Christmas Tree Grave-Robbing in a Mercedes

My father-in-law, a Russian Jew who came over from Moscow when he was in his twenties, is a fan of American Christmas. His holiday celebrations hit their pinnacle when he was with his second wife, a Catholic: she did it up right, with personalized stockings over the fireplace, a dinner conjured from the pages of Martha Stewart, a tree dressed up like the Vatican, and underneath a dense, shiny wilderness of presents. My first Christmases with Ben’s family followed this template, and they were memorable — especially the one where Ben’s step-mom’s brother, a priest, brought a gentleman friend and used the occasion to come out to the family. (Full story here.)

Nowadays Ben’s dad is married to another Russian, so the celebration is more muted; they pull out all the stops for New Year’s instead. On Christmas Eve we had dinner, played with babygirl, watched most of “It’s a Wonderful Life” on television at my request, because I had honestly never seen the movie and was tired of being ashamed of that, and went to bed.

On Christmas morning, Ben’s dad and I got in his luxury SUV and went grave-robbing.

“We’re going to get a tree tomorrow morning,” he had said in preparation, “if you’d like to come.”

“Cool!” I said. “I’ve never gone Christmas tree shopping before.”

My only experience with picking out a Christmas tree at all comes from When Harry Met Sally: Louis Armstrong croons in the background, snow swirls gently around a loving couple, they pick out a spruce or something from a vendor and carry it together hand in hand. I’m sure filthy lucre is exchanged at some point but the film tactfully glosses over that. Still, I’ve always wondered how much those things set you back. $50 a tree? $100? What is Christmas magic worth?

Then of course you have to factor in lights and ornaments. It must get pretty expensive.

I asked my father-in-law, once we were buckled in, whether there’s a discount if you get a fir on Christmas morning.

He looked at me then the same way one of his Russian friends looked at me once when I said I was writing a novel, and I realized the kind of discount we were talking about was a five-finger discount. “They don’t sell them anymore,” he said. “There’s a place in the next town over where the vendors leave the reject trees in a pile and you can just take what you want.”

“Oh!” I said. I became aware of my seat, which was warming my butt for me like the breath of a dedicated dog. “The cognitive dissonance is pretty intense,” I said, “stealing Christmas trees in a Mercedes.”

“I love cognitive dissonance,” he said, and we drove off.

He explained that he likes buying things; he finds it satisfying. His new wife, however, retains the Russian mentality that buying anything which one could get for free is the height of stupidity. Rules in Russia are made with the expectation that people will break them whenever possible. Being canny and practical is the only way to survive the winter. (Sex, vodka, and fleece socks also help.)

Unfortunately, when we got to the Christmas tree lot, it was a bald patch on the earth. No trees at all. On the other side of the street was a nursery. Was that perhaps what we were looking for? We parked the Mercedes in the driveway and my father-in-law went out to test a spruce, but no go: it resisted being pulled, rooted firmly in the dirt.

We drove around to several more towns. No luck. Either the free trees had been snatched up at dawn by even more canny and practical Russians, or they had all been sold, or Santa had carted them back to the North Pole for purposes of his own.

“What now?” I asked my frustrated father-in-law.

“Now I suppose we wait for other people to throw out their trees and grab one before New Year’s.”

Dumpster diving for Christmas trees! I’m only sorry I won’t be around to participate.