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Four Jews and a Christmas Tree

Life’s curveballs have a way of taking you in unexpected directions


I grew up in a Jewish household where Christmas dawned each year with only one thought in mind: “Woo-hoo, the ski slopes will be empty today!”

As my mother made clear, the trees, the ornaments, the music — that wasn’t for us. That was for the family one street over, who (charitably) let my three siblings and me come over each year to help decorate their tree.

If our line of menorahs seemed less festive, well, we knew where Mom stood on the idea of a “Hanukkah bush.”

Observing the Christmas Holiday

Then came love. Then came marriage. Then came the Christmas trees Mom had disparaged. For all four of us. Thankfully, our respective spouses (a Presbyterian, two Episcopalians and a Mennonite) each had a tradition of celebrating the Christmas holiday at their own parents’ homes.

This made it easier on my sibs and me. We could go along for the ride, enjoy the mounds of food and presents, yet not feel like we were actually participating in this Christmas thing. We were just passive observers.

Well, most of the time.

This was no cute pet tree. This was a big, honking Christmas tree. Oh, God, I thought, as I surveyed its majesty. Please don’t let my mother find out.

One year, my husband and I couldn’t get away from work to spend Christmas with his parents in Wisconsin. I could tell that this was bumming Joe out, so when he said he’d like to get a tree, I gulped and agreed. Thankfully, our New York apartment was so small that we had to make do with a tree that barely reached my thigh. Perched on a side table, it seemed more like a pet tree than a Christmas tree. Still, I felt relief when the time came to dump the withering remains on the sidewalk.

As the years rolled by, my sibs and I grew bolder. After years of barely admitting to each other that we celebrated, you know, um, Christmas, we developed a tradition of calling each other on Christmas morning from our various in-laws’ homes. “Merry Christmas,” we would say, our tones a tad sardonic, our voices pitched low, as if afraid Mom might overhear.

A Christmas Program

Then came the baby carriages. Gently, our kids’ excitement nudged each of us toward greater participation in the hoopla. This might not be our holiday, but it was our children’s holiday. We got with the program.

Then the program developed some bugs.

First, my younger brother’s marriage came apart. The first year Jonathan was separated from his soon-to-be ex, she got their three kids for Christmas. Of course she did. This was her holiday, not his. But as the day approached, that wasn’t how it felt to Jonathan. He was miserable.

Joe and I couldn’t have our usual Christmas that year either. His family’s gathering spot had long since shifted to my sister-in-law’s home in California, the only place Santa had ever visited our daughter, Becky. But Joe was now undergoing treatment for leukemia. His doctors didn’t want him to risk air flight germs.

What choice did we have? We decided to celebrate Christmas at home, which by now was a house in New Jersey — a house with ample room for a tree. Still, I made clear to Joe that he was in charge of tree selection, tree decoration and tree maintenance.

I thought I was fine with it until we hauled a fir into our living room. This was no cute pet tree. This was a big, honking Christmas tree. Oh, God, I thought, as I surveyed its majesty. Please don’t let my mother find out.

Next stop: Target (and yes, that’s pronounced tar-ZHAY).

Joe, Becky and I rolled our cart through the aisles, plucking lights, ornaments and Christmas stockings (including one for our dog) from the shelves. When we got home, Joe put on some holiday music. As he and Becky went to town decorating the tree, my resistance melted.

Tradition With a Twist

Though Jewish I might be, I was not about to let leukemia rob our child of the joyous holiday she’d come to expect.

In a family pow-wow, we decided where to hang the stockings. (The mantle, of course.) We agreed to hold to my in-laws’ Christmas morning schedule of presents, then breakfast. Proclaiming that we were entitled to create our own traditions, we chucked my in-laws’ unalterable menu of blueberry pancakes and bacon in favor of frittata and bagels. And we selected an annual Christmas film: Love, Actually.

I invited my Christmas-orphan brother to join us, then got him a stocking and an assortment of presents. Come Christmas morning, Jonathan was so palpably grateful to have a place to be that it expunged any lingering guilt I felt about hosting Christmas. This holiday was about being with the people we love. Period.

The following Christmas, Joe was seemingly so robust that, with his doctors’ blessing, we flew to California to celebrate with his family. It would be the last such celebration. Six months later, Joe was gone.

Forever.

Restringing the Lights

Sorrow stiffened my resolve as the next holiday season approached. It was bad enough that Becky, now a teenager, had lost her father. I was damned if she was going to lose Christmas, too. Her sympathetic godfathers took us shopping for a tree, wrestled it through our front door — and (oh, no!) exited.

Now what?

I’d never been in charge of tree decoration duties. So I poured a glass of wine and put on holiday tunes and then, ineptly, Becky and I strung— then restrung — the lights. We dotted the branches with our Target baubles. Then we hung our stockings on the mantle. (Our dog’s, too.)

Come Christmas Day, Jonathan was on hand, his presence easing the ache of Joe’s absence. We opened gifts. We ate frittata and bagels. We watched Love, Actually.

Eight Christmases later, Becky and I have our routine down pat.

We will shop for a tree close to Christmas Day because we like to “rescue” a lonely fir from the horrible prospect of not finding a home. We will put on holiday music. After pouring some wine, we will drape the lights all wrong, unstring them and then persevere until we get it just right. We will hang the ornaments and (if the law of averages prevails) break only one in the process. Then we will kill the overhead lights, lace our arms around each other’s waist and proudly survey our handiwork.

That will be the opening ritual of a holiday celebration that now includes two other people: Jonathan’s second wife and my second husband. Both of our spouses are Jewish. Both grew up in households that shunned Hanukkah bushes.

Jonathan and I are unapologetic. Yes, you have to bring gifts for everyone. Yes, you have to watch Love, Actually — again. And yes, you have to ooh and ahh at the big, honking tree. Hey, with each passing year, it gets easier.

Thus, when Dec. 25 dawns in my home this year, tradition promises that Becky will be greeted by this: four Jews and a Christmas tree. It’s not a tradition that I ever imagined, let alone sought. It just is what it is. And it’s lovely.

                                                                                                      

Jill Smolowe
By Jill Smolowe
Jill Smolowe is the author of Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief. To learn more about her book and her grief and divorce coaching, visit www.jillsmolowe.com.

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