I know plenty of mixed religion couples who celebrate both religions in the home until there are children. I’ve known couples who compromised by adopting a religion that was neither of theirs to begin with. I have a Jewish friend who went to Quaker meetings with his family every weekend and Kim has a friend whose Jewish husband banished Christmas trees and other symbols of Christmas from his home once their son was born.
We have taken none of these paths. Kim and the girls – now Kim and Maggie – celebrate the Christian holidays; and me and the girls – now me and Maggie – celebrate the Jewish holidays.
The tradition that crosses the line is the annual buying of the Christmas tree. I’ve gone along on the trip to get the tree for years. On the way there my role is to remind her of all of the tree-choosing mistakes in year’s past. I think this has become part of the ritual because soon, I know, I will have to pay for this teasing.
Once there I stand while the tree is chosen. This can take a really long time. It turns out that the amount of time it takes has nothing to do with how many trees are in the lot. It seems to have to do with the weather. The colder and nastier the weather is, the longer it takes them to pick a tree. I then take a picture of them holding up their tree and smiling. While the attendant makes a fresh cut on the bottom of the tree, Kim asks me if she’s made a good choice. I’ve learned that question is a trick. It’s only a three on the “do I look fat” scale, but it’s on the chart.
Then comes my favorite part of the ritual. Kim looks at her tree and pats her pockets as if she thinks something might possibly be there. “Honey,” she says to me. By now you know that she never calls me “honey” unless it’s followed by the phrase, “do you have any money?” And so each year in our family, the Jew pays for the Christmas tree. I know that all of our money comes from a single bank account, but it always makes me laugh that the actual bills come out of my pocket.
I know Jewish families who always buy and decorate a Christmas tree. They even have a meal on Christmas day that their children come home for. I’ve never really understood that. I love helping Kim celebrate her holiday. But it’s her holiday.
I carry the tree into the house and put it in the stand. Kim makes hand motions until I’ve adjusted it just so. I bring down the ornaments and she and the girls – now she and Maggie – put them on the tree. I carry the boxes back upstairs.
It’s the way it goes every year.
We used to have one of those little metal stands with the red water pan and the three green legs. You’d put the tree in the stand and try to hold it still while you screwed the screws into the wood. Invariably you’d have to unscrew the screws to straighten the tree. The tree would stand up straight until we added the water. Then someone would bump the tree and the water would spill.
One year the metal legs splayed under the weight of the tree. I went to replace it and I saw the metal version and, for twice as much, a deluxe plastic version where the part that attaches to the tree is a separate piece. You put that piece on the tree and screw it in. Then you lower the tree and the plastic piece into the base. What sold me, though, was the foot-pedal that you step on and adjust the angle of the tree until it stands up straight. At this point I was muttering under my breath about the money I’d just spent on the tree and the time I’d spent putting it into the other stand and now the stupid thing broke and it’s … So spending $30 on the deluxe model seemed reasonable even if it only lasted for this year.
There are parts of the tradition that have changed over the years. Kim tends to wait until really close to Christmas to buy her tree. At that point the pickings are slim and we often get a tree that is dropping needles from the time it enters our house. I can count the number of years that the tree actually took in any water on one hand. We use every trick we know. We use warm sugar water on a tree with a fresh cut. One year I took the tree out of the stand and drilled holes up the trunk.
When I taught at John Carroll, the baseball team used to sell trees over on the tennis courts. We’d go there even though they had ripped Kim off one year.
“What kind of tree do you want, ma’am,” the guy helping us asked.
Kim winced at being called ma’am but said, “a blue spruce.”
“We have a few of those left,” he said.
The sun had gone down but the tennis courts were lit. He took us over to a couple of decent looking trees and said “here you go.”
Kim looked carefully at the trees. “I don’t know,” she said. “These needles don’t look right for a blue spruce.”
“Nope,” said the guy, “these are blues. Aren’t they nice?”
