel included melted away. I’d come home from school for Thanksgiving and the lite jazz station which turned to Christmas music in November would be blaring. For a few years, after my brother and I left for college, my mother began decorating a fake tree, a bendy thing enrobed in purple and white ornaments (Northwestern colors!) that sat in our living room.
And then I met my girlfriend, who is now my wife, and her South Side Irish Catholic family, and I no longer had to hide my giddy enthusiasm about Christmas. I could participate in the holiday and not feel like I was out of place. I’d get invited to pick out a tree with them and feel the cold southern Michigan air lap at my face. In fact, I’d hoped my knowledge of deep-cut hymns might impress her parents.
My wife does not half-ass things. I tell her it’s her Capricorn nature, but she says that astrology is nonsense, which is exactly what a Cap would say. She will not go to the grocery store without a detailed list. If she makes any kind of significant purchase, she spends hours poring through product reviews on Amazon. And Sweethome. And Consumer Reports. I texted her the morning our favorite soccer team’s home schedule for 2018 was released; by the time I got back from my lunch break, I had a spreadsheet with a meticulously organized, color-coded, themed tailgate schedule in my inbox. Girl lives for spreadsheets.
I no longer had to hide my giddy enthusiasm about Christmas. I could participate in the holiday and not feel like I was out of place.
So naturally, for our first Christmas together as Marrieds, Una insisted that we would have a real tree. Guests for holiday dinners would marvel at our immaculate decorating. We bought ornaments and decor with great thought to aesthetics, as well as to what ornaments would tell our story as a couple. We even found an ornament that is just a mini flannel shirt. We dreamed of the possibilities. Passersby on Pulaski would be entranced by its warming glow from our second-floor window. It would all be like a Thomas Kinkade scene, but, you know, gayer.
This, in theory, was a great idea. We strolled around the lot by our apartment until we found our perfect tree: a 7.5-foot Fraser Fir with ample, sturdy branches. With the help of the nice man running the lot, we affixed it to the roof of her ancient Honda Civic and headed home. Of course, the thing we learned very quickly about being in possession of a 7.5-foot real Christmas tree is once you leave the lot, you’re on your own with the whole getting it up the stairs and inside and getting it downstairs and back outside thing.
Here is a step-by-step breakdown of what happens when my wife and I try to move literally anything that is a two-person job, including a Christmas tree:
- We come up with a game plan.
- We follow zero of that game plan. (This is usually my fault.)
- I lift with my back instead of my knees.
- She shouts sharp, drill-sergeant directions at me in an effort to be clear and efficient. I am not very good at responding.
- So instead I just yell “PIVOT! PIVOT!” in a jokey reference to that one episode of Friends with the couch and watch the veins slowly rise to the surface of her neck.
- She drops the thing, reassesses and we start over, but this time with more tension!
- She yells “PIVOT! PIVOT!” at me, though not in a way that feels like it will be resolved after the commercial break.
- We somehow muddle through it.
- Repeat as needed.
After lots of shouting and about four dozen attempts at aligning the stump in the stand, our floor soaking with water and sticky with sap and covered with a festive dusting of pine needles, our tree was set and in the window. We were exhausted and slightly resentful, but hey, we’d done it! We Christmased!
I let her lead me through the delicate process of decorating the tree, her wrapping and re-wrapping the lights a good three dozen times to make sure it was just right. It was no multi-story Sauganash monstrosity, but it was a beaut. When it was done, we basked in the homey glow and watched It’s A Wonderful Life, a film I had not yet seen. I was not prepared for how much it would make me cry, or how strong of opinions I’d have about Uncle Billy. (Uncle Billy is just the worst.)
So we have the tree, and it stands proudly in the window emanating light onto the drunks coming out of the questionably legal sports bar across the street. We host family dinners throughout the month for an array of real family and chosen family alike, serving beef tenderloin and roasted root vegetables and Ina Garten realness, feeling that sweet hit of admiration every time they walked in and saw the tree and oohed and aahed. What I came to understand from this experience, is that Christmas is all about getting other people to admire your stuff.
And then, finally, the second weekend in January, we resolved that the tree had to come down. We repeated steps 1 through 9 and my wife missed a step and sprained her foot. We left a trail of dry needles through the hallway, turning it into a chaotic opening scene from a crime procedural about cops who investigate tree kidnappings. We somehow managed to stuff the tree into the Civic through the trunk, and drive it over to Portage Park just as the park was getting ready to close.
And there it went. Onto the pile of trees in similar states, left to sit in that empty Park District parking lot, joining its brethren in the afterlife that is becoming mulch. My first—and probably, last—real Christmas tree, leaving me to wonder if participating in this celebration had been worth the shedding and the sap and my wife’s injury.
“Next year,” she said, “We’re getting a fake one.”