Why must you come between us? Of all the tricky topics in the household, at this time of year the one that shoots to the top of the charts is the prickly issue of the Christmas tree. The Husband accepts that the tree has no Christian origins but we disagree about its symbolism: to me, those uplifted, hopeful evergreen branches serve as a reminder that Nature is only slumbering beneath the frost, not extinguished. To Ben, he fears having one would compromise his Jewish identity. For him, it’s a visceral feeling. He will happily pull crackers, eat turkey, open presents, even drink port as to the manner born, but he doesn’t want a Christmas tree in the house.
I know he’s not alone in this because I was talking to another Jewish woman in my exercise class last week about it. I tried to draw her out, hoping to gain an insight into this common Jewish antipathy towards Christmas trees that would help me understand The Husband’s point of view, but her hostility had unexpected roots: “I would never, ever have one. It would make such a mess!”
I have tried creating a Chanukkah tree — using our somewhat lopsided weeping fig as the supporting structure for plain fairy lights (acceptable), gingerbread Magen Davids (acceptable), and baubles (not acceptable). But this year, the weeping fig has gone to the Great Gardener in the Sky after its annual summer break in the garden (actually, we “forgot” to bring it back in again because it was so lovely to be able to get into the dining-room without having to hack a route past its clingy branches with a machete, and the frost finished it off).
My devotion to the Christmas tree has its roots in childhood. My (non-Jewish) mother had an artificial silver tree, which she decorated with pale pink and mauve glass baubles. I adored it. One of the great moments of the year was helping her open out the branches to transform the tree from an unimpressive silver stalk into its true sparkling self.
One year, my stepmother, an artist, made a macramé “tree” out of different thicknesses of rope and string, which she then sprayed silver, but the result was more of an intricately knotty bell than a tree. It was a bit like a dog walking on its hind legs — impressive but, really, what’s the point?
On Boxing Day, as we drove across London to visit my step-grandparents (you can imagine how contorted my family tree must be — like a twisted tangle of fairy lights when you fail to put them away nicely), our car game was to compete in spotting the number of Christmas trees en route, with extra points for flashing lights or — most rare — blue lights.
A couple of years ago, while standing outside a greengrocer’s pondering which veg to buy to accompany salmon for supper, my gaze fell on a gathering of very small fir trees in pots. They were nuzzling each other at knee-height and I felt as instantly enchanted by them as if they had been fluffy kittens. Without thinking, I bought one (we had to have frozen peas with the fish because of course I forgot why I was there), and took it home.
“That’s not a Christmas tree, is it?” said The Husband when I brought it into the hall.
“It’s only tiny!” I said ‘It was begging me to adopt it. Look at the little thing — how can you resist it?”
“I couldn’t just leave it there. It looked sad.”
He sighed and rolled his eyes.
“So you’re putting it in your study?”
“Or the hall maybe?”
“Or the study?”
At least he didn’t ask me to keep it in the car, so I quit while I was ahead. The study it was. I decorated the tree with miniature lights and lovable little felt snowmen wearing coloured scarves and it brought me a sweet breath of joy every time I looked at it. Normally, I dread going into my study as, once I enter, I know I should be embarking on some kind of work and in order to do any work, I will have to excavate a small area of desk, which will demand the services of a team of archaeologists.
This year, I have decided that instead of lusting after a proper Christmas tree, like having a secret, embarrassing crush, I’m going for something Ben won’t object to and might even like. Usually, my taste tends towards the traditional while his is more contemporary. I’ve found something modern and minimalist — just like a child’s simple silhouette of a tree, in plain black metal with white lights. I will resist the urge to jazz it up with glittery baubles, though I can see that bedecked with gingerbread Magen Davids and tiny shivering snowmen (“Why so cold? For this, we left Russia?”), it will make a perfect Jewish Christmas tree.
Zelda Leon is half-Jewish by birth then did half a conversion course as an adult (half-measures in all things….) to affirm her Jewish status before a Rabbinical Board. She is a member of a Reform synagogue. Zelda Leon is a pseudonym.