Holiday Tree Traditions

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Emily Lane tops her tree with a six-pointed star.

Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman, who was born in Jerusalem and holds dual U.S./Israeli citizenship, claimed in a recent appearance on The Tonight Show, “It’s every Jew’s kind-of-secret wish to have a Christmas tree.”

Although many Jews — and others — consider a decorated tree displayed during the holidays a “Christmas tree,” social media observations over the last couple of years do suggest an upward trend in strongly identifying, non-interfaith Jewish homes that have adopted the festive holiday-tree tradition.

“It’s so pretty; why can’t we have that, too?” Portman pondered.

Lori Cowen, 29, of West Bloomfield, concurs. “I love ornaments and just the whole idea of decorating the tree,” she says. “I don’t see religion in an evergreen tree with lights on it. That doesn’t scream Christianity to me,” Cowen explains.

Ironically, she got her first Christmas tree at age 17, using money she received for Chanukah. “My dad took one look at it and said, ‘I want that out of my house.’” She exchanged it for a much smaller specimen that remained in her room. “He wasn’t thrilled, but that was livable,” she recalls. Cowen used a printed photo of Jim Morrison as her tree topper.

Albina Brayman’s family tree

“It’s just a pretty thing that I like to look at,” she says, echoing Portman’s sentiments. “It makes me think of the holidays, but just the holidays in general.”

Growing up in Uzbekistan, Albina Brayman, 37, of Birmingham always had a New Year’s tree at home. “If you use the term ‘Christmas tree,’ the Jews [there] get offended,” she informs. However, after immigrating to Oak Park and being told, “It’s not a very Jewish thing to have a tree in the house,” her family eliminated the tradition.

Although Brayman’s kids attended preschool at Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park, where they were instilled with a strong Jewish identity, entering the public sphere for elementary school introduced some holiday-induced friction. She recounts the day her son came home and declared to her he no longer liked being Jewish because Christmas was “so much cooler,” specifically citing the tree tradition.

“That was a wake-up call for me,” Brayman asserts. “I can’t have them not like being Jewish because the other kids get a Christmas tree.” Resuming her family’s practice, she took them to English Gardens, where they picked out a big, silver tree to decorate.

Lori Cowen trims her tree with things she loves, like a photo of Jim Morrison.

She says her kids — Aaron, 7, Jacob, 5, and Leana, 3 — absolutely love it. “It makes them feel like they’re just as special. They’re not left out,” she says. Brayman is equally ecstatic to have the custom back. “I’ve always wanted to put something up for the holidays … Having the tree validates that we celebrate the holiday so much more.”

Not everyone understands the need to have a tree, though. “Some Jews who didn’t grow up with that don’t understand it. For us, it works,” she says. “It makes my kids happy. It brings a little bit of excitement during the holiday season, which is usually so gray, to see a pretty tree all lit up with lights and decorations. It makes us feel in the holiday spirit.”

At 30, Emily Lane of Troy has had a holiday tree — which she jokingly refers to as her “Chanukah bush” — for half her lifetime.

“We started doing it when I was still [living] at home [in Birmingham],” she says. “My dad started doing it.” Although she doesn’t remember exactly what kicked off the custom for her family, she has maintained it on her own, even after moving out.

“Every year my girlfriends come over and we drink wine and decorate it together,” she says. “I have a tree, but it’s totally decorated in blue, silver and white.” Not only does it have a six-pointed star on top, but she fashioned one out of tin foil herself before they were available on the market. Lane reiterates Portman and Cowen’s convictions, simply stating, “It’s pretty. It’s nice to decorate.”

“I’ve done my research and [having a tree] is not actually tied to the Bible and Christmas,” says Erica Linden, 31, of Berkley. “It does have some pagan ties, but no biblical ones.”

Having joined the ranks of Jews with trees seven years ago, Linden is on board for the same reason as most. “They are really pretty. That’s really my only reason [for having one]. I think they are beautiful and festive.” She refers to hers as a Chanukah bush, holiday tree or winter solstice tree.

Although each of these women welcomes an evergreen into her home around the holidays, the consensus here is that the conifers are not associated in any way with Christmas. In fact, everyone interviewed confirmed observance of Chanukah in the most traditional manners — with family gatherings, latkes and menorah lighting.

While it seems a stretch to say that “every Jew” secretly yearns for one, as Portman proclaimed, it’s clear this aesthetically pleasing custom is becoming more commonplace.

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