As the holiday season approaches, Finkelman poses the question, “What does a Christmas Tree in a Jewish home say?”

Symbolic objects convey meaning without words. A Christmas tree, for example, speaks.

What does it say?

Once, in Northern Europe, people had a Yule log that spoke about Norse mythology. Christmas trees in America do not say anything about Norse mythology.

Later, the Christians who conquered Europe repurposed the trees as symbols of Christianity. Taking an evergreen tree into your house in winter, when all other trees in the northern temperate zone have no leaves, now demonstrated Christian faith. Christmas trees in America say that for some Americans; but some secular Americans — and some Jews — also have trees, without that faith.

So what does a Christmas tree in a Jewish home say?

For most of our history, Jews around the world have lived in someone else’s homeland. It takes psychic effort not to join the majority.

In the 1950s, a psychologist named Solomon Asch measured the temptation to conform to the majority. He ran a test, supposedly a vision test, asking subjects to pick out the longest of three lines. People did that with 98 percent accuracy. He then presented the lines to a group and asked each person to announce the longest line. The diabolical part: He had “confederates” in the group who answered incorrectly. The real subject of the experiment answered after the confederates. If three or more people had already chosen a short line, the subject often agreed with group about one third of the time. Although nearly everyone could quietly write the correct answer, only about quarter of the subjects could answer correctly out loud every time.

It takes significant effort not to conform.

I suspect a Christmas tree in a Jewish home says, “The folks who live here do not feel up to being different.” Maybe they think, “We could do without the tree; it is for the children. Why should they have to be different? Just let them fit in. Anyway, who wants to explain why we do not celebrate Christmas?”

Maybe the tree in a Jewish household says that the folks here love the traditions of American Christmas, supporting the retail economy by purchasing cards, toys and small household devices. I do not think so. I think it says, we do not have the energy not to conform.

Jews exist in the modern world because our ancient and medieval predecessors had the energy not to conform.

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  1. Hanukkah may well have originated as a winter solstice holiday, perhaps modeled on the ancient Roman festival called Saturnalia. We’ve been taking on cultural aspects of our surroundings and weaving them into our customs for as long as we’ve been in diaspora. Saying “Jews exist in the modern world because our ancient and medieval predecessors had the energy not to conform,” is ahistorical. It’s also alienating to interfaith families.

  2. I did not write about mixed families. I do not see any mystery on why a mixed family might decide to have a Christmas tree. At least one of the family is Christian. The family will negotiate its own way of deciding what and how to celebrate.

    I tried to address the mystery of why a family consisting entirely of Jews might have a Christmas tree. Perhaps I did not succeed. I thought perhaps the adults do not have the energy to decide not to fit in with the majority culture. If not that, how do you explain the mystery?


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