You’d think that 57 years of life and 33 years of marriage would be enough to get your traditions in order. It’s not. Traditions are like your kids growing up; every time you think you have them figured out, they change on you.
Take Christmas, the central tradition of my childhood. The Christmas tree is not an easy tradition to bring to a mixed Christian-Jewish marriage. The roots of the Christmas tree lie in Germany where they do Christmas really well. The Germans, and Swiss Germans in my case, don’t water this holiday down to a generic Happy Holiday. It’s Wheinachten. It’s a holy night, no questions asked. It’s magical. It’s a month of Advent and wreaths, and Stollen, and Handel, and snow, and stockings, all culminating, like Burning Man, with family and friends basking in the glow of fire. For us, two dozen live candles on an eight foot Noble Pine.
The trouble is, for a short while Germans also hung Swastika ornaments in their Christmas trees, and for my mother in law, who escaped from Vienna on her own Kindertransport, the season is too proximate to Kristallnacht for comfort. Burning candles on a Christmas tree is somehow connected with the fires of 95 burning synagogues in Vienna. So I studied Maimonides and we were married under a Chuppah and broke a glass for good luck to set us off on our own traditions.
Living as newlyweds in Seattle, away from family, we joined with other young adults trying to figure things out. For ten years we gathered with friends for Thanksgiving, in apartments, in newly mortgaged houses, and on our boat that served as our apartment. We joined in Seders. We lit Hanukah candles.
But we were restless, so we left. We left work behind and sailed the waters of British Columbia, the Pacific, and Mexico, ultimately settling in the Bay Area near family. Young professionals now, energetic, without child, we joined a circle of friends around biking. Our traditions became the Grizzly Peak Century, the Markleeville Death Ride, the Marin Century. There was skiing in December and January; later there was squash, tennis, and music. For several years we attended Camp Harmony music camp on New Years, Fiddletunes in summer. There were weekly music lessons.
But we moved on. Kayla arrived. Soon there was Halloween, birthdays, play-dates, and the JCC pre-school, which, for a brief time, enhanced the profile of the Jewish calendar for us. Then there was soccer, and for ten years our life revolved around practices, games, and the struggles of a team progressing from recreational to competitive, to elite competition. But that too ended.
Through it all Christmas was present through its absence. Our first two years in the Bay Area we put up a tree, but it did not take. The tradition soon succumbed to spousal discomfort and our desire to give a non-mixed identity to our daughter. But what were we thinking? We celebrated Hanukah and Passover, and noted the passing of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We did not observe Shabbat, Rosh Kadesh, Tu B’Shevat, Purim or any of the other holidays on the Jewish calendar. How do you instill religious traditions in a secular household?
And now Kayla has moved on. We are left behind with all traditions inconstant. Hanukah is long past, this year, and somehow the absence of Christmas has hit hard. So this morning we walked the Haight, ate a tuna melt sandwich at the Ice Creamery on Cole, and returned with a Christmas tree from Cole Hardware. We dug out the old ornaments from the back of the closet, put 18 candles on the tree, and called our daughter. “It makes me want to come home,” she said. And all is well with the world.