Christmas tree for secular family with Jewish heritage?

I’d love for our family to pick out a real Christmas tree each year, bring it home, decorate it with the littles, and just have the magic of the scene, but my husband is afraid it will hurt his Orthodox Jewish parents. My family isn’t religious and I don’t believe in God (and neither does my husband), so the holidays for us are simply a time of family togetherness and enjoying special scenes around town. Each year we throw a fun Christma-Hannu-Kwanzika party- a mish mash of music food and white elephant fun. There’s no religious element. One year we did pick out and decorate a tree with lights and tons of blue and silver Stars of David. We also had tons of snowflakes and menorahs and holiday lights in and outside the house. I love decorating for the seasons and especially love the pretty lights of this time of year. Anyway, my in-laws happened to see our tree in the background on Skype. Apparently my mother-in-law cried. My husband says that for them, a tree is a big sign of assimilation. Like, you really are not like where and what you came from. I don’t want to hurt them, yet I’m still yearning for a tree. Anyone relate?

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I can relate. My family is culturally Christian but not at all religious, my husband's family is Muslim, and we are both atheists. Our kids are happy Bay Area children with some exposure to most flavors of religious beliefs and happily partake in traditions of all sorts. For me, decorating a Christmas tree and setting out stockings is one of my favorite traditions of the year, and my husband loves it too. His mother, however, also learned of our tree and was devastated. I think she has a hard time understanding the idea of secular celebration. My husband tried to explain that there's no religion in Christmas for us, that it's just about family and service, but she doesn't understand. We also have a Star of David on our tree (something my daughter proudly made at school one day) and it just feels easy and natural to us. I will say that my MIL originally told us that our children would be confused and without an identity, and I think she's softened on that position over the years as she's seen them just feel so comfortable in this multicultural community we live in. So I offer empathy if not advice!

Jews don't have Christmas trees.  Period.  I would find Jewish symbols on a Christmas tree deeply offensive.  Christmas is a Christian holiday.  I respect that and love helping my friends celebrate THEIR holiday.  I often have non-Jewish friends come to my house to celebrate Jewish holidays.  I have often trimmed trees with friends at their homes.  But to deny that Christmas is Christian (which is what you suggest) is just to make Christianity the default, the norm, the expectation, the absolute.  

Yes, it can be hard for the Jewish kid who sees pretty trees at  friends' houses. They will get over it.  Indeed, it is an important part of growing up and learning to respect  differences rather than trying to suppress them.  Jewish kids who grow up without trees know what it is like to not be part of the dominant culture; they will have more understanding of those in similar or analogous situations.  That is a great lesson.  You can live without a tree.

I can relate, and I know this is hard.  In my case I grew up in a Catholic family and all of my favorite childhood memories revolve around Christmas and the tree.  But my husband is Jewish and for him, having a tree in the house symbolizes betraying his identity in a complicated way that is hard to articulate but very real.  This was a big issue for us early in our marriage but ultimately I felt like there was more at stake for him than for me-- that the negative emotions he would feel outweighed the positive emotions I would feel.  So I'd encourage you to think comparatively about what this is worth to you vs. the impact on your husband and your in-laws.  Over the years I have missed the tree much less, and we've found other, more neutral ways to both honor my family history and create new shared traditions together.

This is my family :) many people feel like Xmas trees aren’t religious or no big deal but it really is for some Jewish families. That said I have a mixed family and we have two approaches—a large potted tree that we decorate every year and just lived in our house all year, or waiting until the Xmas tree farm is closed Xmas day or day after and get a free tree then.

Your post reminded me of what my parents used to do.My great grandmother was an Orthodox Jew so they would just hide the tree in the basement when she came over.

Sure I can relate. I never saw my Jewish father so angry as he was when when I put up "Christmas" decorations. I put that in quotes because it has nothing to do with Christ. And to a jew it really doesn't matter. Jews do not take on the traditions of any other religion ever! Not the Christians, not the Pagans, not the Druids. Seems to me, that if neither of you adhere to the Jewish religion, that would be the sticking point. But a tree does sort of rub it in their faces. Maybe you could have a  Hanukkah celebration with them and then hide all your decorations. 

