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To Tree or Not To Tree

30 November 2007

It’s been a while since I’ve last spoken to you all, and for that I apologize. Starting a business and being as involved with my day job, raising a family, and time donated at the Synagogue, not to mention trying to take a little break for myself now and again has left me little in the department of disposable time. That being said, there are entries that have to be written because of their philosophical import, and this is one of them (at least for me, which is all that really matters at the end of the day – I’m the one writing it!)
For those who have been following the sparse chronicles of my life, you are aware that this year is different from all other years in that I’ve become a Jew, and now am faced with the interesting and novel activity of identity work around that shift. For the most part, this was not a process that seemed overly difficult for me, seeing that I had given up my Christian identity over 15 years ago (more like 20), and I had been walking side-by-side in a Jewish lifestyle for the last 14 years. In most cases, taking on the Jewish identity wasn’t requiring me to do any more than I was doing already, or if it were something new, it was an additive practice, and as a long-time universalist, adding practices is not something that bothers me – on the contrary, it’s enriching for me. As for the practices that could prove to be restrictive, I’ve been for the most part non-participatory or willingly complicit. As a Reform Jew, I have a tremendous amount of flexibility about what Mitzvah are relevant to a modern life, and which are ritual artifacts of ancient thinking.
Now I am faced with the first interesting choice of my conversion, and that is my treatment of the Christian holiday Christmas. Ironically, when I talked to my parents about conversion, my mother’s single question was “Will you still celebrate Christmas?” At the time, I didn’t really process this question, and figured that we’d just keep doing what we had been doing, giving tacit acknowledgment to this mostly commercial holiday that the majority of the dominant culture acknowledges, if not religiously, then at least culturally. We had incorporated into our family ritual and practice all of this holiday, the tree, the stockings, the Christmas morning presents and the myth of Santa Claus. For Julie at first, it was odd, having not been a part of this process or practice for her entire life, but in respecting my personal practice and background, allowed our familial adoption of all the trappings of my youth. In truth, she became to enjoy certain parts of the ritual, such as the decorations, the tree, and we even created a few of our own traditions, such as new pajamas to be worn on Christmas Eve. Being a mixed-background family, we accepted this additive practice of Hanukkah and Christmas as a universalist celebration of the winter solstice, each reflecting older pagan origins of kindling lights in sympathetic magic for the return of the sun. Things felt multi-cultural and modern, and we were open and appreciative of each others’ traditions. And yet, I know part of Julie’s mind always lingered on the fact that all of this practice was more than just not her practice, but something that was symbolic of that which was denied and refused by the Jewish tradition.
And this year, I am a Jew as well. In my life-long intentions and participations of universalism, I’ve chosen a particularist path. In my desire to go deeper in a single tradition, I have chosen a tradition which not only does not practice this holiday from the dominant culture (and my childhood), but views that holiday as symbolic of a cultural and political oppression, and exclusion. In truth, Hanukkah itself, has its roots in a militaristic event denying assimilative practice and the winning of religious freedom and authenticity against a dominant culture which wished to impress on the Jewish people its own religious customs and practices.
Now, I’m not ever one to be cowed by the demands of the groups that I may participate in, in fact I can be somewhat of an iconoclast, however I find this moment the first time I’ve been given a choice about the practice of tradition that I had for the most part just assumed for the entirety of my life. It gives me a moment to evaluate what this holiday means to me, and whether or not (or how much) I want to participate in a cultural meme that I’ve just been infected with at birth without choice or decision. For anyone in the dominant American culture, saving those who owe religious allegiance to some non-Christian sect (Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindis, etc.), not participating in Christmas is equivalent to being a humbug and somehow cold and uncaring. For the dominant (Christian) culture, this is the season of peace on earth, love for the common person, charity, etc. Whether worshiping the birth of a tiny baby god, or just a pudgy overgrown elf in a red suit, Christmas is a sanctity in America. We devote so much to this season, and many retail institutions couldn’t survive without the irrational spending driven by the season. All in all, it’s a benign (and perhaps even benevolent) practice, and it helps us as a nation and a people focus on our families, and casual mass consumption that drives our economy. On the other hand, that irrational consumption is a symptom of a society that is driven by values that are responsible for much harm around the country and the planet. Teaching our kids to expect mass gifts without responsibility even if once a year embeds a meme of wanton consumption that leads to oils for war and global warming.
Okay, perhaps I’m being a little over-dramatic, but the point is, I’ve never been given the gift to fully analyze what I am participating in. And it would be disingenuous to suggest that Jews are free from this cultural meme, as they’ve overcompensated in inflating a small nothing of a holiday into an eight-day orgy of gifts in order to heal their cultural wounds around being a minority in a dominant culture in which they cannot fully participate. I’m also not trying to insinuate that gift-giving is inherently evil or the root of all of our problems — on the contrary, what is life for if not to make our children and loved-ones happy, and one way to do that is to gift them with things. I am trying to say we’re out of control in this impulse and need to severely moderate our impulses. This is why in our family, we have ensured to embed charity into our celebrations, and we choose one night of Hanukkah for the express purpose of Tzedakah, or participating in the just cause of equaling the balance between those who have and those who have not. It’s a slightly different concept from charity, which is about giving from the heart — this is considered obligatory and not something that is dependent on something so capricious as how you feel. However, that is a different blog entry.
The greater point for me is not to deconstruct Christmas as a practice, but just my relationship to it, and whether or not I need it in the same way I’ve participated in it in the past. Really, the only thing for me to do is to break down the pros and cons, and to consider the situation rationally.
To break down Christmas just a little bit more, here are the elements that pertain to me:

