Family life

Why Christmas trees make me uneasy

Susan Goldberg considers giving in to her partner’s desire for a Christmas tree — and wonders how it'll impact her interfaith family.

1ChristmasTree-November2013-iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

Thunder Bay, Ont. writer Susan Goldberg is a transplanted Torontonian and one of two mothers to two boys. Follow along as she shares her family’s experiences.

“I have a question for you,” Rachel said to me the other day, in a tone that had “Brace yourself” as its subtext: “What do you think of us having a Christmas tree this year?”

Yes, it’s the first week of October, so of course it’s time to talk Christmas. And Hanukkah. Because when you live in a house where both holidays are religious/cultural/family traditions, these things tend to come up.

Here’s the short version: I’m Jewish. Rachel was raised Catholic. When we had kids, we agreed to raise them mostly Jewish, but with an understanding that they would celebrate the various traditions of our extended family. (Which, by the way, include those of the kids’ Christmas-celebrating donor/dad.)

Over the years, we’ve celebrated Christmas in a variety of ways, from understated to full-on: we’ve done the bells-and-whistles, stockings and piles of presents under the tree version at Rachel’s sister’s home. We’ve had more understated Christmas dinners here, with turkey and stuffing and a few presents. We’ve flown on Christmas Day, neatly avoiding the holiday altogether. We’ve had Christmas dinner at friends’ houses. In Toronto last year, we did “Jewish Christmas”: a matinee and Chinese food. It was awesome.

This year, though, Rachel is really itching for a full-on traditional Christmas celebration. And she wants it at our house. She wants the carols, and the stockings, and the turkey dinner, and the chaotic glee of present opening, and the mulled cider and wine, and the huge Toblerone chocolate bar — and the decorations.

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And I’m there. I really am. I think I can do it all, and I think I can even enjoy it all (I mean, Toblerone), and I really want to enjoy her and the kids (and me) enjoying it all — but I can’t quite bring myself to embrace the idea of the Christmas tree in my house.

It just seems like the point of no return, the symbol of my own — my little hybrid family’s — complete assimilation to the larger culture that surrounds us and that could so easily swallow us up. As a two-mom, mostly Jewish family in Thunder Bay, we already stick out just a little bit, and I don’t mind that. I want to celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas with my spouse and our kids, but I want to retain our own particular flavour to those celebrations. And for me, the tree gets in the way.

“Would you settle for those coloured balls hanging from the tree outside?” I asked. “You know, maybe silver and blue as well as red and green — like us?”

She nodded, half smiling. We talked about some holly boughs on the mantelpiece, multicoloured (rainbow? hey…) ribbons winding up the stairs. We talked about how to divide up gift-giving between Hanukkah and Christmas, what we’d both like, what we both need, to feel comfortable. It’s an ongoing discussion, but we are feeling out a way to celebrate both of our family traditions in one family.

And maybe one day, there will be a tree, although right now I doubt it. (A friend of mine, also in an interfaith relationship, finally gave in to her partner’s tree desire a couple of years ago. “And you know what?” she said to me: “It didn’t hurt anybody.”)

I’m not there yet, but that’s OK, because there’s plenty to think about right now. Like the fact that Rachel is still waiting for my answer on the question of the wreath on the door.

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