What I learned by getting my very first Christmas tree

The World
The branches of a Christmas tree ready to be harvested are seen in a field at Wick Farm in Colchester, Britain, November 29, 2017.

The branches of a Christmas tree ready to be harvested are seen in a field at Wick Farm in Colchester, Britain, Nov. 29, 2017.

Hannah McKay/Reuters

I've never had a Christmas tree.

Never bought one. Never decorated one.

I grew up in a Muslim family in Iran and moved to the US about a decade ago. Every Christmas, I watch as my non-Christian friends get in their cars, drive to a Christmas tree lot and pick out their favorite tree. And I wonder why.

When I ask them, they say it's because they want to get into the holiday spirit. Or, that it's pretty and smells good. If they have kids, the answer usually is "the kids love it."

So this year, for the first time, I wondered: Should I get one? And that set me off on a long, soul-searching journey with many twists and turns along the way. I had to grapple with questions about religion, identity and belonging. You know, all those easy themes!

To start, I decided to put on my journalist hat. To report the story as I would any other assignment.

Related: Are Christmas trees religious? Well, yes ... and no

Looking at the numbers, I found that my non-Christian friends who celebrate Christmas aren't alone. A Pew research survey from five years ago found that eight out of 10 non-Christians in the US celebrate Christmas. For example, 73 percent of Hindus do.

Priya Nagaraj is one of them. (She messaged me in the Global Nation Exchange discussion group on Facebook about her story.) She and her husband left India and moved to the States 14 years ago. Back then, they had one son. Today, they have two.

Nagaraj and her husband are Hindu but she says they are not super religious. She was educated in a convent and so Christmas has always been a part of her life. When they moved to the US, bringing home a Christmas tree wasn't a big leap.

"It was just a natural thing to decorate our house and get a very small Christmas tree, which would fit into our apartment," she says.

But as her kids got older, they had questions. "Nobody else celebrates our festivals and we are Hindus," she recalls them saying. "We celebrate Hindu festivals, so how important is Christmas to us?"

"But," she adds, "I think we have all settled with the fact that it’s nice to celebrate whatever we can celebrate."

I asked Nagaraj if she thinks celebrating Christmas as well as the traditional Hindu festivals adds another layer to her kids' identity, and whether she thinks there should be more emphasis on their Hindu festivals.

"I feel that pressure on myself," she responds, "so I do a little bit more for Hindu festivals than I would have otherwise. I do have to stretch myself a little. Take the time out even if I am working to make the special food that’s associated with that festival or dress up in Indian clothes at home so that they know it’s a festive day."

Yet, she told me, she does it because these festivals are a way to make memories as a family. "When we look back to our childhood," she explained, "I think festivals are very important. They do stand out in our memory. You associate [them] with people and laughter and a house full of guests or food or clothes and these are markers in our memory."

The more people I talked to, however, the more I realized everyone has their own reasons for getting a tree. I needed insight from people who know me better. I called for an emergency meeting with my co-workers.

Two of them, who are Jewish, told me, for them, getting a Christmas tree was out of the question. No way.

Another, Rupa Shenoy, said growing up in the US, her parents, from India, would get her one because they felt it was part of US culture. They didn’t want her to feel left out. Then she added this:

"I will say as an adult, I don’t do it because it seems like people do feel like it’s a Christian thing. So I want to be respectful of their religion, so if that’s a religious symbol, then I don’t want to be disrespectful to it."

The underdog Christmas tree.

The underdog Christmas tree.


Shirin Jaafari

Afterwards, I debriefed with Mike Wilkins, our sound engineer who was raised in a Christian family.

"As many people that were in this room," he said, "there were different opinions. From no tree at all … to the biggest, most giantest, go out and cut your own…"

He was right.

"Give it a shot. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, you don’t."

OK. But what do I even look for in a tree?

Another colleague, Lidiea Jean Kott, had some thoughts.

"I think it’s less about the technical facts about the tree for me, as someone who’s always gotten Christmas trees every year," she said. "It’s more like you go to the lot and then you look for a tree that kind of just speaks to you and connects to you. If you’re feeling kind of scruffy and it’s your first Christmas tree you’re buying as an adult, let’s say, you might be looking for a tree that’s an underdog tree."

An underdog tree. One that speaks to you.

Got it.

At a Christmas tree lot near where I live, I stared at the trees. There were small ones, giant ones, skinny ones and round ones.

I tried to recall the details from my conversation with Tim O’Connor, director of the National Christmas Tree Association, who had explained to me the different types of trees that are out there. (There are many, by the way).

And then, looking closer, I understood what my colleague Lidiea Jean Kott meant. There it was, a tiny, weak, under-performing tree. It was my underdog tree.

I took it home. Placed it in warm water, added plant food like I was instructed.

And by now, I’d heard at least a dozen Christmas tree stories. Happy ones, some sad.

But I also had my own.

And here’s the truth: I don’t have a clear answer as to why I wanted a Christmas tree this year. But now I have a little tree at home. And it needs me as much as I need it.

Note: I did get a tree but didn't forget about Rupa Shenoy's comment. That's why I asked religion reporter Matthew Bell to connect the dots.

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