When I was very young, before we moved to Manhattan from the Newark suburbs, my mother divided people into two categories: those who put up real trees on Christmas, and those who went artificial. Without explaining exactly why, she made it clear that artificial tree-buyers were beneath contempt. All of her friends put up natural trees, if they weren’t too bohemian or too Jewish to disdain the holiday altogether. Either coincidentally, or because I followed her cues, so did all of mine.
It wasn’t until I was 18 and away at college that I began to understand the logic behind my mother’s aversion. Watching Goodfellas, which had hit theaters the previous week, I saw Ray Liotta burst onto the screen, screaming, “KAREN! I GOT THE MOST EXPENSIVE TREE THEY HAD!” The tree he was carrying was white, obviously to symbolize the source of the family income. I got the message: people who chose artificial trees were all gangsters. They kept mistresses in Ozone Park crash pads decorated by Maurice Valencia, and shot nice black guitarists in the back of the head. My mother had not raised me to be a snob, but this crowd was clearly Not Quite Our Kind, Dear.
Since then, this view has softened somewhat, though more from time than direct exposure. In all my life, I’ve spent exactly one Christmas at a home with an artificial tree. It belonged to — hopefully I’m getting this right — my buddy’s girlfriend’s grandmother. The good woman greeted us on Christmas morning, having fixed enough food for two dozen people. Before anyone had eaten so much a toe of his gingerbread man, she vanished on some mysterious family business. A couple of hours later, the girlfriend’s sister showed up and announced that her ex-husband had hanged himself. The four of us — me, buddy, girlfriend, sister — spent the next three days sitting on the living room floor, in our underwear, watching Blair Witch Project in a continuous loop as we ate turkey and trifle and three-bean salad with our hands. It must have been something in the artificial pine scent.
This hermeneutic of suspicion roared back to life yesterday, when President Obama caved in to public outcry and abandoned plans to tax fresh-cut natural Christmas trees at $0.15 per. I like a balanced budget as well as the next person, but it seems a little draconian to tax an item with its obsolescence built in so firmly. Even a beloved and pampered Douglas fir or blue spruce will last till St. Patrick‘s Day, at the latest. If the government wants to stimulate the Christmas-tree trade, let it claim its tunnage and poundage from artificial trees, any of which can last, by the look of the things, as long as a casket.
A tax on artificial trees would be fair in the conservative sense, since it would also be flat. The sticker prices for man-made trees vary astoundingly. At the happy medium, you’ve got your Vickerman Flocked Alaska 78-incher with clear G50 lights selling for $350 online. If you really want the Escalade of ersatz evergreens, you’ll go for the seven-and-a-half-foot Blackfoot at ChristmasTreesGalore. According to the catalogue, it’s both “pre-lit” and “full,” like the ideal Christmas dinner guest. If you need to ask how much that baby’ll run you, you might want to think about lowering your sights a little — say, in the direction of the Classic Pine Pre-Lit Pencil. Starting at $199, it’s a steal, especially since, being both green and unmistakably phallic, it could return to duty at Beltane.
A tax of $0.15 on every tree, regardless of size, shape or sweep would be a tip of the stocking cap to our nation’s top earners, and might even incentivize upgrading. Come on — a once-in-a-lifetime tax on a once-in-a-lifetime tree, and you’re going to settle for that thing? That four-foot Piedmont Fir? That Cheri Oteri of factory-built Abies pinsapo? Who in hell are you, anyway, Amish? Go on, Charlie Brown, try catching snowflakes on your tongue — it’s fun! It’s for the kids, isn’t it?
Yes, the tax might get passed on to the consumer, but with that kind of value, how would he notice? He’s not paying extra for lights, since they’re built into the very branches. Intuition tells me members of the artificial-tree demographic are not the types to beggar themselves at UNICEF gift shops, buying wooden Saint Niklauses and Zwarte Piets hand-painted by children in the slums of Jakarta. A black market? Fugghedaboutit. The kind of workmanship that goes into making a Carver Frasier pre-lit LED can’t be duplicated by just anyone with a shed, a few undocumented immigrants, and a copy of Atlas Shrugged. To put it another way, those beauties don’t grow on trees.