Every year around Hanukkah time, many Jews in Western countries are faced with the question: to tree or not to tree? To me, the assertion of what many call the “December Dilemma” is somewhat derisive and quite provocative of a term. Having a Christmas tree is a choice Jewish people make for a multiplicity of reasons that, by and large, have nothing to do with their faith or commitment to Judaism. Yet deciding whether to erect a holiday tree in one’s home remains a difficult question that many Jews will grapple with this winter.
Like many Jewish families, I did not have a Christmas tree growing up. It wasn’t until college, when living with three non-Jewish roommates, that I first experienced the excitement of a beautifully lit tree, which eventually I allowed myself to enjoy. Even though it transformed our house, brightened the holiday season and brought untold joy to my roommates, I never felt completely free from the stigma of being a Jew with a Christmas tree. After graduation, I left this tradition behind.
Years later when my husband, a Jew by choice, wanted a tree in our new home, I uttered an unequivocal, “no, we’re Jewish.” We ultimately compromised and decided we would have a tree in our vacation home, 1,200 miles away, justified by the fact that we host non-Jewish family there during the holidays. My husband never really understood why we could have a tree in that house but not the other one; but he knew better than to press the emotionally charged issue. After the children came along, it was very clear to the both of us that neither of our children, who attended Jewish Day School in our large Los Angeles Jewish Community, would be confused by the presence of a tree. However, for this Jewish educator and role model, the answer was still a firm no.
The fact is that we live in a nation where many people will adorn their homes with trees this December. It’s arguable that the Christmas tree is as much of a cultural phenomenon as it is an expression of religion. And yet, from a Jewish perspective, there are many religious reasons why having a tree shouldn’t present a threat.
Few Jews follow every letter of Jewish law, choosing to perform those mitzvot, or commandments, which best fit their lifestyle. For many, it is easier to justify eating forbidden (non-kosher) foods, engage in public shaming, hold a grudge or gossip than it is to decorate a fir tree for which there is no Toraitic prohibition.
For all our inconsistencies, honoring trees is ubiquitous to Judaism, and Jews have celebrated trees since ancient times. We learn from the book of Leviticus, when entering the land [of Israel] we are to regard the fruit of newly planted trees as forbidden for the first three years; the law is pragmatic in addition to symbolic, allowing for the tree to reach its full reproductive potential before being harvested. Deuteronomy forbids the destruction of the enemy’s trees during wartime. Additionally, Jews around the world celebrate the beautiful annual festival of Tu BiShvat, the “New Year for Trees.” Judaism’s respect for trees has had a tremendous influence on the Jewish people, with international Jewish organizations like the Jewish National Fund planting thousands of trees in Israel every year.
If we were to make an argument for Jews not having a decorative tree in the home, we could cite a verse from Deuteronomy that warns of planting trees as “sacred poles,” lest people revert to their pagan ways of worshipping them instead of God. In this case, however, the fear of the fir is not related to paganism, but the idea it somehow dishonors Judaism or offends our Christian neighbors.
I would argue that the cultural significance of trees over time has way surpassed their religious significance in modern society. The “Christmas” tree wasn’t associated with the holiday until Martin Luther decorated an evergreen with candles. And what began as a paganistic decoration to ward off evil and brighten the home during winter was cemented as a symbol of Christmas when Queen Victoria and her family were shown in an engraving gathering around one in 1848.
As Christmas itself embeds deeply into the American cultural zeitgeist, the social underpinnings of the Christmas tree shine brighter than ever. Like other hallmarks of the season — from Santa Claus to gift-giving — the fir tree has evolved into a shared national symbol for Christians and non-Christians alike. Like mulled wine, eggnog or a shared family meal at the local Chinese restaurant, the spirit of the season transcends its religious roots, bringing the Christmas tree right along with it.
We live in a country that adopts traditions from other cultures and celebrates them. Jewish cultural touchstones like bagels, matzah ball soup and brisket are common fare on the American menu, and today more than ever, Passover Seders are celebrated in church communities across the country. In Israel, many new citizens celebrate “Novy God,” a Russian new-year celebration with deep Christian Orthodox roots. But within the Jewish State, it has taken on a new and significant meaning: Novy is viewed as a cultural celebration of the roots of the million or so immigrants who call Israel home and decorate the spruce as part of their heritage.
To tree or not to tree should be a choice like every other informed choice Jewish people make every day. And if we want to be kindhearted, accepting, and respectful of the educated decisions people freely make, we won’t judge those who choose to tree.
I vote against the term “December Dilemma”; choosing to tree does not negate one’s commitment to Judaism, nor does it undermine Jewish values. It’s simply a matter of personal preference.
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