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The Return of the Christmas Tree: How Becoming Jewish Revived a Family Tradition

12/21/2013 09:48 am ET | Updated Feb 19, 2014

This year will be my thirty-third Christmas, but my first since becoming Jewish. I must confess, I have a little bit of Christmas tree envy. Walking through the evergreen corridors of the sidewalk vendors and inhaling that wonderful piney scent, I fantasize about bringing home the tallest, fattest tree I can find. The trees lit-up along Park Avenue make me think how lovely it would be to have a tree all tarted-up with lights in my living room.

And then I think, where was all this Christmas tree lust when I was, at least technically, Christian? Back then I never seriously considered getting a tree of my own. I didn't see how I could schlep it to my apartment. I didn't want to worry every time I left the house that I'd forgotten to unplug the lights and burned my belongings to a crisp. I wasn't sure my ancient dust-buster could handle the inevitable pine-needle bonanza on my carpet. Christmas trees were too high maintenance.

Growing up, every year my parents and I got a tree from the greenmarket in Union Square. And every year, my father complained that the tree was way too big. My mother hosted tree-trimming parties for me and my friends where we'd listen to Bing Crosby sing Christmas carols, ice sugar cookies and string ornaments on the tree. Almost all of my family's ornaments were in the shape of fruits -- pears, apples, oranges, grapefruits, lemons, you name it. Our tree had no Santas, reindeer or tinsel. And because we weren't religious, there were no baby Jesus, manger or Virgin Mary ornaments, either. The McMullan tree was less "Christ is born," and more "we love citrus."

As I got older, our tree got smaller and smaller until it was just a little bush with a few lights. It had been a decade since we'd had a proper tree when I called up my mother last year and told her I was bringing my boyfriend home for Christmas.

"Great, we'll do a tree!" was her response. I reminded my mother that my boyfriend was Jewish. "Even more reason," my mother said. "We have to have a tree for Adam's first Christmas."

When Adam and I arrived at my parents' house last Dec. 24th, there was a pinecone-studded wreath on the front door, the living room had been festooned with Balsam garlands, and in the corner by the dining table there was a beautifully lush, six-foot high Christmas tree.

"And for Adam's first Christmas, I got him his own stocking," my mother told us before we had our coats off. She proudly pointed to the wall where now four stockings, instead of three, had been hung. "It's free-trade and was made by a Guatemalan woman from the hair of sustainably raised yaks," she explained.

For Christmas Eve lunch, my mother, an organic vegetarian turned ambassador of Christmas, prepared a traditional, glazed ham. "You have to come every year, Adam," said my father, the carnivore, appreciatively taking a bite of ham.

After our hearty lunch, the four of us trimmed the tree. "The tree is a pagan ritual, Adam," my mother mentioned several times as we hung our pears and grapefruits. When we were done, my father said to me, "Your mother picked this tree out. It's way too big."

Since last Christmas, Adam and I have gotten married and I've become Jewish. Perhaps it was getting a taste of a tree last year or it's that there's now something a bit taboo about these evergreens, but Christmas trees now seem impossibly romantic.

I know some people might say that once you become Jewish, ix-nay on the ee-tray. But that kind of talk will only make me more desirous, like the times I try to stop eating bread and all I want to do is hightail it to Balthazar and have my way with a basket of croissants. And, anyway, my friends tell me that being a little into Christmas trees is a totally normal part of being Jewish.

Last week, as we walked down Columbus Avenue, I confessed my Christmas tree crush to my husband. "They just smell so good," I told him.

"You know," Adam said, as we approached one of the vendors, "If it's important to you, we could get a tree."

"Really?" I asked, surveying all the verdant specimens, the fulsome wreaths, and the boughs of evergreen. The moment I had been waiting for had finally arrived. The tree I had longed for was within my sights. The forbidden fruit could at last be tasted. I walked over to a particularly full tree, ran my hand through its fresh bristles and breathed in.

Then I heard myself say, "No, I'm good." I took my husband's arm and started walking. Getting that thing in our elevator would be murder. And where would it even go in the apartment? Who was I kidding about decorating? I didn't even own a single ornament. My Christmas tree was the kind best left to the imagination.

Besides, I knew I'd be getting my fix soon enough when we visited my parents. My mother had texted me the day before that she and my father had gotten their Christmas tree, or what our family now refers to as, "Adam's tree." Without him we'd still have that sad, little bush.