Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Oy, Tannenbaum

I've been trying to work on the promised Interfaith Holiday Post for a while, and it's such a big subject I keep getting bogged down.

Essentially, what it comes down to is this: RW, though she has no affinity for any organized religion, feels very strongly about being Danish; her immediate family immigrated when her mom was a teenager, and she still has extended family in the Old Country.

And Danes, at least the ones she knows, are way, way, way into Jul. That's Christmas, to you non-Danes, though RW insists it's a completely different holiday from American Christmas. (She used to claim that as a child she felt just as alienated from American Christmas as I did, but she stopped saying that after a while. Can't imagine why. Maybe it was how my face kept turning puce?)

Here's how Danish Jul is a completely different holiday:
  1. It's the day before American Christmas: December 24, rather than the 25th.
  2. There's no Santa Claus; instead, there are nisse: are little elves who do your housework if you leave rice pudding for them and put straw in your shoes if you don't. (Won't it be great if that one works someday! You know we're right there every year with the rice pudding.)
  3. No stockings, either.
  4. The youngest child hands out the presents in the evening.
  5. There's this ritual with rice pudding (more rice pudding!) at dinner, in which one person has an almond in theirs and gets a special prize. Though I read about a similar Christmas ritual when I was a kid, in a Natalie Savage Carlson story about a French orphanage, so it might not be as purely Danish as RW claims.
  6. You make little woven paper hearts and hang them on the tree and stuff them with candy. There's a jaunty little Danish Christmas Jul song referring to this custom, whose lyrics translate roughly as "First it shall be shown, and then it shall be eaten."
  7. There are candles on the tree instead of electric lights.

RW feels passionately about the deeper spiritual and historical ways in which Jul diverges from Xmas-as-most-of-us-know-it, and wishes me to note that the extent and significance of those divergences remain a source of contention between the two of us. And so it is noted, and indeed it is true.

HOWEVER, the Big Problem for us doesn't lie in the question of whether Jul is essentially Christian or Pagan, but in one troublesome four letter word.

I'm referring to the T-R-E-E.

Now, I actually love Christmas; when I was a kid we celebrated at a family friend's house and did the whole shebang: trees, presents, stockings hung up, special dinner, etc. etc. I also grew up with the notion firmly pounded into me that JEWS DON'T HAVE CHRISTMAS TREES IN THEIR HOUSES. Jewish kids, in particular, don't have Christmas trees in their houses. My family was far from religiously observant, but we never, ever would have even considered it. A Christmas tree was to us the big symbol that you'd gone over to the other side, assimilated completely, given up your Jewish Identity Card.

When RW was pregnant and we agreed to raise the baby Jewish, the C-word (or J-word, if you prefer) inevitably came up. I was okay with the nisse. I had no problem with the presents from various relatives (hey, presents, who could object to presents?). I could even live with the advent calendar that RW's mom sends every year (she's even more virulently anti-organized-religion than RW, so it's guaranteed no manger scenes).

If we could just do a standing Christmas in Wyoming with the in-laws, I'd have been totally happy to admire the tree with its candles and woven paper hearts and homemade ornaments going back to RW's childhood.

But we can't, for various complex reasons having to do with airfares and driving across mountain passes, not to mention our plethora of other relatives. Besides, RW took a dim view of being categorically forbidden this important symbol of Danish identity in her very own home.

So: the Tree.

It was a sticking point, if not a deal-breaker, for most of the rabbis we spoke with about sponsoring an infant conversion, which I felt was necessary so that other people besides us and our nonreligious friends would recognize our child as part of the Jewish community. I felt like I had to bring up the Tree Question, because what's the point of fudging your way through a discussion about religion? One said, Absolutely Not; two looked very uncomfortable and said, Try to Play it Down.

The fourth one was the rabbi at one of the big congregations around here. I knew of him and was kind of intimidated, but everyone else I talked with kept telling me to talk to him, so eventually we made an appointment--for RW's due date, no less--and went.

He was great, after he got over the misapprehension that it was RW who wanted to convert (his eyes kind of bugged out when he saw how pregnant she was). We talked for about an hour, with both of us waxing eloquent about my commitment to Judaism, RW's support for the tradition and culture even though she didn't want to officially join it, the lengthy and thoughtful process that had brought us to this decision, etc. Very high-minded and spiritual. He said we'd have to join a synagogue--not necessarily his--and promise that the child would have a Jewish education. No problem; we'd been planning to do those things anyway. He went over a few logistics, told us to phone to follow up a few months after the baby was born, wished us well, and we stood up to leave.

I turned around in the doorway; as I remember it, I had one hand on the doorknob. "There's just one more thing..." I said, and continued in a semi-coherent rush, talking as fast as possible about trees and Denmark and candles not electric lights and RW's mom's anti-Christianity and also incidentally her grandparents' heroic rescue of Jews in the Danish Resistance.