We are culturally Jewish (and raising our kids loosely Jewish, inasmuch as they are of any faith, though we are both agnostics) and we do have a Christmas tree and a secular celebration of the holiday with Santa and all that comes along with that, as I grew up with these traditions as a child in an interfaith family. My husband's parents, who are Conservative Jews, aren't in love with it but have come to terms with it. What has helped was to frame it as unique traditions that we had made for our own family. I do hear your in-laws' concerns about assimilation, but it sounds like the reality is that this ship has sailed, and you are not raising your children in a devout (or perhaps even practicing?) household. For us, it helped when we enrolled our older child in Hebrew school (there are several pretty progressive options in the East Bay that welcome both interfaith and cultural-but-not-practicing families). Somehow that put my in-laws' minds at ease, and we appreciated that it gave our child a better sense of cultural heritage. He was far from the only child who also celebrated Christmas, so it was also helpful for him to see that other families do the mishmash too (and to hear why). You also don't mention how you were raised yourself--if a Christmas tree and celebration of the holiday was part of your background, you can also lift this up as embracing traditions from both families. Good luck, and happy holidays!

I definitely relate. My family is Orthodox, but we are atheist, secular Jews and we get a christmas tree, in addition to menorahs and lights and stockings and lots of holiday parties. It's a lot of fun for the kids and I like the rituals around Christmas as well as Hanukkah. My mother gets annoyed but oh well - the boys are circumsized and I'll allow them a birthright trip when it's time for that. I think that because its the second year now that your in-laws will get a glimpse of the tree, the emotion of pain over assimilation will hopefully be lessened. But they're not wrong - your family is not like where the prior generation came from. But that's okay. It's life. Enjoy your holidays. Acknowledge sentimentality and your in-laws' culture. These are not mutually exclusive. 

Since I gather they are not actually visiting, you just need to Skype/have video conversations more carefully. Do them in an enclosed room where the tree isn't visible.

I also suggest you talk with your children so they understand--all video chats with Grandma and Grandpa need to happen out of sight of the tree, and rehearse "what do I do if they call me."  To make it simple, and ethical, tell them--"We do not lie, and we will tell the truth if we are asked. But we are going to be discreet and not show Grandma/Grandpa the tree because  it means something very different to them that is upsetting. Seeing the tree makes them unhappy, and we want them to be happy." I think this falls under the category of "being kind" by being careful about what they disclose. Don't suggest that they lie, just that they don't volunteer information or transmit pictures that are upsetting.

It's also perhaps time to talk about how to balance showing love for other people and being kind even when we have widely divergent religious beliefs, while being true to our own beliefs.

Clearly, since you are not an observant Jew, the "assimilation" is already happening, but this is a fact your in-laws don't wish to face. It may not the be last conflict you and they have over assimilation, but I think you can navigate this one without compromising your own beliefs.

Good luck!

Honestly, you might want to skip the tree this year. Maybe add it back in in the future. But with all the anti-Semitic attacks lately, the ubiquitous nature of Christmas in this country could feel like a way to make non-Christians invisible.

I can relate, and I understand the way you feel. Tricky business, the "December dilemma". I'm the Christian half of a Jewish/Christian couple, and I too love the decorations and coziness of a tree. So we have a Christmas tree, though we keep it out of the FaceTime calls with my inlaws, out of respect and love for them. We also have large menorahs and prominent Jewish decorations in a separate part of the living room, and we host a Hanukkah ONLY party, when we do exclusively Jewish blessings, food, and games. (That's the balance we've struck - I'm not saying this is the "right" compromise. I'm not trying to judge you.). This issue isn't going away anytime soon, and as your "littles" become "biggers," it's going to become important for you to communicate to your inlaws that you do what's best for your family, full stop. If you and your husband decide that a tree is the right choice for your family, then that's the decision and so be it. But it's good to check in with your husband. How does he feel about the decorations? Even if he's not religious, he may have feelings about the tree. (My husband definitely does.) Does your husband share any of his parents' concerns? In this time of raging anti-semitism, it might be make sense to teach your littles a little about Hanukkah -- if not in a religious sense, then just in a cultural sense. The themes of Hannukah are beautiful and it's a way to connect your children to their grandparents. (And again, I'm saying this as the non-Jewish spouse ;))

Good luck -- I know this isn't easy.

