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Dear God: Can I Please Have a Christmas Tree?

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My kid was caught in the middle of the Chrismukkah debate. Only, the debate was within himself.

boy dreaming of christmas tree

Dr. Michelle Golland: We were driving down the road in my black minivan. My son, Asher, was quietly sitting, staring out the window. Through my rearview mirror, I saw him shut his eyes and say it! It was said in the most innocent way that only a child could say it, but they were simply not the words I wanted to hear.

He said, "Dear God: Can I please have a Christmas tree?" Oh, an arrow through my heart. He might as well have folded his cute little hands into the prayer pose as he said it!

Believe me, his life began Jewishly, the bris with the whole family (okay, this doesn't include mine, which is not Jewish, but my dad happily wore a kippah and my nieces held the challah as we recited the chamotzi). So what went so terribly wrong? My son (see, I even named him a Hebrew name) is now 5 years old. This is the 4th official "December Dilemma" in our Jewish house.

We have recently been having talks about why we don't celebrate Christmas in our home. The standard rundown goes like this: We are Jewish, Jews don't have Christmas trees. Well, we all know that one of those statements isn't necessarily true. Okay, we changed it to: "We don't have a tree because we are so lucky to have Hanukkah." Hey, we get to light the menorah and open gifts for eight nights, not just one. With young kids, go straight to the gifts -- that seems to keep them off the subject, at least for a while, anyway.

I also told him that Hanukkah is about religious freedom. I explained how the Maccabees fought for all of us to continue to be Jewish, and we honor them by lighting the menorah and not having a Christmas tree in our house. I explained the miracle of the oil.

Not nearly as exciting as the miracle of a fat man coming down your chimney with a big bag of gifts. None of these explanations seemed sufficient for my little boy, who just wants to hang decorations on a Douglas fir.

I know what you are thinking: why is this such a big deal? It was just a little prayer to God. You must understand I have been working on my son's Jewish identity since before he was even born. I am a Jew-by-Choice and a psychologist. I know, my poor Jewish husband never stood a chance. My doctoral dissertation was entitled "Jewish Identity Development in Individuals who are Jews-by-Choice." You see, my interest is not simply emotional, it is also academic.

Asher's Jewish identity would be uniquely created because of the circumstances of his parents: one is a born Jew, and one converted to Judaism. I want him to have a strong sense of being Jewish -- culturally, intellectually, and spiritually. I don't think I am asking too much. I guess I have always been an overachiever.

To further complicate the story and thoroughly confuse my 5-year-old son, he and I were on our way to volunteer at a church to help them get ready for a big Christmas dinner that our synagogue runs every year. I told him how families who don't have a lot of things they need will be coming and getting great big "goodie bags" filled with shampoo, toothbrushes, socks, and the kids will get toys. Asher's only response after his prayer for the tree was this: "Mom, it's good they won't be giving the kids socks and toothbrushes because I sure wouldn't want that for Hanukkah."

As Asher and I walked into the church, hand-in-hand, the other volunteers were pulling out boxes of ornaments and strings of lights in the corner, where a naked Christmas tree sat waiting to be dressed up. In the aisle, I knelt down and said, "Go and see what's going on over there and I'll be there in a minute." I gave him a kiss on the cheek and off he ran to his friends that had gathered around the big tree.

I watched from a distance as my son began the ritual that I had done for so many years as a child. I understood his joy.

I thought about how, just five minutes ago, he had prayed for a Christmas tree, and I realized what he really wanted was the experience he was now having. As I walked up to Asher digging through a box of very used Christmas decorations, I whispered in his ear, "I think God answered your prayer, honey." He turned to me with a smile and a twinkle in his eye that only a miracle could bring about.

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199 comments so far | Post a comment now
CC December 16, 2009, 8:04 AM

That’s a cute story, but I must say… If you are a Jew “by choice,” why can’t your son explore a different religious identity? It would be frivolous and silly to become a Christian just because of a tree decorating ritual (one that’s actually Pagan and not Christian in the first place). But doesn’t he deserve the chance to try it out without being shot down?

