“Mind if we get a Christmas tree?” my roommate called out from her room on the other end of our Upper West Side apartment. Seemed like a perfectly normal holiday question—even for a Jew like me—but my thoughts spiraled back to the last time I’d heard that question, in the parking lot of a supermarket in Krakow.
The lot was cold and full of trees, beckoning as we searched for a spot. Our mission was clear: choose tree, buy tree, put tree in car.
Kevin examined each one for sturdiness and color, while I trailed my gloved hand nonchalantly along their edges, daring the needles to prick me.
“What about this one?” he asked, stroking a tall, strong tree.
“Nice,” I said, glancing his way.
“How about this?” he asked about a shorter, squatter, version of the first one.
“Fine,” I said, blowing the cold off my fingers.
When he found a tree that suited him, about my height and full, I shelled out half the cash, making small talk with the vendor, while Kevin trudged across the lot to get the car.
Chatting with Christmas tree vendors while hugging my piney purchase was not something I was accustomed to doing during my Jewish upbringing.
Kevin was the boyfriend who agreed with me on everything from post-Communist politics to unconventional travel destinations to a preference for decorative minimalism. But he also grew up opening presents under a big Christmas tree, while my holiday traditions included frying potato pancakes, spinning the dreidel and lighting the menorah eight nights a year.
Kevin and I headed into the supermarket that teamed with people. The little globes of ornaments in their plastic cubbyholes were metallic red and green, but standing there, the only colors I found myself drawn to were silver, yellow and blue: Jewish colors.
“What’s wrong with red?” he asked, fetching down a scarlet package.
“Nothing, I just like blue. Or how about white?” I suggested, thinking of the Israeli flag. He grabbed the red box and threw it into the cart; I flung it onto a shelf.
We decided to forego the ornaments and stick with lights. While Kevin picked out long colorful strands, I headed over to the craft aisle, where I found two sheets of construction paper, blue and yellow, and stuck them in the bottom of the cart.
We got the tree home, dragged it up the narrow steps and deposited it awkwardly in a corner of the living room. We strung up the lights and found an extra strand, which we hung on the wall. They looked like New York State, which I longed for more than I would admit.
Kevin started a round of computer solitaire. I sat on the couch watching CNN, cutting the yellow and blue paper until I had three blue rectangles and three yellow, intertwining them into triangles and forming a huge, blue-and-yellow Jewish star.
I taped the pieces together and took my art project over to the tree. I moved aside some of the long pine branches, finding a spot for my star to nestle in, and stepped back to admire my work.
“Look,” I said to Kevin, who turned from his game to the tree and rolled his eyes.
“You’re not putting that there,” he said finally.
“But I am,” I said, securing the star in the treetop. “Why can’t my religion be represented too?”
“It’s not about religion, I just like the tree. And it’s a Christmas tree, and it’s Christmas.”
“It’s Hanukkah, too,” I said irrelevantly, as the star was no more a symbol of Hanukkah than the tree was connected to the birth of baby Jesus.
But we weren’t just arguing about the star, the tree, the season. I realized we were telling the story of our separate lives together.
“I’m not looking at that thing!” Kevin said, exploding now.
“Fine!” I said, marching over to the tree. I ripped down the star and tore it to pieces, relishing the feel of it coming apart in my hands. When I had a pile of blue-and-yellow confetti in my palm, I threw it at Kevin. Some pieces glided under the computer table and stayed there for weeks. He shook one loose from his hair. The sun was going down outside, the lights illuminating the wall and the tree, reflecting red and green and blue and yellow in his eyes as I stared into them.
By the next Christmas—back in New York where I belonged—the city had re-embraced me and become my cradle again. My apartment, located four stories above the busy sidewalk, felt like home. On most nights, the neighbors across the street turned on Christmas lights that outlined the shape of a tree against their brick brownstone, which I could see from my bed.
My roommate bought her Christmas tree from one of the guys on Amsterdam Avenue, but I didn’t go with her to pick it out, or haul it upstairs or decorate it with baubles of any color. She would’ve gladly allowed me to place a homemade Jewish star atop her tree, but this time I didn’t ask.
Carolyn Slutsky has written for several other publications; she lives in Brooklyn with her menorah.