Yes.  We are not Christian. We have a tree. It is a highlight of the year for our children. I respect the beliefs of my parents and my in-laws, but they do not control our family beliefs and traditions.

What about decorating with an evergreen garland? You can put lights and a few ornaments on it, but it is not as symbolically loaded as a tree.

As a response to the commenter here who insists that "Christmas is a Christian holiday" -- ALL of these "Christian" holidays have Pagan roots; why not explore the significance of a "Yule" tree indoors during this time of year, and what it symbolizes. My family has a wonderful Winter Solstice celebration, which includes baking, music, lighting of candles, and yes - a tree. There's no law that says you can't imbue these traditions with your own significance, and having a tree in your house certainly doesn't make you Christian.

Since you aren't Jewish, I'm curious if you had a Jewish wedding that led your in laws to believe you would raise the kids as Jews? If not, I'm not sure why they would be so surprised that your kids would be 'assimilated'-- particularly since lineage is matrilineal and as a non-Jewish Mom, your children aren't considered Jewish by Orthodox/Conservative Jews...

Like many who have commented, I was raised Christian but am now agnostic and my husband was raised a Conservative Jew but now believes in God but doesn't practice. Our situation is a little different because I had a child from a previous marriage who isn't of Jewish descent (so we were already celebrating xmas with her for several years before my second daughter was born).

However, when our daughter was born (with Jewish hubby), it was important for me that she have a naming ceremony so she would have a Hebrew name like everyone on her Dad's side of the family. I educated myself about it, planned it, asked members of his family to read passages during the ceremony.  My DH and I had the same rabbi perform the ceremony who had performed several other ceremonies for their family, etc.  Over the years, I've taken her to Hanukkah celebrations for kids, signed her up to receive PJ library books to learn about Jewish culture, and had her attend a Jewish Day camp one summer--because as a non-Jew, I can't teach her about her Jewish heritage and her Dad isn't interested in that.  My goal is that if, as an adult, she wants to be part of the Jewish community/religion she has some context and it doesn't feel foreign to her.  Her (Jewish) grandparents have appreciated this effort, but they also realize that as non-Jew, I grew up with different traditions and they don't expect me to not celebrate holidays that are important to me.  So every year we celebrate both Hanukkah (the girls light the candles and say the blessings) and Christmas (and Easter and Purim). My in-laws give the Hanukkah presents and my parents give them xmas presents.  Both girls understand the concept of a good deed/mitzvah, and we both volunteer and donate a modest amount of money each year that the girls participate in choosing the charity. 

You and your husband should chose what is right for your family, and it sounds like celebrating the holidays of your childhood is important to you.  If so, then maybe there is another way that your in laws could feel like your kids are still getting some exposure to Jewish culture/religion--perhaps they could help with the cost of a day or sleepaway Jewish camp or with the cost of Hebrew lessons (if your kids want to do their bar/bat mitzvah when they are older), etc.? If your husband is interested, he could lead the family through Jewish traditions that he grew up with. Or you could make food associated with certain Jewish holidays.  Just a few ideas to get started with...good luck with your decision and...happy holidays! ;-)

It is a Christian Holiday and the tree is a symbol of that. One person I know made a Gingerbread forest for Tu'B'Shevat (the New Year of the Trees). Is there some way for you to enjoy trees without having an actual Christmas tree? It might be easier for you, if you celebrate more holidays -- secular ones like Thanksgiving or 4th of July -- Jewish ones like Tu'B'Shevat, Purim and Passover. You could decorate the house and hold parties/seders for them. We do a latke fest at Channukah -- I make all kinds of Latkes and decorate the house for the party with Jewish symbols. The more culturally Jewish activities you and your children engage in the easier it will be to let go of the Christian holidays. (We also sometimes admire our Christian-background friend's trees, and go to their cookie parties, etc.)