Some Jews Love a Christmas Tree. But a Creche? Oy!

I am a Jew who happens to have a Christian mother, a Christian husband, and a Christmas tree. There are lots of ways to rationalize the tree,  if you want to avoid confronting the meaning of Christmas. An evergreen has nothing to do with Jesus and is a druid or pagan pre-Christian symbol. Many secularized Jewish families had trees when I was growing up in the 60s, though some called them Hanukkah bushes.

But a creche? Not so much.

Every December in our adult discussion group at the Interfaith Families Project, facilitator Ian Spatz asks how many interfaith couples have a Christmas tree. Most raise their hands. Then he asks how many have lights strung outside their homes. Not as many hands go up, but some. Then he asks about the creche. One or two lonely hands go up, and inevitably, some Jewish guy asks, “What’s a creche?” According to some surveys by a Jewish organization (not a terribly objective source), about half of all interfaith families have Christmas trees, but only four percent tell their children the Christmas story.

Christmas trees are ubiquitous this time of year, and for better or worse, they can pass as “holiday” decorations divorced from the original Christmas narrative. But a creche (French for a nativity scene) is unambiguously religious. The baby Jesus himself lies in the manger, surrounded by all the characters in the story: Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, the wise men. The creche puts the Christ in Christmas decorations.

This week, Garrison Keillor lost many of his loyal fans when he made rather bizarre and snarky comments about Unitarians, and about Jews who wrote popular Christmas songs. He seemed greatly offended that these songs have nothing to do with the religious meaning of Christmas. Keillor sounded annoyed with the fact that the season, the lights in the darkness, the cocoa and family togetherness and midnight sledding, can have spiritual meaning for everyone, at least all of us living in northern climes, regardless of religion. Leaving Jesus out of a song does not by definition force one into a life of superficiality and commercialism.

I don’t know why Keillor is being so stingy with Christmas. I’m glad for the way great Jewish composers have contributed their songs to the season. But when we decided to raise our children with full knowledge of both religions, we agreed to reach deep into the religious meaning of Christmas, rather than skimming along the sparkly, sugar-frosted surface.  And that meant teaching our children that Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus.

We were living in Brazil when our children were babies, and I fell in love there with a quirky creche made up of little clay figures from the famed folkloric art center of Caruaru (in the photo above). For a while, we also arranged a cheesy, plastic Playmobil creche on a low  table so that the kids could play with the figurines and work out the nativity story.

Our children have heard many versions of the Jesus story: Jesus the political rebel, Jesus the revolutionary rabbi, Jesus the ascetic mystic, Jesus the great Muslim prophet, Jesus the son of God. As a Jew, I have no problem with most of these versions. And I have no problem with exposing my children to a Christmas that transparently celebrates the birth of an extraordinary figure, whoever he was.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

5 Replies to “Some Jews Love a Christmas Tree. But a Creche? Oy!”

  1. Growing up in an Episcopal family, we had a creche that my grandmother had given each of her five sons and their families. I never realized the creche smell I savored as we unpacked the Christmas decorations, was actually from the old plastic of the colored figurines. I inherited that creche when my mother died, and now set it up with an empty manger for the baby — the idea is to put a straw in the manger for every good deed you do, to make a soft bed for Jesus by the time he joins the scene Christmas eve. Last year my 18-year-old son, traveling in Barcelona, picked up a “pooper” to add to the menagerie. This is a tradition there – entire village scenes supplement the stable folk, and this guy is, yes, pooping, pants down to his knees. Tyler swears all the creches in Barcelona have them.

  2. I’m not much for creches, but I did like to tell my (Jewish) children the story behind Christmas when they were little, to help them understand why the Christian world finds it so compelling. A baby, a star, kings and barn animals — what’s not to love in a story like that?

