Holiday Dread: Christmas Trees

Some evergreens I have not loved.

I was raised in a household of Conservative Judaism. This meant that we were the middle level of Jewish. We weren’t irresponsible bacon-eaters like the Reform Jews. We weren’t actually beholden to God on practical matters, like eating or going to the bathroom. We just had to act like it sometimes.

Although I found out later that Christmas trees were pagan artifacts, and cool, I was at first made aware of their presence in our lives only as institutionalized insults. Christmas trees — unavoidable, invasive, and fetishized at what seemed a perverse intensity—reminded me that being Jewish was not as universal as it almost always felt, in aberrant 46% Jewish Livingston, New Jersey. My parents agreed with and encouraged my anti-assimilationist concerns. Kid-lit from the Temple Beth Shalom book fair seemed not totally coherent on the subject.

On one hand, you had The Devil’s Arithmetic, a horrible nightmare story about a reckless Jewish teen whose punishment for ALMOST skipping Passover (because Easter is more fun and you get candy) was getting transported back in time to the Holocaust. That book hoped you would be a good kid and help preserve your culture, or else. Then there was There’s No Such Thing as a Chanukah Bush, Sandy Goldstein. This was a book I didn’t like because it suggested that there was such thing as a Chanukah Bush (condescending), and worse, that I might like to have one.

Here are five tree memories. Happy almost-solstice.

Complaining about the Christmas tree at the public library.

The library was a safe space. I felt unsurprised but still disappointed that they were cooperating with the status quo so shamelessly. This one is a little dim, but I think I was both embarrassed and gratified that my mom led this small act of civil disobedience. It was just like, damn right, we’re not gonna take this.

complaining at the library

Christmas tree and Golden Retriever at home of friend.

This combination was disconcerting. I also found it weird how you could just eat a ton of candy and no one cared. It felt familiar, like a trap (see: Hansel and Gretel, Edmund’s Turkish Delight binge via the White Witch.)

Golden Retriever and tree nativity

A Christmas tree in the bathroom.

My best friend, a year or so after we had graduated from college, was living in a big house with her non Jewish boyfriend. We talked about whether it was acceptable to let your partner have a Christmas tree. She was like, “He can have a little one in the bathroom.”

Sad Nick with bathroom tree

Sandy Goldstein

That sycophant!

Sandy Goldstein covets a bush

The Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.

Incongruously, this tree was given a pass by my parents as being okay and cool. I’m not sure why. Maybe because its status as a New York City landmark conferred some Jewish cultural capital onto it? The Rockefeller Center tree was less neutral than Charlie Brown Christmas, but more neutral than the character of Santa Claus doing anything.

Holiday Dread is The Awl’s series dedicated to the season of joy and other emotions. Previously:

Holiday Dread: Being A One-Plater