This year, my partner, Ryan, and I celebrate year four of our Eitz Hamoedim. It’s a Hebrew term I coined meaning Tree of the Festivals. You can call it a Chanukah Bush, because why not? (And its existence proves the lie of this self-fulfillingly self-defeating meme.) But it’s so much more than that.
As I’ve asserted on this blog for half a decade, I am a Jewish convert who believes the “December dilemma” is a choice. If we fear our children will become Christians from Christmas trees, the trees are the least of our worries. (A bigger worry might be Jewish parents who never bother to go to shul but magically expect their kids to be more Jewishly observant than they are…)
I’ve never understood the headlong rush into handwringing that so many of my fellow Jews inflict upon themselves during the end-of-year holidays. Fellow Jews-by-choice, especially, feel pressured in December to conform to the narrow vision of tradition promulgated by some Jews of a month where no Christian holiday exists–and no Christian family members or memories, for that matter.
Yes, Chanukah is a minor holiday. No, the Jewish holiday that actually includes trees doesn’t occur for another few months. But, so what? Every choice made by a Jew is a Jewish choice, and Judaism, like all religions, was born from syncretism. (LMGTFY.) And who has a right to say that every Jew, Jewish choice, or Jewish family tradition supposed to be the same? Especially considering that that’s never been the case? As a people, we’ve always been ethnically, racially, and relationally diverse.
Twenty years ago, when my then-troubled family and I became estranged, I carried our Christmas traditions forward. The holidays were among the only times we ever really felt securely happy as a family, so I made our big-fake-tree traditions my own. If I couldn’t have my family, I could have my December tree and memories.
In 2010 at the beginning of my Jewish journey, I set aside those traditions as future Jews-by-choice are taught to do, bought my first chanukiyah (Chanukah menorah), and celebrated my first Chanukah. At the time, I felt that the richness of the Hebrew calendar, with its meaningful religious holidays large and not-so-large celebrated throughout the year, filled me up in a way similar to my former, once-a-year family Christmas tradition.
I still felt that way in 2011. But finally an official Jew and much more comfortable with making my own Jewish decisions, I decided to revisit my family’s tree tradition. I wanted to honor holidays with my long-lost family, but it in a Jewish framework. And I wanted to do it in a manner as secular as my family’s former Yuletide celebrations. (And no matter what any fellow Jew who didn’t grow up celebrating Christmas claims–for how would they know?–it is absolutely possible to celebrate a secular Christmas.)
So together with Ryan (who is on his own Jewish journey which will culminate next spring!), from the old and the new we forged a new family tradition of our own. Chanukiyot and candles and dreidels and gelt festooning our living-room sideboard during Chanukah, to mark our religious observance of the holiday. And with Ryan’s blessing, a big, fat tree throughout the month of December marking the full picture of the Jew that I am.
The floor-to-ceiling artificial tree marks my family–with incredible meaning this year now that we have miraculously reunited after 20 years apart. So there’s less chance than ever that I’ll turn my back again on where I’ve been.
But it’s what’s on the tree that is truly unique. Ornaments–store-bought and handmade by Ryan and me–that mark the Hebrew calendar of Jewish holidays. Lulavs and etrogs, apples and honey, grapes and wine, masks, menorahs and dreidels, hail, frogs, and wild beasts. Angels to honor my mother of blessed memory. And topped with a stained-glass Star of David crafted by a Wyoming artisan with an interfaith family.
A Christmas tree that doesn’t celebrate Christmas? A Chanukah bush that celebrates much more than Chanukah? Something ritually offensive (although it seeks to satisfy no religious mitzvah) that you’d never, ever consider? Or as many Jews-by-choice with interfaith backgrounds and families have told me over the years (especially after cross-promotion by InterfaithFamily.com and Jewcy.com when it first debuted, and my now-annual posts as the eitz goes up), a liberating idea that gave them the courage to honor all of who they are in their end-of-year holiday celebrations?
The meaning in our holidays, our journeys, and our lives is our own to forge. The point isn’t satisfying someone else’s ideas about who we should be. The point is wholeness, understanding, and love.
May you be blessed with the freedom to practice your faith, honor your loved ones, celebrate that which elevates you, and forge new and higher ground. The wisdom to remain true to the full depth and breadth of the holy human being under God who you truly are. And the courage to take action.
And may all your holidays be bright.
(See my Chanukah & Eitz Hamoedim 2015 gallery on Facebook.)
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.