Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Decorating for the Seasons

Today I have some strange questions for you.

For the first time, I live in a neighborhood that loves to decorate for the seasons and holidays. October was great, with all the pumpkins and fall leaves a girl could ask for plus great Halloween decorations. Now I'm anxiously awaiting the Christmas decorations because I'm sure this will be an "electricity be damned!" extravaganza. 

This got me thinking. Other than Sukkot, I can't think of any "holiday decorations" in the sense that I grew up with in the secular American world (one Channukiah in a window isn't very impressive). My family wasn't Christian, but we did decorate for Christmas. Funny story: At 8, they sat me down and said, "We think we're provided you with good childhood memories of Christmas. We're still going to do presents and a big meal this year, but if you want a tree or decorations, you'll have to do it yourself from now on." I was never that into decorating, but I think this is a large reason I don't feel nostalgic for my childhood at Christmastime. That's allegedly a big dilemma for converts and candidates, but in my experience with individuals, it rarely plays out that way. Personally, I find Christmas very stressful and overwhelming, so I'm glad to only celebrate it in small doses with my family.

But...I still love seasonal decorations. Honestly, I'm far too lazy to decorate my house for something when there are so many other things that need to be done. But I love the pumpkins and fall leaves and snowflakes (so long as there's not real snow). I can't be the only one who feels that way, but I don't recall ever seeing such decorations in Jewish homes. Is there a fear that the decorations will be mistaken for non-Jewish holidays? Is it "just not done" because it's too "goyishe" (derogatory word for non-Jewish)? Is everyone else just as lazy as I am?

Sociologically, I would see a difference between fall and winter decorations. Winter decorations have become part and parcel of Christmas decorations, especially once you reach sleds and snowmen. (So does that mean that the new public obsession with penguins should be exempt?) However, there's nothing religious or even holiday-related about them. On the other hand, fall decorations are much more divorced from Halloween, which isn't even a Christian holiday to begin with. (Only you can decide whether to classify it as a secular or Pagan holiday.) Even if paper snowflakes or an evergreen wreath on the door is too goyishe, should fall leaves on the windows get a free pass?

Do seasonal decorations exist in the Jewish world but I just have lazy friends? What's your experience?

EDIT: Husband wants to add Thanksgiving decorations to the conversation. Do you think that's different?


  1. No. Whenever I see a house with seasonal decorations, even something generic with fall leaves, I know it's not a "Jewish house" (as people in my neighborhood would call it).

    I often see "Jewish houses" with posters on the door saying "Mazal tov! It's a girl" or something like that. And Bruchim Habaim signs, either made by toddlers in playgroup, or nice ones bought in Israel. But as for seasonal things, no.

    My kids go to public school and one of the things the little kids get to do is pick out a pumpkin. (Not PICK the pumpkin, mind you, but pick out one pumpkin from a pile of already picked pumpkin). My husband objected to the kids' participation on the grounds that pumpkins = Halloween. (I convinced him it was OK because a pumpkin is just a vegetable.) Often the pumpkin fundraiser is early in October, and we found the pumpkins made a nice addition to the sukkah.

  2. In the UK, where I live, non-Jews only decorate for Christmas, so perhaps I'm misunderstanding you. Still, my understanding is that most if not all the seasonal decorations you mention are religious rather than seasonal in historical origin (Christian or pagan). So it would be prohibited as verging on avodah zara (idolatry).

    Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable begins its entry on Christmas decorations: "The Roman festival of Saturn was held in December and the temples were decorated with greenery. The druids are associated with mistletoe and the Saxons used holly and ivy. These customs have been transferred to the Christian festival..." So such decorations seem religious to me. Brewer's has nothing on Jack O'Lanterns and the Wikipedia page seems confused, but suggests a pagan origin. On the other hand, this site suggests it stems from Catholicism. Either way, most frum people would avoid it.

    It's worth remembering that, if these things are pagan in origin, they are associated with nature worship and so the line between 'religious' and 'seasonal' is thin at best.

    Of course, lots of Jews buy cheap Christmas decorations in the January sales and save them to decorate their sukkah...

    1. When I say pumpkins, I don't mean jack o'lanterns. I mean whole pumpkins. Just wanted to make that clear.

    2. OK, never seen that at all in this country!

  3. Less religious folks I know would sooner attend a Christmas party than a Halloween one. Its a machlokes if Christianity is avodah zarah, but Halloween is pagan, and that's certainly assur.

