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Branching Out

"It just feels weird to me." Sarah is trying to explain why she went a little ashen when I told her I want to have a Christmas tree this year, which would be a first for 5-year-old Aaron and his sister Rebecca, who's 3. My wife and I have been tiptoeing around this issue ever since it was just the two of us in an apartment that might have had space for a tree if we didn't mind putting the fridge in storage. The subject hardly came up even after we bought a big old house that for the 90 winters before we moved in probably had never not had its halls decked with boughs of holly.

Sarah didn't say much, but I couldn't help but notice her deafening lack of enthusiasm at my suggestion that a corner of our living room — the very nook where her grandfather's cherished oil painting hangs — be taken over for a month by an evergreen squatter.

She no doubt figured she'd be the one vacuuming up pine needles. And, more to the point, she's Jewish.

Not to be bah-humbug about the whole thing, but what's the point of having your own tree if you're never home until the after-Christmas sales shelves are barren? Or, to put it in more philosophical terms: If a tree lights up at Christmas and no one is around to see it, does it still shine?

Once the children came along, though, my thinking started to change — even though our holiday road trips didn't. An "aha!" moment came over the summer when I asked Aaron what he remembered about last Christmas. "When we got to Papa Kal and Abuela Olga's house the lights on their tree were shining," he said. "And it was the middle of the day!" He rattled off other remembrances and that tree was standing in the middle of every one.

The tree is key, I'm convinced, and always has been. In the dusty old family photo album inside my head, I see glowing ornaments in every image from my childhood — reflecting off my grand- father's specs at the dining room table, gleaming over my shiny new red bike, twinkling through the front window as we turn into the driveway in our churchgoing best. I still smell the fresh, clean pine, feel the delicate smoothness of the needles. The tree's multisensory assault embroidered a myriad of memories into the fabric of who I am.

My earliest recollection, in fact, is from the Christmas just before I turned 4, when I awoke before dawn and badgered my snoozing mom into letting me go see what Santa had brought. A half hour later, when she came downstairs for breakfast, there I was buried in a pile of wrapping paper. I had opened every present under the tree — not just the ones meant for me, but Mom's, my grandparents', even the one for the day's dinner guests. I don't recall my mother's reaction any more than I remember mine when I ripped open a box and pulled out a woman's sweater, but I can picture her standing frozen on the stairs like it happened just yesterday. I see her in my mind every time I smell pine.

My kids need a Christmas tree. It will mean a lot to them now, even more when they look back years from now. I'm just going to have to get over the fact that our tree will go unlit on Christmas Day. Aaron and Rebecca will see it go up and help decorate it a few days before we leave, and it'll greet them when we arrive home weary from our travels. I owe it to my children to be okay with this. And I'm thinking my wife does too.

I understand how Sarah feels about having a Christmas tree in her house. I get a weird sensation in the pit of my belly every year when she first pulls out the menorah, tries to lead the kids through a prayer song in Hebrew, and lights a candle before dinner. I just stare down into my soup. But by the eighth night (it's eight, right?) of Hanukkah, the menorah lighting feels almost normal, just something we do as a family. When I explain this to my wife, she doesn't seem moved . . . until she hears the word family. Then she brightens up. Is she thinking of the kids? No, she's thinking of different family members. "Okay, I'm fine with having a tree," she finally says, "but it has to be from my parents' farm." Oh, did I forget to mention that my Jewish in-laws grow and sell Christmas trees?

"One other thing," says Sarah. "I don't want to call it a Christmas tree. Let's call it a solstice tree." Time for the weird feeling again. I know humans have been honoring the winter solstice since before the baby Jesus was born. So I'm down with solstice, I really am. But don't take away my Chri — I mean, my kids' — Christmas. Not quite knowing how to express this sentiment to Sarah, I just take her suggestion to its logical next step.

"Okay, a solstice tree, great idea!" I gush. "What a joyful holiday it'll be, the family huddled in front of the solstice tree and lighting the candelabra and . . ." "The what?" Sarah interrupts. "The candelabra?" "Well, if we're taking Christmas out of the Christmas tree, it's only right that we remove Hanukkah from the menorah, right?"

Sarah gazes into my eyes for a moment, knowing my bark is worse than my bite, then proceeds as if I hadn't said a word. "I don't want green and red balls all over the tree either," she says. "I'd rather we have, say, blue and white." She says this as if pulling those colors out of thin air. I counter by suggesting we either eliminate the whole Judeo-Christian palette or keep all colors in play. "It'll be a rainbow solstice tree!" I say. "We can give the kids tie-dyed organic socks to wear with their Birkenstocks."

This time Sarah laughs. (It's okay to make fun of paganism, just not Judaism.) Then she offers a sensible compromise: "Maybe we should just decorate the tree with popcorn and cranberries." Apparently my wife's one-week stint as a Camp Fire Girl came during the Christmas season. "Nice idea, but I don't think so," I say. "Rebecca will eat all of the decorations. Within an hour we'll have a naked tree."

Sarah laughs again, and suddenly it occurs to me that the impossible is happening: We're having fun discussing a topic we've been avoiding for years because it seemed too sticky for wiggle room. We continue throwing ground rules back and forth, now enjoying the sport of it. "No nativity scene on the lawn, okay?" she says. "All right," I agree, "and no sacrificial burnings either." We nix crucifixes and Stars of David as tree decorations, along with Santas. That last one's tough for me, but I'm all about compromise. So is Sarah. "Reindeers are okay," she says.

I have one more concession to make, but I'm keeping it to myself for now. My wife is going to feel like a kid on Christmas when, a couple of days after the tree goes up, I vacuum up the pine needles.

About the Author: Jeff Wagenheim started thinking his family might need a tree when, during a Christmas carol sing-along at a friend's party last year, Rebecca proudly launched into "The Dreidel Song."

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