THE CHRISTMAS TREE CONSPIRACY

Every year about this time Christmas tree lots spring up on every vacant lot. And families happily buy their trees and haul them home in their station wagons or on top of their cars, to be decorated in the finest holiday regalia.

When I was a kid, the advent of the Christmas tree lots sparked the annual fight over whether or not we'd even have a tree in our house. The problem was my father was Catholic, and my mom was Jewish.

They obviously got married without any serious discussion about religious matters, and it wasn't until the first year that their child wanted a Christmas tree that full scale religious warfare broke out in the house.

Dad, of course, expected a tree. After all, he celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ. Mom, however, viewed a Christmas tree as some sort of pagan ritual and anyway, her parents wouldn't set foot in her home if there was a Christmas tree inside it. Since her parents lived in Detroit and we lived in Texas, my dad wasn't too worried about the absence of in-laws between early December and January 1st. If he'd had his way, there'd have been a Christmas tree up all year if it kept the in-laws away.

By the time I was 5, my parents had reached a semi-compromise, being every other year there'd be a Christmas tree. The compromise also included my going to parochial school, and attending shul at a Jewish temple on the weekends.

This quickly led to a rather confused understanding of matters religious from my perspective. Five days a week Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary (along with the Father, Son and Holy Ghost) dominated my religious up-bringing. And on Saturdays all of that was countered by lessons from the Talmud. Jesus...just another Jew. Messiah? No way. The Messiah hadn't come yet.

Then my parents got the bright idea of moving to Arizona, to live near my mom's parents, who had previously retired to the Southwest. The every-other-year Christmas tree compromise ended with a tree every year, and my grandfather didn't seem to mind. However, I distinctly remember my grandmother standing next to one of the trees and screwing up her face in serious disgust at her daughter's lack of resolve in adhering to the mandates of Jewish mothers to bring their children up in the Jewish faith, and thoroughly inculcate them with a sense of overwhelming guilt.

And I got to go to "normal" school, meaning a public institution without people dressed in black who carried rulers around to swat one on the palm if you screwed up.

But the Christian indoctrination didn't cease. American public schools in those days were as thoroughly religious as parochial schools. Not only was prayer common, the month of December was spent learning Christmas carols, making paper Santa Clauses, and praying for Santa to leave a brand new bike under the tree.

While I entered public school with a thoroughly schizophrenic attitude about religion, I discovered many Jewish kids just encountering the reality that they were minorities in a Christian society. And they had to learn to sing"Joy to the World" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" whether they liked it or not. I had the one and only advantage I can remember from elementary school days...I already knew the words.

Many years later raising my own kids in Judaism, the tree controversy flared up again. The pressure to conform and to celebrate the majority holiday is so great, it is hard not to have a tree. A living room looks quite bare in December without a twinkling tree in the corner.

But, rationalizing the tree a bit, it is really a pagan symbol of religions before Christianity, and has nothing to do with Christ. It is simply a symbol of the end of one year and the beginning of another. Of course, my mother-in-law managed to screw up her face with the same disgust upon seeing our family's first tree as my grandmother had 30 years prior.

Reform Judaism has been evolving rapidly since I was a child. I don't remember much singing. Now everyone sings. Cantors even play guitars. I guess sooner or later, the rabbis will figure out how to adopt the decorated pine tree into the religion, so the religious strife that breaks out in mixed marriages every year, and in the homes of families with kids who can't help but have a tree, will end.

You've got to hand it to those Christians. Maybe they can't sell Jesus Christ to the Jews. But they have sure made inroads into many homes with their trees.

BACK