    1. actually christmas and halloween are equally pagan. They are both pagan holidays that were co-opted by the church. They are both christian holidays but with the look and traditions of paganism.

  4. Asingle hanukah candle in a window is more impressive than any electro-xmatic-extravaganza or any tree. Especially inside the home where it counts! And to HaShem to remember a miracle! 8 days it burned and onlyone d pure vial or oil was found. The why is more important than the external and impressive show.

  5. I dunno... It attracts you because you had decorations as a kid. For people who did not, it never really tempts them... Same as foods you ate as a kid, I guess. It's not that I find it particularly non-jewish, it just does not particularly appeal to me.

  6. What a fantastic post.

    As a convert about to celebrate their first holiday season sans Christmas, I have to say that this has been on my mind since the start of autumn. As someone who celebrates the turning of the seasons and loves the unique emotions that each season brings, I am confronted with what my definition of celebration and decorating really is. My love of Nature, it's cycles and my Judiac-Panthiest leanings make this much easier so I wanted to share my thoughts.
    Autumn is a time of harvest and I think that the observance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fit in nicely with the idea of "reaping what you sow" and the maturity of things planted before. The amount of work you put in and the diligence to which you attended to things as a person comes to bear on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as real as the quality and quantity of that which a farmer harvests. The idea of sweet apples and honey are complimented by pumpkins and bales of hay around (hm, apple cider and pumpkin spice everything). I think that in particular, leaves are a great decoration. The dazzling transition of the trees reminding us that there is beauty even in the coldest, darkest times of our lives makes me see it as Nature's own version of a pastoral mourners kaddish in a way.
    I think for me it is also the lights. I mean during cold winter months, who doesn't enjoy a bit of additional soft illumination? Twinkling, multicolored lights everywhere makes the night not feel so long or dark or cold. I must admit that I hope the people who put so much time and effort into the lights, also spend as much time on their family, friends, themselves and find the same joy and comfort in the added colors in their lives as I do. My fondest memories of these lights come from recent friends and I, packed into a warm car-holiday spiced coffee in hand- singing along with holiday tunes on the radio as we drive around looking at Christmas lights on the houses. It is this time with friends that make my heart warm. But there is also something more personal as well. A cold winters night, sitting alone in my living room with a glass of warm wine, soft Christmas jazz playing as I look at ornaments handpicked from my travels...reminders of an awesome life... all backlit by a soft technicolor "keshet". I wonder if everyone wouldn't benefit from quiet nights like that, regardless of their personal faith.
    My Autumn months will continue to be celebrated in leaves, pumpkins, warm bread made from the first grains of the season and will be made that much better by the apples, honey and self reflection I now enjoy from a much more personal and intimate way because of my Jewish faith. And, my evergreen boughs, holly and hot cocoa will be made so much warmer by the presence of a menorah in my window representing my new community and the stories of hope and possibility that comes with it.

    Shalom and as always, thank you for this blog!

    Kelly :)

  7. My Orthodox Jewish neighbors reacted to my little display of seasonal gourds on my porch about as well as they would have reacted to my eating a bacon cheeseburger. They found it distinctly unJewish. The year I included some in my sukkah, they were particularly undone.

  8. I have a friend who decorates for every season, independent of holidays. It is leaves, chestnuts, grain for autumn from September to November; snowflakes, oranges, nuts, for winter from December to February; flowers for spring and I cannot remember what for summer. If you were to do something like that I don't see anything to object to. On the other hand, if you clearly start to decorate 2 weeks before some Xtian holiday and remove it two days afterwards, that would be more critical.

    For myself, I am not too much into decoration. My problem was the Xmas songs for a while. We use to do a lot of singing as children. Then for a few years while transitioning to a Jewish lifestyle I did not sing any at all and refused to listen to them. But now I can enjoy them and sing them again, but as something that has no significance for me, just because it has nice melodies. I don't sing this at home for myself, but I sing along with others. It is their holiday, not mine, but I can participate in the nice thing as long as they are not religious (I don't sing in services or anything, think singing for the elderly and poor). I don't think this compromises my Jewish identity in the least.

  9. Here in Israel, we regularly see a lot of the same non-specific Xmas decorations imported from the Far East hung in succahs.

  10. I'm from Puerto Rico and no one decorates for anything but Christmas or Easter, so I don't miss it quite as much... but I do have a wreath on my front door (matches the mezuzah) and I love owls, so I put a little fall-colored owl inside the wreath. :)