    To Garrison, I say “feh.” Along with his “white christmas,” Rudolph and, roasted chestnuts (for all I know, a Jew wrote that, too), he should also throw out the tinsel on his tree. It, too, comes from Jews, as I learned in today’s Wall Street Journal (

    As for that tetchy, “un-Christian” screed by the Prairie Go-Home Companion, I liked this Baltimore Sun reader’s response: “If Christians like Garrison Keillor don’t want Christmas hijacked then they should keep it in their churches. Once you insist on putting it in the town square, in schools and everywhere possible, you have diluted the religious values you claim to cherish.”

    If I don’t take offense when strangers wish me “Merry Christmas,” then why should the save-Christmas types take umbrage at “happy holidays,” Festivus, New Year’s or any other way people observe the season? Winter was still non-denominational, last I checked.

  3. As a maker of creches and a long-time admirer of them and for what they stand for, I’m not only intrigued by the comments I’ve found in this blog, but also warmed by them as well. I agree with the basic premises of Keillor’s angst that Christmas has become too commercially sentimentalized for all the wrong reasons. I’m sure he had no ulterior motives and it’s hard not to fault the guy for wanting to see more people remembering the true essence of Christmas.

    As a Catholic, who’s also been on both sides of the Protestant/Catholic divide of Christianity, including a short while as a non-confirmed member of an Episcopal parish in western Massachusetts, I’m quite familiar with the various opinions about creches and their place within Christianity.

    What really sets me off is the continual mal-treatment of creches as merely decorative items. They are not “holiday decorations.” They are religious art and symbolic of both something and Someone very dear and precious to all practicing and believing Christians. That’s why I find thefts of the baby Jesus and desecrations of indoor creches and outdoor nativity … not to mention all the legal “culture wars” displays nothing less than sacreligious. Why is it any less a crime against God, and humanity to pull this stuff off than it is to desecrate a Menorah, Crucifix, or plain cross? It’s nothing less than a hate crime: Period. If our prosecutors start tacking 5 year hate crime sentences on top of what a perp would get for a “regular” vandalism charge, that might start deterring the punks from pulling this stuff off. (Besides, five years in the clink or on probation…they’re the easy part. Try explaining them for rest of one’s life when applying for a job. If that doesn’t make people start taking stock, what will?) Harsh? No; not it if deters future would-be similar criminals from even thinking of pulling this nonsense.

    Writing from a creche artist’s perspective — (I only build the stalls; people?…I leave them to whom the Lord gave them the talents to properly carve and shape them!) — I’m equally distressed to see creches treated even as appropriate toys for play in Sunday Schools instead of artistic creations which deserve respectful care. It’s not that I don’t want to see children being unable to touch, rearrange the pieces or have them placed out of reach. There are simple and sturdy creche sets just for that purpose. But when it comes to a parish’s primary nativity set, the one that somebody might equate with a household’s formal china, so-to-speak, just the very word “decoration” mentioned about such a creche in my ear-shot is enough to raise my blood pressure.

    Decorations are easy to pull together; and as such they’re easily treated as disposable items. Creches, even the simplest, deserve more respect than that. But when churches treat them as superfluous decorations, and prefer purchasing the plastic nativity or cheaply constructed wooden sets from large distributors and Wal-Mart, respectively, (which might’ve been made by sweat-shop workers in China, a nation which openly persecutes Christians!), my umbrage is very hard to keep in check.

    I have a website which I haven’t kept up to date; largely due to time spent working on new projects and sad to say, (cyber-sloth!) Some of that “cybersloth” is also attributable to to some depression settling in no thanks to coming across so many stories about vandalism and outright lack of appreciation for what the Creche is all about, even from people who should know better; parish and congregational leaders.

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your blog.
    Steven Barrett

  4. I’ve become convinced that all this hoo-hah reflects the tension between the Universal and the Particular. Both have merits. But some of us lean one way, believing in the joy of sharing everything, and some of us lean the other, reveling in the joy of uniqueness. Garrison Keillor’s popularity is based on his deep appreciation for and ability to communicate the uniqueness of a particular culture. So let’s try to be tolerant not only of other religions, races, and cultures, but of others’ penchant for Universalism or Particularism.

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