Happy Bodhi Day

Inspired by a conversation with a druid herbalist, Rabbi Rami reflects on the many holidays happening this season.

Ours is the only house on the block without a Christmas tree. Concerned neighbors, knowing we are Jews yet hating to see us miss out on the joy of Christmas, often suggest we get a tree saying, “Christmas trees are really a druid practice, so you Jews could have a tree like the rest of us without being Christian.”

“That’s true,” I say, “but as you noted, we’re Jews, and we’re very concerned with cultural appropriation, so we’ll leave the tree to you druid.” Sometimes my humor fails to land.

I told my niece the druid story over the phone the other day when she called, upset by her company’s decision to not allow any holy day decorations in the office this year. No hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah), no creche, no Kwanzaa candles, and no Buddha statue for Bodhi Day (Buddha’s Enlightenment Day was December 8). All they would allow is a giant fir tree beautifully decorated with tinsel and red and green lights: what you and I (and my niece) would call a Christmas tree. She didn’t find my witty comeback to my neighbor funny either.

She complained to senior management—not about my story but about the tree—and was told—apropos of my neighbors—that a Christmas tree was not a Christian symbol.

Recently I interviewed Ellen Evert Hopman on the Spirituality+Health Podcast. Unlike my neighbors, Ellen is a druid, and the author of The Sacred Herbs of Yule and Christmas: Remedies, Recipes, Magic & Brews for the Winter Season. Her book shows the Pagan roots of Christmas symbols but, unlike my niece's bosses, doesn’t erase Christianity in the process. On the contrary, it is her deep knowledge of druid wisdom and ancient Christian folk practices that invite her readers to enrich their celebration of Christmas as Christians.

I feel for Christians at Christmastime. The call to put “Christ back in Christmas” is a desperate plea to reclaim Christianity from the maw of capitalism, and the notion that a Christmas tree isn’t Christian suggests that the plea is falling on deaf ears.

Of course, I would like to put Jesus back in Christmas as well. Not Jesus the Christ, but Jesus the Jew. With all the antisemitism sweeping the globe, Christmas is the perfect time for Christians to remind themselves and the world that Jesus and his mom were Jews. It gets a bit more complicated regarding his dad. I don’t expect this to happen this year. After all, if you can’t admit that a Christmas tree is Christian, how are you going to admit that Jesus is a Jew?

Anyway, if I ran a company, and I felt I could only honor one holy day this December and had to choose among a druid tree, a Christian creche, a Jewish hanukkiah, Kwanzaa candles, and a statue of Buddha, I’d go for the latter. After all, enlightenment is for everyone. Happy belated Bodhi Day!

Listen to the podcast episode that inspired this essay here.

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Happy Bodhi Day

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