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Growing up Jewish, we never had a Christmas tree.

From a pretty young age, I would explain to my parents that trees pre-dated Christianity. The the idea was to bring life into the house during the darkest days of the year; to keep life going through the longest night of the year when, it was believed, the world died.

But my parents didn’t buy my arguments… or a tree. I even changed tactics and argued for a Hanukkah bush. To no avail. Apparently celebrating pagan traditions didn’t go over any better in my family than celebrating Christian ones.

I always figured that as an adult, I would have a tree.

But the years have gone by, houses have come and gone. This house under construction, that house too small, and then, finally: the perfect tree house with half-sized Victorian doors in a niche leading to a small porch—the tree would look perfect there! But my back was bad, so I couldn’t bring home a tree myself and my husband was working overtime running two stores through the holiday season.

Instead, I’ve bought smaller bits of greenery inside as the darkness descends:

  • rosemary for remembrance
  • holly to keep menacing spirits at bay
  • mistletoe for love and luck
  • pine needles for tea—a traditional source of vitamin C that the natives of this land gave those odd white men who emerged from their boats suffering from scurvy.

This past weekend we flew to New York for some family time with my in-laws, since we won’t be together for Christmas this year.

Usually the tree is up and decorated when we arrive. But this year, when we walked into their cozy Bronxville co-op, it was treeless.

On our weekend agenda was collecting the tree and decorating it.

I thought I knew trees. I thought they were a meaningful pagan tradition made meaningless by the advent of Christianity, a useless holdover like the appendix.

I thought they were a rootless tradition: that no one actually knew why they had a tree anymore and the spruces in their twinkly lights had become mere decor.

Turns out the appendix is a dormitory for beneficial bacteria, making it an essential part of both the digestive and immune systems…

…And the Christmas tree is a repository for memories, a living lineage connecting past to future.

Three boxes came up from basement storage, each ornament carefully packed with newspaper and bubble wrap.

Out came macaroni angels and tattered antique balls. The next layer down had santas— so many santas! —gifted over the years.

As each shrinky-dink and spray-painted extravaganza was unwrapped, a story emerged. Favorite ornaments, the ones with the best stories, were rooted out from the bottom of the box.

Where is Sputnik?
You still have that thing?
Of course I do! You made it in second grade…

I drank tea and hung ornaments, learned about grandparents and neighbors and cousins. Childhood stories were retold, travels recounted and memories unpacked from between protective layers of tissue paper.

I thought I knew Christmas trees.

I thought they brought life into the house through the darkest days.

Turns out the Christmas tree can be more than that.

It can create a blaze of light through the darkest part of the year, rekindling remembrance, and laughter, and joy. It can stand vigil in the darkness, hung and adorned with generations of love.

Whatever you are celebrating, I wish you the happiest of holiday seasons.