Christmas Trees: A Love Story
I went to Catholic grammar school for five years, fourth through eighth grade. The nuns always taught us, “Jesus was a Jew, Joseph and Mary were Jews, and the twelve Apostles were Jews.” Of course there were no Jews in my Catholic grammar school and if there were Jews in my public high school in the early sixties, I didn’t know any. I met Jews for the first time when I came back to San Francisco to go to State College. Then the flood gates opened and there was no turning back. I had Jewish best friends, Jewish boyfriends and after college, Jewish roommates.
The first Jews I met were from New York and Chicago. They seemed much more worldly than I, a shy know-nothing girl from the Peninsula. They were funny, irreverent and had opinions about things I was interested in. I liked that.
After college my Jewish roommates always wanted me to put up a Christmas tree. “Oh, we love the smell. The lights make the house feel so warm and friendly.” I would always put up a tree even though it meant that I had to do all the work: moving furniture, buying the tree, dragging it into the house. Putting on the lights is the worst job since they have to be untangled from the previous year. Putting on the ornaments is fun. Four weeks later the whole process has to be reversed.
1979 is the year my then-future husband, Corey, and I started living together. At that time I was living in a wonderful two-bedroom apartment on 17th Street between Dolores and Guerrero. In addition to the two bedrooms, there was a nice-sized front room and a spacious, sunny room in the back. My roommate at the time, Steve P., had grown up in a workers’ co-op in Brooklyn. Years later he went down to Mississippi to register African-Americans to vote. He was an excellent artist who designed video games for a living. Like most of my Jewish friends at the time, he didn’t go to temple. However, he would never allow ham or bacon in the house, not because of the dietary laws, but because he didn’t like the smell. When we went to El Faro’s he always ordered an “all pork with extra pork” burrito.
Corey, a Jew from Chicago, was living in a house on Church Street with two roommates. One was a San Francisco-born Jew, my first! When we decided Corey would move in with me, a trade was arranged. I sent my New York Jew to Church Street, and I got a Chicago Jew with “benefits” in exchange.
The first year we lived together, Corey came to me in early December and said, “Are you going to put up a tree this year? I really love the smell.”
I said, “Yes, of course, I always put up a tree.”
The second year we lived together, he came to me right after Thanksgiving and said, “You can’t put up a tree this year. It’s a symbol of the dominant Christian society which has oppressed my people for centuries. I don’t want that symbol in my house. You can’t have a tree.”
“You can’t tell me I can’t have a tree,” I said. “You can’t tell me that. You can tell me that you don’t want the tree in our shared space and I will respect that request. I will put the tree in my room. But you can’t tell me I can’t have one.”
“Okay, as long as I don’t have to see it.”
I was setting up the tree in my own room when Corey came home, peeked in, saw the tree and said, “That’s a beautiful tree. You can put it in the front room if you want.” So I did. The question of whether or not I could have a tree at Christmas has never come up again.
A few years later, it was pouring rain on the evening after work that I was going to get the tree.
Corey said, “I hate to see you going out in this weather by yourself. I’ll go with you.” I was thinking, “What a sweetheart!” when he added, “And I’ll help you pick it out because you never get the right size.”
I knew that wasn’t true and anyway he’d only known me for five years. I let the comment slide, though, because I really wanted him to go with me, especially so he could drive in the bad weather.
While I paid, Corey worked with the guys from the Christmas tree lot to get the tree on the roof of our car. At home, he helped me get the tree off the car and up our front stairs. As soon as we were inside, he put down his end of the tree and said, “That’s it. I am not doing anything else. You have to do the rest.” Well, okay, there’s no real change here!
Now Corey goes with me every year to buy the tree. Although he has tried to avoid it, he’s gotten more involved with the tree over time. First, he determined a better table to put the tree onto. Then he decreed that the perfect-size tree for us is five feet, exactly my height, as he noted. Eventually, he got me to purchase a permanent tree stand so that we would not have to contend with those awful little green plastic bowls they sell you at the lot to keep the tree moist. The permanent tree stand requires two people to set and stabilize the tree and move it onto the table. So he has to help me.
Over many years of living with Jews as friends and lovers, I’ve learned to appreciate Judaism for the number of spiritual moments that can occur in the home without the requirement of a priest or a rabbi to be present: Shabbat candle-lighting, Passover dinners, and especially Hanukkah. I have a small but impressive collection of Hanukkah menorahs that I bring out every year at the appropriate time. On each of the eight nights I make sure every menorah has the correct number of candles. On the nights we are home, Corey says the prayers and we light the candles together. When Christmas and Hanukkah overlap, our house is brightened by a beautifully lighted tree in the front room window and candles glowing in the dining room.
Corey and I lived in interfaith harmony for decades, and then the predictable happened. A few years ago while driving home with a tree atop the car, he turned to me and said, “I want to put the lights on the tree this year because you don’t do it right.” I don’t believe this guy! How would he know? I don’t argue with him though. He is welcome to that job, my least favorite.
Six years ago my mother, who was 88 at the time, fell in her home and broke her hip. After months of rehab it became clear that she would need 24-hour care permanently. In order for the family to put her into a decent assisted living facility, we had to sell her home in Menlo Park. That created a very stressful situation between my two brothers and me. As the oldest, the only girl and the only one living near Mom, I managed the sale and controlled the money. My brothers let me know they did not trust me with Mom’s money. Although they didn’t want to be involved in deciding what to do, they questioned everything I did.
The first year after her fall, Corey came to me in December, as he always did, to ask, “When do you want to go get the tree?”
“I’m not putting up a tree this year,” I said. “Can’t you see how miserable I am all the time? My mother hates her life, my brothers don’t trust me, and I have to do everything. It doesn’t feel like Christmas, and I’m not putting up a tree!”
“You have to put up a tree this year,” Corey said. “You have to. It will make you feel better. You’ll come home and see the tree all lit up and you’ll feel warm and cozy.”
I didn’t believe him, but I didn’t have the bandwidth to argue about it. On the appointed day we went together to get the tree as we have always done. We brought it into the house together, set it in the stand and moved it to the table. Then Corey put the lights on it. Finally, I put on the ornaments. As I was hanging my favorites in just the right places, I felt my spirits lift. I felt my heart open to the possibility of joy in the world again. Knowing that my Jewish husband, who plays clarinet in the temple choir and goes to weekly Torah study, loves our Christmas tree tradition as much as I do brings me great joy. I like that.
About Pat Skala
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