I have known few people in my life who loved Christmas as much as my Jewish father did. I would never suggest that he married my Catholic mother just to get Christmas — she was very beautiful and they loved each other very much — but look, it was certainly a bonus. Once this Bar Mitzvah boy got his hooks into the yule log, he went wild.
Nowhere was this more pronounced than in our small family’s Christmas tree. His thing was to buy the tree the morning of Christmas Eve and get it in its stand. Until I was about nine, after saying goodnight to the various aunt Marys and uncles Jim and Ed, I would go to sleep with a bare tree behind me as I climbed the stairs to my bedroom. Only the next morning would I see it ablaze as if the living room were suddenly Times Square.
I’ll be honest, that was magic. And then my little brother was born. The next year, at age 10, I got to stay up and help decorate the tree for him. We enjoyed a long tin tube of eggnog next to the dull green bottle of Jameson. There were cookies and 950 AM played Bing Crosby, and I watched my dad trim the tree. He’d put small lights in the interior, layer of gold garland, beads vertically, layer of large lights. Layer of silver garland, specialty lights on the outside, ornaments.
Hanukah is fine, it really is. It’s lovely. But a few candles burning down can’t compete with a huge tree in your house wired to blow at any moment. It’s just a whole different level of holiday wow. I can’t actually explain why this Jewish kid from Asbury Park, New Jersey loved it so much, but I think it has to do with the universal nature of it. In places that have winter, you kind of need a big party.
Now, as I mentioned, my mom was Catholic — Irish Catholic, at that. The Christmas trees of my grandparents and great grandparents were hardly austere affairs. They were heavily lit and decorated. Trains whizzed beneath them. At Pop’s there was even lead tinsel and low visibility in the kitchen as the aunts and uncles drank their tea, sometimes sending me to the store to buy more cigarettes for them. It’s a wonder we are still alive.
So it’s not like my mom was used to Protestant-aesthetic Christmas trees with a spare rope of white lights and maybe some homemade garbage. But even she was a bit taken aback by my dad’s philosophy that it isn’t a Christmas tree if you can’t see it from space. Maybe there is something of the Jewish experience in it. For what do I have a tree in my house already if it can’t be nice? I don’t know.
My son and I went to get our tree Sunday in the snowy brick-lined Brooklyn of holiday cheer and general merriment. We walked up to them. The attendant in a hoodie had just exited the trailer. “Can we get a small one?” my son asked. “No,” I said. We wound up with a seven-footer with a nice shape. It fell out well, it makes the room. I threw about 500 mini lights on the interior, just to form a base. But we’ll start actually decorating it today, and finish on Christmas Eve with friends and family.
This is my second Christmas without my dad. Last year, Christmas fell so close upon his passing that for the first time in my life I didn’t get a tree. There didn’t seem much to celebrate.
But time softens the rough edges of life like a soft hand across cool bed sheets. Now I look at my tree. It pales in comparison to the virtuosity of the convert, the glib glam and glamour, the expression of joy my father wrought in his hands.
I miss him. I would have named my son after him, or at least argued for it, but Ashkenazic Jews don’t name children after living people. So my son is named after my father’s father, a Jewish chaplain in the Korean and Vietnamese wars who was not particularly enamored of Christmas, or my decision at age 10 to choose Catholicism over Judaism.
I don’t think my son thinks of himself as a Jew in any concrete way. I’m not sure I do even though half of my ancestors reach back to that ancient covenant with God. I’ve always felt like an admixture, never quite belonging to either side. So is my Christmas tree.
But it glows, man. A tree glows in Brooklyn. I think dad would like it. But he’d want more lights.