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Our Pandemic Jewish Christmas Tree

2020 was the year of lost opportunities, and I feel it was hardest on my daughter, Amanda. October 2016, she almost died from sepsis; since then, Amanda has not taken any event or any person for granted. She manages an immune deficiency which means infusions and treatments and taking new precautions to be safe. She was wearing masks in public before it became cool.

2020, her senior year of college, was a huge disappointment, to say the least; unable to be at school in New York doing remote learning from home (which is no joy when you’re in an acting program). The first, second, and then third wave of COVID confined her to our home, except for doctor’s appointments. Her mental health suffered greatly, and I was always trying to find ways to “kiss it and make it better,” as mommies do; but, for medically complex kids, kisses are just not enough.

So, when her annual, “Why can’t we get a Christmas Tree??” question was asked, this time I stopped and thought about it.

Now, I’m the token Jew in my family. I don’t mean that I’m the only Jew, just the most

Jew-‘ish.” I am what they call a “temple regular”; more like a temple irregular, to be honest, because in the pandemic I’ve certainly not attended that many Jew Zooms. Still, compared to the rest of my family, I’m Uber Jew. So, for me to purchase a Christmas tree in December of 2020 was a huge surprise to everyone, including myself.

Growing up we decorated for Hanukkah, but my dad always wanted to “Celebrate Santa.” Mom was not on board with this, but like many pre-divorced women of 1970’s she let him do what he wanted to do. Dad’s grandparents were immigrants who wanted desperately to assimilate into American culture, and so they adopted the whole Santa Thing. We celebrated Hannukah and Santa. As far as gifts went, my dad, having poor impulse control, would go overboard buying me toys that we couldn’t afford and didn’t have space for in our apartment. Mom drew the line at getting a Christmas tree, that was just going too far. Not getting a Christmas Tree was one of the few things that we adhered to as Jews in our family, thus self-identifying as Jews not for the things we did, but for the things we avoided.

One year, when I was about five years old, my dad gave me a box of tinsel to keep under my bed and gave me instructions on what to do with it. Every morning, beginning with the first of December, I would wake up early, tiptoe down the long, carpeted hallway into the living room, and put one piece of tinsel on our plastic rubber tree plant. The “game” was to see how many days I could do this before Mom would notice. After a week or so I was getting bored with only putting one piece on, so I started putting two or three pieces on each morning. My mom pretended not to notice, even when I started grabbing handfuls of tinsel and putting them on the tree. She acquiesced and let us decorate the fake rubber tree plant after that.

Once I had my own kids, my dad still wanted to continue the Santa thing. It was fun, and when he married my catholic stepmom, I was gifted many beautiful decorations and ornaments that I would put on display for Christmas Eve. After she died, these items became even more precious, and they continued to have their place of display each Christmas. In our now multigenerational approach to Santa Decorating, I allowed my kids to decorate our fake Ficus in the living room. But I had always drawn a line in the sand when it came to a real (live or fake) Christmas tree.

But I realized that in the pandemic year 2020, and it being only a few years after almost losing my daughter, all the old rules have been thrown out the window. This has become the year we do “whatever works.” And, If she wanted a tree, I was gonna get her a Goddamned tree. Following in the family tradition of a fake trees, I would buy an artificial one.

Except that I made this decision on December 23rd.

Not far from our house was a Lowes. Isn’t Lowe’s one of those places where people buy artificial trees? I drove there, parked, and went inside.

I walked into the store and was surprised at how empty it was. Three store model trees of various height, width, and flocking stood together about 20 feet in front of me. To the right was one aisle of decorations and three people looking through the shelves.

Isn’t Christmas Eve tomorrow night? I mean, if it was one day until Passover or Hanukkah, you’d have frazzled Jewish moms practically grabbing holiday items out of other mom’s hands. I mean, I’ve been there, and I’ve been that mom.

I grabbed a one-foot tree made of colorful pom poms and a plain wreath, and then started looking for trees. I walked all around the aisle, and then to the other side of the store (maybe they had more displays?) and then back to where I started. I spotted man with a Lowe’s vest who looked young enough to be pleasant but old enough to no longer hate “old people,” and stopped him to ask where all the trees were. He pointed to the same trio of leftover store models.

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“Are they for sale?”

Here I reached the peak of his knowledge, and he went to find a manager to ask.

While he was gone, I looked at the prices, starting with the tall one covered in lights. HOLY CRAP, have fake trees always been hundreds of dollars? It wouldn’t fit in my car anyway. The second one was also all lit up, but completely covered in fake snow, which always felt like the wrong choice in Los Angeles.

The third one was a total Charlie Brown tree situation, the smallest one, about my height, kind of scrawny, it was not lit up because it was missing the power supply for the lights, and it was only $110. I knew Todd would be able to make the lights work. The branches looked like a hundred little kids must’ve played with it over the last month, but I didn’t care. This was it; this would be our first real fake tree.

Once I brought it home, it was GO TIME for decorating; dried strung orange slices and popcorn strings, playing Christmas music constantly, gingerbread houses, lots of hot cocoa, lit candles, a long centerpiece of pine branches and gold-painted candlesticks, a couple wreathes on the wall and hung lights everywhere. We completely “Santa-fied" the inside of our house.

And then I saw, Amanda was HAPPY. I was able to create something that made her happy. And seriously, that’s really the goal of Jewish Moms everywhere.

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