Slate has challenged us to debate a truly crucial matter this holiday season, one of weighty philosophical significance—whether it’s OK for Jews to have Christmas trees. We’ve never met, but I understand that you are a fellow member of the tribe, a Hebrew sister, and thus I feel a personal mission to save you from the blandishments of mainstream Christian material culture (a culture I happen to adore, but for other people). Also, I am hoping you can ask your mom if she has a good kugel recipe.
To start out, we should agree that the argument over Christmas trees is not a theological one, for Christians or for Jews. Christianity does not require pre-Christmas tree decoration, a tradition with obscure origins but definitely with no connection to Jesus. Meanwhile, lots of Jews feel icky about Christmas trees, but only the very religious make a theological case against them. They would cite the principle of marit ayin, “in sight of the eye,” according to which some things that are technically kosher should still be avoided, so as not to mislead people. (Entering a church, for example, could give the wrong idea. Some rabbis say eating “fake crab” in sushi rolls is impermissible, because it could cause an ignorant observer to think eating crab is OK.) But most Jews don’t know from marit ayin.
So our discussion is not about religion, exactly. And indeed I have other reasons for barring Christmas trees from passing o’er the threshold of Oppenheimer Manor. To begin, one of the great things about America is difference, and we Jews are part of that difference. I would even say that we, like other tiny minority groups, have a calling to be different.
This is not immediately apparent to children, who are rightly charmed by all that is amazing about mainstream Christmas culture: carols, baroque and classical music, Miracle on 34th Street, Rudolph, mufflers and sweaters and rosy-cheeked ice-skating wintertime shiksas like Thereal McCoy in Portnoy’s Complaint. Menorahs are OK, but it is hard to deny the power of the full, multifaceted Christmas-season experience.
Yet how much blander America would be if the broad, largely secular, and increasingly materialistic Christmas season were everyone’s tradition. If Muslims, Jews, the Amish, the Hindus, and all the rest of us sideshow communities just went all Christmas-tree, Americans would be so much more homogeneous—like Sweden, but with less paternity leave.
Accepting and embracing Jews’ difference is good not just for America, but also for us. For most Jews, I believe, happiness resides partly in accepting that one is Jewish, often identifiably so: in having a Jewish name, or a Jewish nose, or a Jewish accent, or merely a Jewish past. It’s no fun running from who we are; it’s no fun passing, even when we can.
I’m not saying that a Christmas tree always represents some effort at assimilation. I am saying that the sooner a Jew learns to think it’s terrific that she has her own traditions—even if they are flawed traditions, or aesthetically inferior, or hard to explain, or meaningless, or, like “the Hanukkah Bush,” just a weird urban legend—the sooner she can shed the big roller-suitcase of baggage that a lot of Jews carry. That’s possible to do with a Christmas tree in the house, but it’s surely harder.
Let me put it this way: There’s something beautiful about a Jewish kid who can’t wait to tell schoolmates about her own tradition. That kid may grow up to be enthusiastic about her difference and to feel more American for it. And to be perfectly untroubled that there was no Christmas tree in any household where she ever dwelled.