What December dilemma? Ohhhhh. That one. Married during the Sukkot holiday in a civil ceremony, I had navigated two months with relative calm before bumping into the winter holidays. The year before, as a single mother, I took my son to see my sister Lesley, who celebrated Christmas with her family.
Before we left, Josh told me his father’s thoughts loud and clear: Santa did not come down the chimney, and was instead a parent in disguise. This was code for “Josh is a cantor’s son and the last thing we need is for you to get him into Santa Claus.”
I knew this going in and agreed with his dad; but as we all encounter some form of Santa wherever we go, I wanted Josh to know how to deal with it. “A lot of people believe in Santa, even if we don’t,” I told my son. “So we need to respect their beliefs, just like we want them to be respectful to ours.” My five-year-old nodded sagely, and when we visited Lesley, Josh helped her husband fix up a plate of carrots and raisins for Santa’s reindeer with a smile. He also helped the family decorate their Christmas tree.
Why did my sister celebrate Christmas? Lesley had all but divorced herself from any kind of Jewish observance since she was a teenager. As a child she experienced nasty anti-Semitic taunts, and now held her identity close to the chest, hidden and submerged. She much preferred the holidays of mainstream America—a better way of blending in. When Josh and I came to see her, we brought our menorah because it was the tail end of the holiday. But when we lit the candles, it felt as though we were foreigners.
This year, things are different. I set out the menorah and light candles and when we say the blessings, my new husband Pete tries to sing along, though he doesn’t know the words. Josh shows his stepfather how to play dreidel and I watch both of them thinking, this is what I wanted; a husband who isn’t just “supportive” of our traditions, but really interested in them.
But as Hanukkah ends and we start getting closer to Christmas, the dilemma approaches us too. This is Pete’s holiday and he has not converted or given it up. Does he want a tree? I decide to ask. He says he has a tiny fake tree about 12 inches tall, and that is all he wants. Is he trying to please me? Probably. What should I do?
I think about Josh going over to his father’s and talking about a Christmas tree at our house, and my face turns red at the thought. Why do I care? I remember his father’s wife asking me once, when she heard I was dating, “Is this one Jewish?”
No. This one is not.
A few days before Christmas I find myself on Grand Avenue, in front of a flower store. When I open the door, the smell of pine greets me like one of those seductive aroma graphics you see in cartoons. I see pine branches, holly and mistletoe, which I remember from old movies where someone is always trying to get next to someone else.
I circle around the room, thinking of The Gift of the Magi story by O. Henry and trying not to cast myself in an overly romanticized version of it (substituting holidays instead of gifts for the self-sacrificing lovers). But the story and store ruin any chance I have of being rational.
O. Henry wins.
I bring home a bagful of pine branches, holly and mistletoe and arrange them around the room, thinking they might make a kind of alternative to a Christmas tree. And I wait to see what Pete and Josh will say. Josh is easy; ignoring everything else, he makes a beeline for the Hanukkah gelt and peels back the wrapping with eager fingers. Pete, on the other hand, seems pleased with my decorations and finds a way to maneuver me under the mistletoe. Which is fun, I must admit.
A few days later, presents arrive in the mail from Pete’s parents. Josh’s and mine say Happy Hanukkah and Pete’s say Merry Christmas. We open our gifts next to a foot-high fake evergreen and later on, go to a movie—and that, I think, is that.
Except it isn’t. Because two days later my friend Shoshanna stops by with her husband, who happens to be the Hillel rabbi at the local university. We are at the dining room table and the rabbi looks up, his eye catching the mistletoe.
“What is that?” he asks.
His wife, a convert who was originally named Susan and born Episcopalian, replies too quickly. “You know what it is.”
I blush. And blush. And blush again.
What I don’t say is I am trying to find a way to share Pete’s traditions without observing them. I haven’t got it right yet; but I do very much want to figure it out. At the same time, I feel like Pete is bending a lot more in my direction than I am for him. Yet I still can’t bring myself to say I want a tree, and feel relieved when he doesn’t push it.
The next year Pete’s parents come out to their cabin in Two Harbors and invite us for the holiday. I know there will be a tree and all the trimmings this time, but now it doesn’t bother me. Because we are not at home, it feels like going to visit another family where Christmas is celebrated, and this makes everything easier.
We continue to celebrate Hanukkah in our house, and Christmas at Pete’s family cabin. That means Josh and I get to share their traditions and enjoy them. For Josh, it means we celebrate Jewish holidays in a Jewish home and meet our Christmas trees elsewhere.
You might also say that means I wanted to have my cake and eat it too and you might be right. Maybe I just came up against a line I couldn’t cross and it surprised me as much as anyone. It could have been how I was raised, or my parents’ faces when they saw my sister’s tree. Or it could be my way of rebelling against all the things so many Jewish people do in order to be like everyone else. Whatever it was said yes to kisses, but no to Christmas trees—though maybe not (always) to mistletoe.