He may not have known he wasn’t telling the truth or he may not have cared. To me it sounded like a bit from Monty Python’s parrot sketch about the Norweigian Blue and its beautiful plumage. Kim picked one of the blue spruces and the guy took my money, made a fresh cut, and tied it to the top of Kim’s car.
We drove off carefully and had gone about a mile when a new tradition began. That’s the tradition where the tree falls off of the car on the ride home, in the dark. It’s the one where I get to put it back on top of the car and Kim drives while I stick my hand out the open window in the freezing cold and try to hold the tree in place. It’s the one where we realize that the tree is so dead that the branches I am holding snap and the tree slides off again.
We got the tree home and brought it in the house. We learned two lessons that year. The first is that you should bring the tree stand with you when you choose a tree. The tree didn’t fit into the stand without quite a bit of sawing, and shoving, and swearing. The second is that Kim’s instincts were right. The tree was not a blue spruce. It was, however, a spray painted pine. That may not be a variety you’re familiar with. It’s when you take a very dead tree and you “spruce it up” by spray painting it with color that makes it look somewhat alive and vibrant.
“They did not,” Kim said when I told her.
“Yes they did,” I said and pointed to the paint dots on the trunk on the piece I’d just cut off.
You’d think that would have been the last year we bought a tree from those guys. It wasn’t. We didn’t mean to the following year. Kim had a friend bring us a live tree. I dug a hole in the back yard in October and filled it full of leaves. Her friend showed up a few days before Christmas and the two of us carried the tree onto our front steps and then stopped. First of all, a live tree is very heavy. Second of all, this one was too big. We couldn’t get it in the front door. He and I carried it back to the back yard and put it in the hole I dug. Then Kim and I headed back to the home of the blue spruce to buy this year’s tree.
We went back to support the team the next year and Maggie got to choose the tree. The guy held it up and it looked nice. I had my tree stand with me that year and after he made his fresh cut he easily slipped it on. We shoved the tree in Kim’s trunk and tied it in. I was coming from work so we had driven separately so I followed Kim home as we drove slowly through the snow with her Christmas tree.
When a tree falls off of your roof, you feel it go and you see that something has changed. This is not the way it works when a tree falls out of your trunk. The open trunk can keep you from seeing that the tree is gone. And if, like Kim, you are playing the radio really loud, then you might not hear your husband honking his horn to let you know something is wrong. In fact, it might be a block or two before you realize he’s not following you anymore and you come back.
We got the tree back in the trunk of the car and safely home and in the house before we learned yet another valuable lesson. When the guy at the tree lot stands the tree up straight, even if the tree looks straight at the top, you should also look for the curvature of the trunk. Our tree had scoliosis and it was not easy to get it to stand up straight no matter how far we adjusted the angle in our deluxe stand.
Kim reminded me that “that’s the tree that Maggie wanted.” And Maggie loved that tree.
At some point Kim realized the folly in her ways and decided to buy a tree from the lot outside of her church. We pulled in and everything seemed different. Kim and the girls – yes the girls – picked out the tree they wanted. The man pulled it off of the stand and carried it to where his saw lay. He called Kim over and said, “I’m sorry, I’m not going to sell you this tree.”
She looked puzzled.
“Look here,” he said. “It’s rotting. You don’t want this tree.”
So Kim and the girls walked back to the lot and picked out another. The man made a fresh cut, tied it to the top of Kim’s car, and took my money. We drove the tree home and the tree stayed on top of the car the whole way. We carried it into the house and dropped it into the stand and it stood up straight and tall. Kim poured in a container of water and the tree drank it down fast. She poured in a second container. The tree was thirsty and fragrant.
Maggie complained that the needles were scratchy when she hung the ornaments but that’s a Christmas tradition that remains constant.
Since then Kim has bought the tree from Our Lady of Peace each year (except for the year that she waited until the twenty-third and they had sold out and she had to go back to John Carroll). Well more accurately, Kim has selected the tree from Our Lady of Peace. In our family, it is still tradition that I pay for the tree.