  1. The tree
    I have to say, the tree is a very strong symbol for me, and it’s the hardest for me to consider to leave behind. On one hand, they’re kind of a pain in the ass – expensive, unwieldy to handle, they leave sap on the fingers, you have to water the bastards, and eventually they die and you are left with a pile of pine needles to vacuum up, and a tree you have to throw away. On the other hand, nothing speaks stronger to my sense of tradition and my nostalgia of childhood like going and getting the tree – the crispness of the air, the smell of the pine, the sketchy-looking lot workers, and the wrangling of the monstrous tree into the house and into its stand, to be decorated with ornaments and lights that you only see once a year. I think we’ll keep the tree, as it’s mostly ornamental, and certainly not Christian in origin. In fact, I’ve found some evidence that in ancient Judaic practice, there was worship of the wife of god, Asherah, which was symbolized by a pillar or tree. Being in a family that wishes to balance the masculine and feminine, the tree can be our way of bringing a feminine symbology into the house during the season, our ‘Shekinah’. It’s a little unorthodox, but so be it.

  2. The wreath
    The wreath, even more so than the tree, is just a seasonal ornament. I see no reason not to keep the wreath, even if it does make a declaration in its presence. I think we can adjust some of the decorations on the wreath to make it more Hanukkah related.

  3. Stockings
    Stockings, though decorative in nature, are directly related to the Santa myth, and the Santa myth is directly related to the practice of Christmas, so I think this will be an aspect I decide to close down. It’s no great loss, and it rids us of one of the stresses I often would experience in the holiday season anyhow — what to put in the danged stockings.

  4. Lights
    Hanukkah is the festival of lights, so this I think is a no brainer. We can keep the lights.

  5. Santa Claus for the kids
    To tell you the truth, this is one of those myths I’ve always felt a little uneasy about anyhow. The perpetuation of Santa dilutes the message of gifts being given by loved-ones, and creates some strange merit system designed to keep kids in line during the winter season. Eventually the kids find out that Santa isn’t real (sorry for the spoiler) and you’ve taught them instead to be distrustful of the stories adults tell them. We’ve already clued Eli in to the fact that Santa doesn’t exist (he took it in stride), and to tell you the truth, being raised a fundamentalist Christian, my parents clued me in on the Santa thing early on, because Christmas is about Jesus, not about a Jolly gift-giver. Luckily Isaac is too young to get it, so I think we’re safe to throw out the old man.

  6. Participating in a custom that links me with the dominant culture
    It sure is easier to just practice Christmas like everyone else, but what good lessons have ever been learned by following the pack. In making ourselves separate and distinct from the dominant culture, we bring things into relief, and gift our children (as well as ourselves) with a little perspective. Besides (as you will read later), we’ll still be celebrating with my parents and family to pay respect for THEIR holiday, but we just will no longer be observing it in our own house. And to tell you the truth, we’ve downplayed it for years, so this is only a minor adjustment.

  7. Charity, peace on earth, good will towards people, etc. etc. yada yada yada
    We as Jews have our own versions of these ethics, and frankly I like ours better. We engage in them all year round, not just in the winter, and so I feel justified in saying we don’t need to get them from Christmas. We will of course participate in the general feelings of cheer and good will, since it’s always nice to smile and be smiled to. And of course we will contribute to charities – our goal, however, is to do this year-round and not just when the dominant culture tells us it’s time to think of others.

  8. Christmas fiction (Movies, stories, etc.)
    I still plan on watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” every year, and stories are just stories, after all.

  9. Spending Christmas eve with my extended family
    Still plan on having family over for Christmas Eve, just because it’s a good excuse to have them over and share a little love and cheer. We just don’t have to really express it as a Christmas gathering. Not that we do now, anyhow.

  10. Spending Christmas day with my extended family
    As long as my family still celebrates Christmas, I will bring my family to celebrate with them. It’s about family, after all.

  11. Taking my decision seriously about conversion to Judaism
    That’s why I’m laboring over all of this in the first place. I need to be able to tell myself a coherent story about why I do the things that I do. And I also feel that for me, I need to make a ritual shift in some way to acknowledge my decision and my commitment. In declaring myself a Jew, I’m given an opportunity on defining the parameters of that identity, and deciding whether or not to continue to celebrate Christmas is a definitive part of that framing. If I give up Christmas as a ritual practice, I lose part of my childhood tradition, and I set up a potentially uncomfortable situation with my parents, but I gain a certain amount of intentional integrity around my identity as a Jew.

  12. Creating a clear message for my children
    I think that in our intentions to raise our children in a Jewish home, it’s important to make clear what are our holidays, and what are not ours. We do not celebrate the birth of Jesus and more than we celebrate the birth of any other ancient Rabbi, especially not one that has become the god for (in my opinion) misguided followers, hundreds and then finally thousands of years after his death. Some of his teachings are worthy of study and acknowledgment, but I certainly don’t need to practice ritual in his name. What I do in my family affects the identity of my children as well I could decide to continue to practice Christmas in the capacity as we have over the last dozen years, but not only are the justifications no longer the same (before it was because I was from a different tradition, but now I proclaim identity that does not have the tradition of Christmas) and I would be creating a potential cultural confusion for my boys. They would be coming from a Jewish family that for some reason practices Christmas, but with no good justification. I think in a way it’s just easier and simpler for the kids to drop the holiday.

I know that some of my friends think that I’m totally over-thinking this whole thing, and others might not get what the big deal is all about. The only thing I have to say is, dude, I’m a philosopher, what did you expect? For me, this process is illuminating, and leaves me feeling better and stronger as a person, not deprived or limited. I will navigate this process of identity deftly and come out the other side more sure of who I am and desire to be. Wish me luck, and Happy Holidays, whatever they may be for you.

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