Holiday Tree Envy
Dec. 17, 2005, Edmonton Journal
When I was in elementary school, December was the cruelest month, not because of the cold but the carols. This was before the advent of dechristianized “holiday songs.” Our music teacher insisted on traditional Christmas music, and while I loved the melodies, I couldn’t bring myself to sing all the lyrics.
“Away in a manger,” was sufficiently non-threatening to my Jewish identity, but I believed strongly in the power of language, so when we got to the verses extolling Jesus as Lord, I hid my mouth behind my sheet music and stayed mum.
And yet I still got caught up in the season. My family had many Christian friends, and some of my happiest memories are of helping to decorate their trees. So enamored was I of the idea of a live fir in the living room that when I was around nine years old, I insisted we get one for our house.
Given my discomfort with something as ephemeral as song lyrics, it seems fair to argue that my desire to display a tangible symbol of Christmas was a sign I was not thinking clearly. But I saw no connection between Jesus and a tree. My father, a rabbi who was also the grandson, nephew and cousin of rabbis, had more acute vision. He made it clear we would have no tree, ever.
Even a week after Christmas, when the neighbors discarded their trees and I dragged the healthiest-looking specimen down the road to our house, my father made me leave it by the curb for the garbage collectors. My argument that the holiday was over and therefore this was no longer a Christmas tree failed to change his mind.
And so it was that I was particularly intrigued by last month’s brouhaha in Boston. In case you missed the story, it focused on the semantic transformation wherein a 48-foot spruce that started out as a Christmas tree in Nova Scotia managed to morph into a “holiday tree” by the time it reached Massachusetts.
Evangelist Jerry Falwell accused Boston city officials of trying to “steal Christmas.” The Halifax farmer who donated the tree said he’d have put it through a wood chipper if he’d known it was going to be misused in such a fashion. Extreme reactions indeed, but having wrestled with the same issues, I understood.
My desire for a tree evaporated in early adolescence. The turning point was a visit to a temple board member and his wife. Displayed on a coffee table next to their menorah was a little white artificial tree. They called it a Hannukah bush. I wasn’t sure what was scarier: the obvious fire hazard, or their belief that they could fool everyone in the Jewish community into thinking they were starting a new tradition.
A cone-shaped tree that comes into your house in December (or late November, if you’re particularly impatient) is a Christmas tree, no matter what you call it. Or at least, that’s what I told myself until last December, when a friend brought me a housewarming gift of a conical-shaped rosemary bush. It looked exactly like a miniature Christmas tree.
My non-Jewish husband and I had settled the to-tree-or-not-to-tree debate years earlier. As long as we lived near his parents, he didn’t mind not having a tree of our own. We’re raising our children as Jewish, and perhaps because they get to celebrate Christmas with his family, they don’t seem to mind, either.
Which is why it was so unsettling that I fell in love with the rosemary bush. Under my care it lived until spring, when it dried beyond salvation and I was forced to deposit it in our compost bin.
When identical bushes appeared in a local store last month, I bought one immediately. Was it the fragrance that so appealed to me? The access to fresh herbs? Or that it conjured up feelings I thought I’d exorcised more than 35 years earlier?
Most likely it’s a combination of the three, which has helped to mitigate my internal conflict. But the experience has forced me to rethink my previously inflexible position on what makes a tree a Christmas tree. My new conclusion: if it smells like leg of lamb and roast potatoes, it’s a plant.