Tree of shame
Oh, the guilt of coveting the festive conifer
by David Valdes Greenwood
I've finally had my first taste of Jewish guilt. Specifically, the kind of
guilt suffered by a good Jew when he or she finally breaks down and, with
apologies to cultural pride, goes out looking for a nice holiday evergreen. I'm
not Jewish, but I have eschewed all the red-and-green trappings for so long
that I cannot help glancing over my shoulder, looking for accusers, as I
guiltily type these five words: I want a Christmas tree.
No big deal, right? So why do I have to fight the urge to hit "erase" and
pretend the words were an accident, you know, as if some elf had scampered down
onto my keyboard for a little Santa Land propaganda? I mean, it's just a tree.
And yet, as anyone well trained in deconstruction will tell you, no object is
ever just an object. I can pretend it doesn't mean anything, but as soon as my
progressive friends walk through the door, the jig will be up.
See, my partner and I stopped celebrating Christmas years ago. Our first year
living together, we had a Christmas tree, but as lovely as it looked, I had a
very ambiguous relationship with it: I completely understood why a lesbian
Jewish friend raised her eyebrows upon seeing this not-so-subtle symbol of the
Christian faith that so often has persecuted both her ethnic culture and our
shared subculture. She knew we weren't Baby Jesus types, but there was his
birthday present gracing our living room.
Now, for people who have never seen God as any more authentic than jolly ol'
St. Nick himself, it's easy to plug in a plastic light-up reindeer and not see
any sign of religious fervor. But I was raised as a fundamentalist Christian,
so Christmas to me was indeed about Christ, and every time I saw heathens using
the euphemistic "Xmas," I knew their callous shorthand had the effect of
nailing him to the cross again and again.
How I loved Christmas! My family had 16 LPs churned out by the now-defunct
Grant's department store, every one of them titled A Very Merry
Christmas and featuring the latest all-star line-ups: Frank, Sammy, Ella,
and Bing. But my family was so religious that even these records were
scrutinized for worldliness; albums with only carols got marked "S" for
"Sabbath-appropriate," but ones that featured secular ditties like "Frosty the
Snowman" were marked "No" for "too worldly for Sabbath."
As you can imagine, even many agnostic years later, it was still hard to
disassociate the holly from the herald angels. What my partner and I really
wanted was a winter holiday celebration that excluded no one and yet also meant
something spiritual. Voilà! We discovered Winter Solstice. Perhaps the
oldest recorded holiday, it represents survival through the winter and hope for
spring. In parts of Europe, where Solstice marked the shortest and darkest day
of the year, fir trees were festooned with gold objects that then reflected the
first rays of the next morning's sun, glowing with the good news that the days
would assuredly get longer.
Hmm, a bedecked tree. Sounds like -- you guessed it. But simply knowing its
origins didn't earn the tree a free pass in our house; instead, we decorated
our rooms with suns, moons, and stars, and filled the house with candles,
eventually lighting them all to celebrate the coming sunnier days. We made
Solstice cards and gave Solstice gifts, and generally made Solstice so central
that even my religious mom began hunting for nonexistent Solstice cards. I can
say without question that there are people in the world who hear the word
"Solstice" and -- as if reading a verbal pairing on the SAT -- immediately
think of us.
And I still love Solstice. But lately, for the first time since Kurt Cobain was
alive, I've been imagining a Christmas tree. Not an overgrown rosemary plant in
a foil-wrapped pot, not a ficus plant strung winsomely with garlands -- no, I
want the real deal: lush, bristly fir (no spindly white pine for me!), a dense
cone scenting the air with its aromatic sap. God help me, I want a living thing
cut down and hauled directly into my living room where I can just see it and
smell it and adore it.
I know the exact moment I began wanting this tree: the day my partner and I
bought our first home. It is hard to explain why being a renter somehow made it
easier to forgo holiday accouterments, but as soon as we owned the house I
could see a tree in the corner of its cozy brick-and-hardwood living room.
There would be white lights twinkling all over, our beautiful sun and moon
ornaments reflecting that glow as they hung from its branches. I would curl up
on the couch, as I did when I was a child, and fall asleep by tree-light.
It took me more than a month to admit to my partner that I had this strange
craving. He could have talked me out of it, but no -- he too had felt the
evergreen urge within him. In that moment, we were transformed from the
ultimate defenders of Solstice into apologists for December 25. And now it
seems clear that we will soon be visited by a little pointy ghost of Christmas
How will we explain ourselves? Do we try to hide the tree from our most
progressive friends ? Do we throw a hat and sunglasses on the tree and
introduce it as a very shy in-law? Or do we feign surprise: how on earth did
that get there? We could, I suppose, try to justify it as really being a
Solstice tree ... yeah, that's it! And our tradition had it first, okay? So
we're not compromising anything, right? Right.
Our friends will see through this, and we will see that they see. Still, like
many a good Jew I know, I will take more pleasure in a Christmas tree than I
should, and I will savor the very thing that causes me guilt. But I'll have to
draw the line somewhere: there won't be some gaudy angel on top, her halo made
of blinking rainbow lights -- at least, not this year.
David Valdes Greenwood promises not to complain about the zillion pines
needles that will end up all over the floor. He can be reached at
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