Jewish actress Natalie Portman announced to Jimmy Fallon that she is going to have a Christmas tree for the first time this year. And lots of people (including many of my rabbi friends) on social media are upset. This is something I hear every year from many of my rabbinic colleagues: Isn’t it horrible to see photos of Jews with Christmas trees?
It is not horrible. Personally, I don’t have a Christmas tree, and I don’t have any desire for one. Yet, I completely understand why some people who are Jewish do have Christmas trees, and often it comes down to the fact that many families have members of different faith backgrounds. In the case of Natalie Portman, she ordinarily celebrates Hanukkah in her home and attends Christmas at her in-laws. But, because of the overlapping timing of Christmas and Hanukkah this year, Natalie will be hosting the holidays, and she is getting a tree out of respect for the holiday that her non-Jewish family members will be celebrating.
This is one reason some Jews have Christmas trees: They have non-Jewish members of their families, and they want to have the tree for them. I liken this to having a birthday cake and decorations in your home in celebration of the birthday of another family member: it’s not your birthday, and yet you can decorate for a birthday party and celebrate with the person whose birthday it is. For Jews, Christmas is not our holiday, but it doesn’t mean we can’t participate in someone else’s Christmas celebration.
Some people who are Jewish may have a Christmas tree because they converted to Judaism and are accustomed to having a tree in their home. I’m comfortable with this as well, since the reality is that for many people, the tree is not a religious symbol. Just like I don’t think of trick or treating on Halloween or sending valentines for St. Valentine’s Day as religious activities, I know that a Christmas tree can also be seen as a secular symbol. When I lived in Cincinnati, a city with many Jews of Germanic origin, I learned that in 19th-century Europe, many German Jews celebrated Christmas as a secular holiday without religious symbolism. Thus, many people who are of Germanic origins continue to have a tree today – but not because it is imbued with any religious meaning for them. Their having a tree doesn’t make me uncomfortable at all, and it doesn’t make them any less Jewish.