Cut pine trees line Columbus Avenue. The scent of the woods wafts over the exhaust fumes and the remains from restaurants, markets and garbage cans. As I walk my son to school, we stop to inhale the magic of soon-to-be Christmas trees. Nature has parked itself on small sections of our city's corner. Soon, the trees will be gone, my son observes, sold to homes where they will decorate living rooms and be adorned with bows, ornaments, trinkets and gifts. His living room will be empty of such wonder.
It's the perpetual plight of the Jewish American parent. How to handle the sparkle and glory of Christmas? A recently published book, A Kosher Christmas, like countless previous books, columns and discussions dedicated to this topic, addresses this dilemma. I have been working on my own way to respond to it.
When my son was younger, he voiced the wish to be Christian with the sincerity that only a child can express. We were headed to the Tenement Museum of New York to an exhibit that reenacts the conditions of the lives of the Confino family, Jewish immigrants to the Lower East Side of New York in 1916.
"I forgot," my son mused earnestly. "Are we Christian or Jewish?"
Despite three years at a Jewish Community Center nursery school where they held weekly Shabbat rituals, clearly, the question was unresolved. We reminded him that we were still, in fact, fully Jewish. He sighed deeply, resigned to his sorry plight as an outsider to the fun.
It's not the presents. My kids get plenty of gifts during the eight nights of Hanukkah. They even receive Christmas presents under our thoughtful neighbors' tree. They watch the television classics: Rudolph, Frosty, Santa Claus and the Phineas and Ferb Christmas special. We give envelopes of thanks to the mail carrier and building super, wrap holiday gifts for teachers and bake gingerbread houses. We attend the Nutcracker ballet and cherish the return of candy cane Oreos. What is it, then, that they feel they are missing? (If you are tempted to comment that we are missing the religion itself then I fear you will miss the meaning of these musings.)
It seems to come down to the greenery. Nothing quite compares to the tree in the living room covered in ornaments and lights, promising bounty. That scent of pine is intoxicating. Those wonderful ornaments, some perhaps bought overseas on vacations, some hand-painted by ever-growing children, and all stored away in boxes to be unpacked and cherished each December as time moves forward, tantalize me with an exclusive mix as of nostalgia and creative opportunity. Okay, I admit it -- my son is not the only one enticed. I am writing about myself, too. An herbed wreath of rosemary and thyme from the farmer's market hangs on my kitchen wall. I feel a twinge of guilty pleasure when I pluck a stem to season our roast chicken.
But, the tree. The tree is where my husband puts his foot down. Truthfully, I guess it's where I put my foot down too, although I like to blame it on him and to entertain the idea of having one -- just once -- with my kids. Why not indulge for just one year and grant them the joy of waking up to presents under a magnificent spruce lined with tiny white lights and popcorn? In fact, many Jewish families embrace the tree as a cultural symbol of giving, joy and "the season." While there are religious and historical reasons for why the tree marks a firm divide, even Jews unable to express those reasons may fall firmly on one side or the other about the tree. Yet for others of us, when our children express the wish for just this once, our buried desires are reawakened.
The refrain of "just this once" and the debate about the tree had already begun in our home when Hurricane Sandy hit.
For weeks, people were deprived of light. Their electric lives went dark. Computers and phones, refrigerators and televisions, all went out. Sandy forced a return to candles and flashlights. Many felt the value of light by facing its sudden absence.
For me, the lack of light brought a new appreciation of Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday that we often use as a substitute for Christmas. Although not a major Jewish holiday, Hanukkah has gained prominence for those of us who feel outside of mainstream American culture wish to find our own way into the celebration of joy and giving. In fact, for some of our young Christian friends on the Upper West Side of New York that teems with Jews, Hanukkah creates its own forms of envy with multiple nights of gift-giving and permission to light matches. We desire what we cannot possess. When we didn't have light, we became aware of our desire for it. Hanukkah celebrates the fulfillment of a wish through a miracle. When light is lost we can really lose our way.
During Hanukkah, we light candles to remember how in 168-7 BC, Greeks and Syrians fought the Jews and seized the Temple in Jerusalem. They dedicated the Temple to Zeus and forbade the Jews to worship their own God. The Maccabees, a rebel group of Jews who refused to assimilate, retreated to the mountains and prepared to fight. When the Maccabees returned to the city, they reclaimed the Temple but wanted to purify it by burning oil in a menorah for eight days. However, only one day's supply of oil remained. Miraculously, as the story goes, the small supply of oil lasted for the full eight days. Hanukkah celebrates the Jewish victory, the refusal to acquiesce to a more powerful religion and the perseverance of light.
While there are distinct differences from Christmas, which celebrates the birth of the Christian messiah, there are also similarities in the holidays of the season. Some, of course, are due to the links between the Old and New Testament and the shared history of the religions, but other traditions also recognize the power of light as the winter solstice approaches with shortest days and the longest nights. By no means do I wish to diminish the individuality of separate traditions and religions, but I do want to observe how we all come together in an appreciation of light.
Whether literally deprived of electricity and heat or emotionally depressed and feeling in the dark at this time of year, we yearn for light. We give gifts during this season to encourage the best of the human spirit -- our compassion for others. Hopefully, that compassion involves tolerance and allowing each other to celebrate as we choose, with or without a tree or a messiah or even any God. My beloved yoga teacher encourages her students to consider our practice not as a workout, but a work "in" and closes our class with a refrain that we pay tribute to "the light, the love, the God within."
As I thought about light in yoga class recently, I had a vision of our fireplace. The chimney, long closed, no longer works, but it once provided a space for heat and light. It now serves as a decorative centerpiece to our living room. It could solve our Christmas tree dilemma.
Glass icicle-shaped ornaments and silver stars now hang from our fireplace mantle. Sparkly blue tape is wrapped around its white columns. A giant silver bow is affixed to the hearth. Hand-crafted cards saying "Happy Hanukkah," "Season's Greetings," "Happy Winter" and "Peace, Joy, Love," line the mantle shelf. In the midst of the cards sits a silver Hanukkiah that awaits its first candles next week, candles whose flames will refract all colors -- including red and green -- in their light. It's an American compromise: my home still has no glorious greenery but we have decorated our own place of light.