Last week, a friend of mine started what became a spirited online discussion when she posted a status update on Facebook that read, “the ONLY thing our 14 year old wants for Hanukkah is a Christmas Tree!” The responses ranged from the empathetic – “mine too!” to the practical – “get a real tree, not a fake one,” to the defiant – “we told our daughter that we’re Jewish and we celebrate Hanukkah.” The consensus was that there was no consensus, with some telling her to go for it while others encouraged her to hold fast and embrace the beauty of her own religious traditions.
Ordinarily, I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention to this exchange, dismissing it as yet another example of assimilation among my cohort, but over the past year, I have become immersed in the world of Christmas trees – particularly, New York City’s Christmas tree sellers.
For many New Yorkers, the holiday season only begins when the hundreds of Christmas tree stands pop up in late November and transform our sidewalks into temporary winter wonderlands. I have walked past these stands for years and have never really given them much thought. Why would I?
I’ve never had a Christmas tree in my life. As a Jew growing up in suburban New Jersey, it had never even occurred to me to want one. I went to a Jewish day school where no one had a tree — ever. It seemed self-evident: since Jews don’t celebrate Christmas, there’s no reason to have a tree. The idea that some Jews would buy a Christmas tree and call it a “Hanukkah bush,” seemed incomprehensible to us growing up. Even into adulthood, the Christmas season never filled me with envy or a desire to have a tree. My wife didn’t grow up with one either, so it never came up for discussion. Even when our kids came along, none of them ever asked for a tree. Problem? What problem?
Two years ago, following a conversation about how buying a tree is integral to the holidays for many New Yorkers, it occurred to me that an exploration of this hidden (to me at least) universe of New York’s Christmas tree sellers would make for an interesting documentary film. So, last November, I drove to Canada to film Francois, the charming and gregarious “tree man” of 102nd Street and Broadway, as he left his wife and three small children to sleep in his van for a month and sell Christmas trees to Christians and non-Christians alike on the Upper West Side.
When he pulled into the City a few days before Thanksgiving, people from the neighborhood were genuinely excited to see Francois return to his usual spot — just up from the northeast corner of 102nd Street — greeting him with hugs, food and even gifts for his kids. It touched me to see this real friendship between seller and customer.
For the past decade, the Upper West Side has been morphing into a giant suburban shopping mall. Ever-rising rents and the vanishing of local businesses have depersonalized the neighborhood, but Francois’ annual reappearance is a welcome reminder that human relationships still matter. Francois, and the other tree men and women around the City, are selling more than trees – they’re selling the spirit of the holiday season itself. They represent the one fleeting time of year when people slow down just enough to recognize the importance of their family, their friends and their neighbors.
During the five weeks of filming Tree Man, I watched children jumping up and down, literally squealing with joy as their parents bought their Christmas trees. I listened to Francois’ stories of watching toddlers grow up and young couples starting their own families, seeing the neighborhood’s life cycle through his eyes. I went into peoples’ apartments and saw families trimming their trees together, singing songs and passing their own rituals and values from one generation to the next.
The Jewish holidays have always been central to my life, more for the comfort of their rituals than in any spiritual way. When I lead my own family’s Passover seder, for example, I think back to the seders of my childhood in my parents’ house and before then, in my grandparents’ apartment, and how the holidays connected me to my family and to the generations who came before me. Yes, we were enslaved in Egypt; yes, my father and his family escaped Nazi Germany just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War and the Holocaust; but we Jews survived and were strengthened by our belief that we would continue to do so. The seder is our declaration that we’re still here.
While I’m not sure that people attach the same kind of meaning to their Christmas tree, I can no longer so easily dismiss the tree’s significance as a vehicle to transmit familial identity and personal histories, even to Jews. According to the 2013 Pew Portrait of Jewish Americans, today, one third of American Jews have a Christmas tree in their home, with more than half of unaffiliated Jews celebrating the holiday season with a tree. Over 70% of intermarried couples have a tree. It’s no longer a question of if Jews should have a tree, it is what does the tree mean to these Jews.
Given Judaism’s problematic history with Christianity, it’s no surprise that the traditional Jewish response to Jews with Christmas trees would be negative. But the tree itself has no religious significance in Christianity; it’s originally a symbol of the winter solstice that has roots in the ancient Near East, of all places. As the meaning of the Christmas tree has evolved and adapted over the centuries, the changing Jewish approach to the tree should be seen as a part of this evolutionary process, as well.
While I still don’t think that I will ever have a tree myself – it’s a beautiful ritual, but it’s not mine — I no longer judge non-Christians who want to put a tree up in their homes themselves. I now see it as a symbol of a renewable commitment to community, family and home. What could be more Jewish than that?