TAUBE: Preserving the family tree

Holiday boughs reach across time and tradition

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I’ve been a newspaper columnist for many years, and one of my favorite annual traditions is writing a Christmas column. I’m an agnostic Jew, but I’ve celebrated this holiday in a nonsecular fashion since I was very young. I have a Christmas tree in my house, a wreath on the door and listen to Christmas music.

Most of my family members celebrate the Jewish holidays, including Hanukkah. I don’t, but I’m pleased that they’ve decided to maintain some of these traditions. I’ve always strongly supported a person’s freedom to practice his religious customs in a liberal democratic society.

My mother, Merle, particularly enjoyed this time of year. She and my father, Stanley, never taught me to fear or hate Christmas. Rather, my parents took me and my sister to visit Santa Claus, and to Toronto’s annual Santa Claus Parade. We admired Christmas displays in department store windows, including Eaton’s and Simpsons. When people warmly wished us a “Merry Christmas,” we never hesitated and wished them the same.

Are you surprised by this? Don’t be. My family grew up in an era where most people, regardless of religious denomination, enjoyed Christmas‘ festive spirit. We believed Christmas was for everyone, and we were pleased to participate in it in our own way.

Yet while my mother enjoyed Christmas, she never completely embraced this holiday.

For example, she wasn’t comfortable having a Christmas tree in our house. While my mother enjoyed looking at them, the very thought of having one was verboten.

My father and I both liked Christmas trees. He would always put up a small artificial Christmas tree in his office. When Christian clients came in, they smiled at him for this kind gesture. When Jewish clients came in and looked quizzically at the tree, he would smile at them and call it a Hanukkah bush.

Hence, we attempted on a few occasions to change my mother’s mind so that we could get a Christmas tree.

Here are a few strategies that I vaguely recall. “Why don’t we try it for one year and see what you think?” “Wouldn’t it be nice to decorate it with lights, ornaments and tinsel?” “What about an artificial tree, since it won’t shed any needles?” “Aw, come on. Why not?” (The last one was mine, of course.)

Alas, my mother’s answer was always the same: “No.”

Why? She never had a Christmas tree. Most of her close friends didn’t have one. Truth be told, she didn’t grow up with this custom — and likely perceived it to be a Christian tradition.

That’s not entirely accurate, however.

The history of Christmas trees dates back to 15th or 16th century Germany, but it also has a long association as a pagan symbol. In 19th-century America, people were only just beginning to accept this long-honored European tradition as their own.

My mother didn’t see it that way, and continued to look at Christmas trees from afar.

Until I started the tradition of bringing them into my house 15 years ago, that is. My father was quite excited, and wanted to come over and put up some ornaments. (My wife, who is Christian, has a superb collection of them.) It helped fulfill our dream of having a Christmas tree of our own to decorate.

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