Anonymous December 16, 2009, 9:12 AM

@cc - Very good point

Pamala December 16, 2009, 2:20 PM

Also I was wondering, since you say your family isn’t Jewish, is it possible to take him to your families home to decorate a tree as well? Like you said, he seemed to want the experience, and hey why not have it with the family, if possible? Does he get to open gifts for Christmas with your family? I think that would be appropriate, teaches him respect for different religions, and that you can participate with the family even if you aren’t of their religion.

Dr. Michelle Golland December 17, 2009, 5:44 AM

Thank you for your comments on my story. We do go to my families home for Christmas and exchange gifts and enjoy all the traditions that go along with celebrating with my family. We also have a Hanukkah celebration at our home which my family attends and we light the menorah and celebrate the Jewish traditions as well. Everyone one is loving, respectful and joyous for each others holidays. For our family it has worked out beautifully but is not without effort and intention.

hannah December 17, 2009, 11:25 AM

Seriously CC? Let a Jewish child try Christianity because he was fascinated by a decorative tree? If your child enjoyed Purim would you let him/her just try Judaism to see if they liked it? I’m not picking - I’m just kind of stunned that people are so casual with their family traditions/religious beliefs.

I too am a Jew by Choice, which led me to my husband who is born Jewish. He never had a “December Dilemna” since his family was identified with Jewish traditions. I’ve never enjoyed Christmas so the transition was easy for me and Hanukkah with my husband’s family is so festive and so much more meaningful than Christmas ever was with my family when I was young. All this combined makes us very lucky that our children don’t show any interest in Christmas. They are familiar with the holiday and know it’s something their cousins and 2 grandparents celebrate but aside from thinking the tree is pretty they aren’t interested. I personally would not be comfortable w/our children decorating a tree since to me that’s too close to partaking of a Christmas celebration (I know the whole history of the tree is pagan however it’s meaning now is strictly that of a Christian holiday) I also think because we let them know from the start Santa was not real may have had something to make it less interesting. To me since its not part of their culture or religion there is really no need to have them have anything to do w/Christmas. They understand the holiday but don’t celebrate it.

Well that’s my 2 cents (or more like 2 dollars with all the writing!!) Happy Holidays to all

Anonymous December 18, 2009, 12:52 PM

get him a damn tree!

Kayla Fay December 22, 2009, 3:58 PM

What a beautiful story! I agree with you. God answered your Asher’s prayer. No matter how you celebrate, ‘tis the Season for miracles.

Elise December 22, 2009, 4:28 PM

I never had a Christmas tree growing up. My younger one asked for one when he was six and was told no. Guess what he survived, no scars and he knows who he is and where he came from. We Jews are entitled to be who we are and to not celebrate Christmas in any way shape or form.Jews have a beautiful rich historical and religious tradition and we do not need to celebrate anyone elses religion to make us human beings.
@CC and @anonymous It is insulting to tell us that we should allow our children to explore Christianity. Maybe you would like your child to explore Judaism, you can have a kosher home, go to synagogue and make sure to have major Jewish symbols gracing your home.
How about Wicca since you are so open minded.Or how about the hindu religion and you can have idols and many gods in your home.
Just because it is Christian does not mean it is better or worthier than Judaism.

@Dr. Golland you do not need to feel bad or guilty about your choices. You have a right to choose how to raise your child. There will be many things that your child will ask for that you will say no for many reasons. It is part of parenting, which as a therapist you really should know. Also every family makes compromises and starts their own traditions whether there is an interfailth issue in the marriage or not. It is part of creating your own adventure with your partner. I do wonder however, why you feel it necessary to tell everyone how you still celebrate Christmas with your family. What difference if you didn’t? Oh and by the way, we help out at christmas dinner at a church and somehow my children have never been confused about who they are.I think you are the one with issues about a christmas tree in your home and not your child.

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