Every year since he left home, a few weeks before Christmas, our younger son, our very own Kris Kringle, sends us a message. And every year, he asks the same question, “Have you bought a tree yet?”
For a Jewish girl growing up in a decidedly WASP town in Massachusetts, a Christmas tree, and not a Chanukah menorah, on display in the living room was an object of both scorn and envy.
Scorn because part of me liked being different, it somehow made me wiser, more sophisticated than my Christian classmates. Envy because I also wanted to be part of the group. In truth, my classmates weren’t very sophisticated, and a few of them viewed my Jewishness as a “weird” difference.
Luckily, I was able to partially resolve this conflict during my teenage years by showing up at my next door neighbors’ house on Christmas morning. They always made me feel welcome as I sat next to their daughter, my best friend, and watched as presents were handed out and opened one-by-one.
I didn’t care that there were no gifts for me under that tree, I just wanted to soak in their yearly ritual, along with the love and togetherness that they shared with such ease.
Christmas Tree Tradition
That experience is why I agreed to a Christmas tree when it came time to celebrate the December holidays with my own family. My husband is not Jewish, and like me, not religious. But his family did celebrate Christmas. And so the yearly tree entered my life.
Given my Jewish roots, having one on display in my own living room felt embarrassing the first few times. The embarrassment eventually faded, but my ambivalence toward the pine needles everywhere, the disruption to my orderly house, the Christmas chaos, has not. Each holiday season, my inner protest — before I grudgingly give in — is as predictable as Kris’s query.
Born in the dead of winter, Kris (not his real name) is a hard core Christmas enthusiast. The cold air, the snow, the gifts, and the tree, resplendent with lights and ornaments, and emitting its piney scent, have always excited him. In adulthood, his appetite for gifts has diminished— this year’s list was comprised almost entirely of necessities — but his love for the Christmas tree has grown stronger.
This year, however, Kris won’t be coming home. He’s in Morocco with the Peace Corps. His older brother enjoys the holidays too, but his is a more relaxed attitude. He doesn’t make it his job to call in and check on our progress with holiday preparations. He and his girlfriend, whose family doesn’t celebrate Christmas, will arrive on the 24th.
So I wondered whether we could forgo the tree. After all, Kris won’t be here to keep us in line. Then, the first week in December, this chat message popped up on my computer screen:
Kris: hey! christmas tree made
me: wow, cool! send a photo!
Kris: it’s more like a christmas pile-of-twigs-and-branches ….
As soon as I saw this photo, I knew that I wanted a tree in our living room this year. And not just because Kris will be looking for it on his computer screen during our Christmas Day video chat. His makeshift tree made me realize something.
Empty Nest and Family Traditions
Those family traditions aren’t just for our kids, they’re for us, too. If we discard them, our empty nest will feel even emptier. It doesn’t matter that we ultimately went for a tree, and not a menorah in our living room. The point is that we did something every year and we did it with joy and open hearts.
No matter how far apart and different our Christmas trees may be from year-to-year, putting them up in tandem will help us feel close — even when there is an ocean between us.
This year’s tree will honor the nearly 30 Christmas trees we’ve had as a family, and the 25 or so we’ve had since Kris was born. And it honors the love I felt in my neighbors’ home all those years ago.
I’ll think of that family as I do every Christmas morning. The parents are elderly now, and the kids live in separate states, but each of them will be gathering around a tree this year too.
“A hint of light” and “Christmas tree in the storm” by Cheryl Fuller Sparks.
“Olive, palm, and fig.” by Karsten Syversen.
This piece was written as a guest post for Second Lives Club.