Every year, Father Tom Hartman and I would write two columns for this holiday season. He would write a Hanukkah card to our Jewish readers explaining what he loved about Hanukkah and I would do the same thing for our Christian readers explaining what I love about Christmas. Tommy is alive and hanging in there, but he can’t write anything anymore, but I can still hold up my side of the seasonal God Squad tradition.
I love Christmas trees. To make something as common as a small tree the symbol of God’s great love is a symbolic triumph and, with a manger under the tree, a perfect symbol. For both Christians and Jews, God is first manifest to us in the most humble surroundings, not on the thunderous summit of a great peak. When God first appeared to Moses, it was in the midst of a small burning bush. It, along with the manger, is a visual theology of humility that cannot be surpassed.
I also especially love Christmas tree decorations such as the lights, tinsel, ornaments and angel tree toppers. I most fondly remember the bubbling colored water candle ornaments that I used to help my neighbor Dick Albrecht carefully position around his tree on Olsen Avenue in Shorewood, Wis. Sadly, those bubble lights have virtually disappeared because they probably violated every possible electrical fire safety code, but they were magical to me.
I love the tinsel that we used to string across the branches of his real tree. As with the bubble lights, I do not see much tinsel anymore. The same seems to be true for fragile glass ornaments but I remember them well. Children learn how holidays look and taste and smell long before they learn what they mean. Decorated Christmas trees are theology for pint-size theologians.
The tree-topper angels were also essential to dressing out a proper Christmas tree. I remember seeing a sign in a department store (Remember those?) that read, “All angels 40 percent off.” I loved the irony of that sale sign. One thing I know for certain is that real angels are never discounted because they always come as a gift.
The decked-out Christmas tree represents a kind of theological hierarchy. The presents under the tree were the lowest, most commercial level, of the holiday and the angels at the very top of the tree the very highest. For Christians, the tree is a perfect symbol for the place where heaven and earth kiss.
In fairness, I must admit that I do not love all Christmas trees. I only love real Christmas trees, as in real. I do not remember there being that many fake Christmas trees in my youth. Even though fake trees are more economical and ecofriendly, they lack the scent of freshly cut pine, and that scent – was absolutely essential to the whole Christmas mood.
I know that Christmas trees are merely a Teutonic secular custom of Der Tannenbaum, and, unless there is a creche under the tree, the connection between Christmas trees and the birth of a savior is tenuous at best. It is about as remote a connection as that between bunnies and Easter. No matter. The Christmas tree is a symbol of something special and beautiful and wondrous.
Perhaps this is why more than a few Jewish homes have tried to adopt the tree tradition as a “Hanukkah bush.” I can’t endorse such an act of crass religious identity theft, but I understand it. I would just say to my fellow Christmas tree-loving Jewish readers that I don’t love Christmas trees as a repressed secret Christian. I love them the way you might love the wonderful parents of your best friend. You don’t wish that they were your parents, but you are so glad that they exist.
Loving something doesn’t always mean wanting it for yourself.