I was raised Jewish -- and I wholeheartedly, unashamedly love Christmas and all it entails. (Except for the totally useless deluge of new Christmas albums released every year by the flavor of the week's R&B stars.) I've never wanted to be the lonely Jew on Christmas, stubbornly hanging on to tradition at the expense of the holly and fruitcake that everyone else got to enjoy. I love Christmas cookies, strands of electric lights, eggnog, Christmas cards, and most of all, I adore, worship, and simply go ga-ga for Christmas trees.
I think it has to do with wanting what you can't have, or wanting what you've never had. Every winter I would play at my friends' houses, and gaze longingly at the towering pyramids of pine needles and ornaments, lovingly adorned with heirloom bulbs and figurines. And you can tell a lot about a family by their Christmas tree; some favored little dolls handed down from generation to generation, others the flashier, collectable Hallmark figurines, and others just a minimalist dash of tinsel and a sleek silver star.
Then I would come home to our menorah, which, although it involved fire, really couldn't compare.
One year when I was in high school my friend Heather invited me to her house for her family's annual Christmas tree trimming party. Heather had a two-story family room, and every year they bought the biggest Christmas tree they could find, because they had dozens and dozens of tree ornaments of all kinds with which to trim it. "Trim" wasn't even the right word; "smother" might be more accurate. In other words, this was a Christmas tree philosophy I lovingly embraced.
This year they had bought a beautiful 15-foot tree, straight and lush with fragrant needles. It was so tall that they had to haul out their stepladders so that we could reach the top half of tree to trim it. Unfortunately, they only had two ladders, both taken by the time I got there. One ladder, nearly nestled within the tree itself, was standing just behind a pair of very tall high-backed armchairs on either side of a chessboard table. The armchairs were occupied by two of our friends, who were having a lively chess match. I solved the tree problem by climbing up the wrong side of the ladder and sitting delicately on the back of the closer armchair, with my feet resting on the wrong side of the ladder rungs.
I tottered on my perch within the arms of the tree, a full seven feet above the ground, half-listening to the chess match, half-listening to the carols on the stereo, while I happily decked the mammoth tree in popcorn strands and tinsel.
"Angels we have heard on high..."
"You think you can sacrifice your knight and still pull this game off?"
"Sweetly singing o'er the plains..."
"Your reverse psychology won't work on me, you know. You're going to lose this match."
"And the mountains in reply..."
"[click click click of chess pieces moving]"
"Echoing their joyous strains."
The boy in my armchair had just lost the match. "Stupid game!" he shouted, and leapt forward out of the chair, stomping off to sulk. Unfortunately for me, I was still sitting on the top of the chair, although not for long. When the loser jumped from the chair, my weight immediately caused the armchair to unbalance and flip backwards.
My feet tangled in the rungs and I was thrown down into the tree, through the branches, through the popcorn strands, through the tinsel, through seven feet of sturdy pine and dozens of glass ornaments.
Stunned and breathless, I lay on the floor--well, I sort of lay on the floor, one of my legs had been caught on a branch and it was kind of bent above me--as I heard everyone rush over. A few drifting pine needles floated down on me. There were popcorn strands in my mouth. There was tinsel in my nose. There seemed to be a small wooden Santa under by increasingly aching butt. I think at that moment I finally understood what it meant to be swallowed up by Christmas and all its trappings. For one brief moment I had been the tree, I had been the tinsel and bulbs and needles and music and all that Christmas meant.
And yeah...I loved it.