In the 70s, “they” used to say that kids who were completely forbidden from eating junk food ended up becoming the equivalent of cookie crack heads when left to their own devices later on. I was not forbidden from eating junk food but ended up becoming the equivalent of a cookie crack head anyway. And in today’s day and age I’m sure “they” no longer say that. My point is, growing up Jewish in my town meant growing up with Christmas tree envy. Sure, we had menorahs and mezzuzahs and clear, golden plastic dreidels filled with gelt. But they didn’t cut the deli mustard.
Christmas trees just never struck me as religion-specific. Their German appellation — tannenbaum — is, after all, a common Jewish last name, is it not? To me, they simply symbolized the good side of winter, an impending 10 days off from school, the festive mood of the holidays, and most important, being like everyone else. The smell, the tinsel, the lights, the colorful balls, the popcorn strings, the personal significance of each little ornament … they were the most beautiful home accessory I could imagine. I fantasized for years about what kind of tree I would get in the unlikely event Jews ever started getting Christmas trees. And it was always the tackiest, most over the top tree — white plastic with shiny silver garlands, blue spruce, sparkly orbs, blinking bulbs, battery-operated ornaments out of which came dancing Snoopy … in short, I was a Christmas tree crack head.
So it was kind of a dream come true when I married someone of Italian descent and at long last had justification for securing an actual Christmas tree. (Of course, plagued by Jewish guilt, I remain compelled to refer to them as “Chrismukkah bushes.”) And as it turned out, the tree selection tradition in Keith’s family was just as I always imagined such an activity would be. On the crisp Saturday morning after Thanksgiving, everyone caravans to an idyllic-sounding tree farm in western New Jersey. We partake in mediocre free coffee and cider, plus homemade donuts and cookies, and we walk the land. Afterwards, we return to my MIL and FIL’s house to make turkey sandwiches on white bread. This year, it happened to be 65 degrees, my nephew peed in his pants and my niece was painfully constipated, but that just added to the charm.
There was so much for a Jewish girl to learn! I’d never realized that not all trees were created equal — I’d thought, ignorantly, that the choice was merely real or fake. Blue spruce had a lovely color but painfully prickly needles, for instance, while Balsam fir gave off that iconic piney smell. And who knew?! You actually had to water the trees! Tinsel was a nightmare, as it shed out of control and left its DNA in random places until Memorial Day. Getting a tree topper to stay on? Not so easy. Those balls I had so admired as a girl? They broke if you breathed on them. (Perhaps this is not the case if you buy them somewhere other than Target.) Also new to me? The idea of bases and skirts, available in different sizes to accommodate whatever type of tree you had.
Selecting ornaments, however, was pure joy and came easy to me. I found the strength to resist my own tacky taste (sort of). I pinpointed a plethora of interfaithy options, including my personal favorite, a ceramic disc featuring Santa Claus, a Hassidic rabbi and the text “Oy to the World.” Kiki brought us a Jonathan Adler piece sign. Katy imported a Latvian doggie. We have crystal doves, sparkle snowflakes, silver pine cones and, I am proud to say, a battery-operated dog house out of which comes dancing Snoopy.
But with the joy of the Chrismukkah bush comes the darker, more sinister side as well: the de-ornamentation and the removal of the dying icon. Keith was more than willing to assist in this process, but I felt, as a rite of marital passage, that I had to go through it alone. Last eve, while Keith attended a spin class, I forlornly packed up the aforementioned ornaments and called “The Guy” downstairs in our lobby who had said he would come fetch the tree carcass. When he arrived, he asked me if I wanted to keep the base.
Um … er … are bases disposable?! Do most people keep them?
“The Guy” looked at me like I was insane, which prompted me to explain that I was Jewish and thus dense, which prompted him to look at me like I was insane. It seemed to me that the base might be reusable, so I told him I wanted to keep it. Unfortunately, that meant someone had to actually separate it from the tree. Fortunately, it was pretty obvious that someone wasn’t going to be 5′, 100-lb me.
The Guy spent several minutes trying to dislodge the tree trunk, to no avail. Then I suggested he drag the tree in the base out to the cart and remove the base while the tree was upside down. The Guy agreed this was wise. What he’d neglected to ask – and what I’d neglected to think about – was that the base was still full of needly water. So, as the tree fell into the cart, the hallway got an unplanned bath. I felt terrible and did the first thing I could think of: I got my wet/dry Dust Buster and handed it to The Guy. The Guy looked at the size of the wet spot and then at the size of the vacuum and laughed. That seemed mean, but I tipped him nonetheless.
I felt like a very bad neighbor and, quite frankly, a moron. I had no choice but to wonder if maybe the genetic lack of handiness that afflicts my people is the very reason we do not have Hanukkah trees. There was only one place I could seek solace. I went to the plastic box in which I’d stored all the precious ornaments and pulled out the battery-operated dog house to see Snoopy dance one last time until next year.