When I stopped--I think I'd run out of breath--he said, very calmly, the following astonishing (to me) thing: "Well, of course it's not ideal, but not celebrating Christmas is not the most important thing about being Jewish."

I resumed breathing. He expounded a bit on the importance of a rich Jewish experience all year round, and I think also about placing That Holiday in a culturally Danish context. I don't know exactly what he said, it's hard to remember, I was just so relieved. I gabbled profuse thanks and more promises, and we fled before he changed his mind.

So, the years when we're here over the December holidays, we have a tree. A small one. RW digs through her box of homemade ornaments and weaves a few fresh paper hearts. We light the candles and turn out the lights and admire the soft glow (and keep a bucket of water and a fire extinguisher nearby). Mermaid Girl and RW open up the little windows on the Advent calendar each morning. And we excitedly await the Nisse's repayment for the rice pudding we'll be leaving them. This year RW took the Girl to the Jul Celebration at the Scandanavian Cultural Center in Ballard, and she came home with a little paper Santa Lucia crown of her very own.

And we celebrate every Jewish holiday we can dredge up, and have long bedtime discussions about God (who I'm not even sure I believe in), and sing Mermaid Girl the Shema every night. Her Israeli grandma sends her books in Hebrew. We light candles and bless wine and challah on Fridays and even go to services on the occasional Saturday morning. And starting this year, she goes to Hebrew school, and comes home on Sunday afternoons bearing hand-decorated challah covers and Havdalah spice boxes, and singing cheerfully mangled versions of the songs I remember from my own childhood.

I dearly hope that Mermaid Girl grows up to consider herself Jewish, or at least with fond memories of her Jewish upbringing. But if she doesn't, I don't think one tree, once a year, will be the reason. Unless I make it the reason, and I continue to struggle not to.

And that's how we handle the December holidays: imperfectly, with a lot of negotiation and some fairly repetitive arguing. And presents from enthusiastic and loving relatives. And, last Sunday, a marathon shuttle across town from the synagogue to the Scandanavian Center to an evening performance of the Nutcracker. And, next Sunday, our quasi-annual Holiday Party with latkes, dreidels, gelt, menorah-lighting, tree-lighting and paper-heart-weaving.

And the baggage of two tradition-laden heritages.

And many candles to light the darkness.


Blogger Robyn said...

thanks elswhere for writing this post. it's really great for me to read how other "mixed faith" families approach this time of year. i, too, was raised by not very religious parents...for whom a christmas tree was something we "just didn't do". but as soon as my dad was the first thing my mom did (don't get me started..she's insane!)...she went out and got a very small (1 foot tall) tree. she'd felt deprived.

in our partner (for reasons that i still don't understand) is anti-holiday. but is willing to do the jewish ones. job is to educate both her and Harris on what it's all about.

oh...and we did have another round of "happy birthday to chanukah" again last night. 2 year old minds are amazing!

6:49 AM  
Blogger Robin said...

We have a mixed family too. Since Pearl is still a baby, we are in the process of thinking through some of the questions you are writing about today. This was interesting and helpful.

Our plan, similar to yours, is to integrate rituals and stories from both of our families. So we are lighting menorahs and hanging stockings, spinning dreidels and singing carols. (We are skipping the tree this year because Pearl would try to pull up on it and that would be a disaster!) It will be interesting to see how it actually works out.

8:55 AM  
Blogger Anna said...

What an excellent, eloquent post! Very interesting to me because although my husband and I were raised Christian, we've both rejected it and I don't even believe in a God. Yet we both celebrate Christmas, which to me seems the height of hypocrisy; I try to tell myself that it's just about giving and thanks and warmth and such, but in that case I could be celebrating any faith's ritual. It doesn't have to be Christmas, which does have so many connotations I hate. I still struggle with what we're going to tell our boy about this whole thing when he's old enough to ask questions. Very thought-provoking, els.

(and I think I'll try the rice pudding thing myself. I need all the help I can get.)

10:34 AM  
Blogger WordsRock said...

Els, lovely post. That Mermaid is a lucky young lady indeed.

5:54 AM  
Blogger weese said...

Holidays are such thought provoking times. I am not a religious person and yet question why Christmas is not more about faith. The glitz of this Christian holiday is draining.
That said... we do so love a live tree in our house.
It fills our home with that earthy outdoor smell - and serves as a daily reminder to how blessed our family is.
(now if we could just have the tree...and do away with all the presents nonsense...)

9:49 AM  
Blogger LilySea said...

This post should win some kind of genius award for the title alone. Brilliant. You are destined to have a complex-thinker for a daughter. Some people might disagree, but I think that's a good thing.

12:07 PM  
Blogger Jo said...

I just think it's so wonderful the love and thoughtfulness with which Mermaid is surrounded. I got all sentimental and squishy while reading about your family's approach to tradition and symbols. Seems to me that you're absolutely right, that what matters is what your family decides matters. Hug.

10:12 AM  

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