Better a Christmas Tree Than a St George's Cross

04/12/2014 12:57 GMT | Updated 02/02/2015 10:59 GMT

Let's not pretend that the twinkling fairy lights don't look lovely. With a gust of festive spirit (and varying amounts of taste), dull high streets have this week been elevated to a sparkling beacon of good cheer. My three-year-old is ecstatic. And so am I. We have taken to spotting Christmas trees. In a couple of weeks we'll make a family outing to buy our own, we'll decorate it with store-bought and handed-down and homemade ornaments, and on Christmas we'll sit around it to open presents. The week before Christmas, probably in front of the tree, we'll light our menorah.

This is normal, if not for many British Jews then at least for us. It is a merging of traditions and a symbol of inclusivity. But I will never forget the Chanukah when the rabbi visited us for tea. I was around eight, probably wound to a state of agitation by the imminent arrival of Santa Claus (despite my growing concerns about the scientific feasibility of his task), and about midway through my picture advent calendar, not chocolate. I am sure that as a consequence I would never have remembered the trivial event of the rabbi's visit, except for the rather more memorable fact that when he arrived we lead him to the table via a farcical course past the loo and through the utility room, so as to prevent him catching sight of the Christmas tree we had lovingly adorned in the lounge.

Why did we do this? Of course we must have felt guilty about the tree. Or at least my parents must have. Despite the reality that the origins of the Christmas tree have been traced back to an array of non-Christian beginnings including: pagan winter rites; efforts by the Egyptians, Chinese and even Hebrews to symbolize eternal life; and Scandinavian attempts to scare away the devil. Rarely have they actually been linked to anything 'religiously' Christian, more often being condemned by puritans including Oliver Cromwell as a 'heathen tradition'. Yet I distinctly remember, back then, feeling that having a Christmas tree in our Jewish home was something we shouldn't really be doing. In fact so said certain Jewish school-friends who decried me as 'not properly Jewish'. (11-year-olds of 1991, please belatedly see above.)

Of course despite the truth of its origins, the fir tree is something that we do associate with Christmas. To me, this has always been in a jolly, festive kind of way, and a welcome 'British' part of my composite identity. But I can see why some Jewish people do not embrace it. The customs of many faiths, particularly Jewish ones, exist in part to separate and distinguish. Understandably. Over centuries in which Jews have been scattered across the globe in non-Jewish lands - in many cases pressured to renounce their practices - it was one way to maintain the group's cohesion, to keep it alive and distinct. Yet in modern Britain, most Jews do not find it necessary to reject British (read Christian) traditions in order to protect their Jewish ones. Jews may not all procure Christmas trees and they won't be at midnight mass, but there are long queues for turkeys at the kosher butcher. I for one am glad of this. It demonstrates a decision to embrace and include, rather than detach and divide. It is a symbol of British-ness.

What is not a symbol of British-ness, is the St George's Cross. White vans aside, and whether or not Emily Thornberry intended last week's tweet with a sneer, the image of the English flag is a powerful modern symbol. Despite the energetic eulogizing of an array of politicians, for most of us, it does not conjure images of Shakespeare and rolling pastures. Outside of the football pitch, the hoisting of the English flag tells one specific message: that is, an intentional decision not to hoist the British flag. The Cross is exclusive. Why not the Union Jack?

In certain contexts, of course the Cross has benign and proud connotations. But a 2012 YouGov poll revealed that 24% of English people considered the flag to be racist. And hung from a window? In a not-very-flag-waving nation? It is naïve to pretend there is nothing deliberate in this decision. Just as it is naïve to pretend that when we see a woman in a full burqa we think, interesting fashion choice. No, we think subjugation. Symbols have meanings. Some are inclusive and welcoming, others the opposite.

Politicians do a disservice to the public to pretend otherwise. It is possible to celebrate difference while encouraging cohesion, but that is not by - out of fear or misplaced respect - ignoring the symbols that divide. It is possible to laud tolerance while criticizing those (flag-wavers?) who undermine it. And it is possible to be Jewish - or English, or Muslim, or Jedi - while embracing British-ness.

I hope this year to demonstrate this to my three-year-old by simultaneously eating Chanukah latkes, spinning the dreidel, and jigging away to Buble's Jingle Bells. In front of the Christmas tree, of course.