‘Twas the twilight before Christmas. As I walked past the display of yuletide and Chanukah decorations in the lobby of my Chicago condo, Byron, one of the deskmen, came up to me with a very un-Christmas-like frown. He had planned to purchase a Christmas tree on his way home. But someone on the late shift had called in sick, leaving him stuck at his post until midnight. Would I be willing and able to pick one up for him?
Although I’d been active in inter-faith work for many years, I’d never before been asked to purchase a Christmas tree. Perhaps Byron figured, not without reason, that the only rabbi living in a building of several hundred residents would be one the least likely to have plans for Christmas Eve. But in fact, I did. My wife and I were planning to follow the recent but already hallowed Jewish Christmas Eve tradition of meeting friends for a movie and Chinese dinner.
But not wanting to abandon Byron, a very nice man, I suggested that he keep seeking a volunteer. If he hadn’t found one by the time we returned, I would be pleased to help. It would be pretty late. But if any merchant stayed open late on Christmas Eve, it would be the one selling Christmas trees, the most seasonal of commodities.
By the time I returned, the weather had changed. It had begun snowing. And the unhappy look on Byron’s face told me that, like the unnamed guy in a famous Robert Frost poem about another snowy night, I had “promises to keep and miles to go and before I sleep.”
My wife reluctantly volunteered to come along. Insanity can be contagious.
Rational people would have delayed their departure long enough to ascertain some critical information. After all, how much does a rabbi know about Christmas tree shopping? To me, a Christmas tree is … well … a Christmas tree. But there are several genres, each one with a cadre of devotees. Which did Byron prefer? And price. Byron had said that he would reimburse me. But what’s a reasonable cost? Even price tags could be irrelevant. At 11:30 p.m. in a raging Chicago blizzard, are prices driven up by late shoppers’ desperation to bring home something, whatever the cost? Or are they driven down by the sellers’ desperation to unload this most seasonal of commodities while they still had some value? I was totally at the mercy of the vendor.
Luckily, we found a Christmas tree pop-up mart set up in a corner of a large CVS parking lot. There were a few trees lying on the ground, but no vendor. The little shack where one usually sits was empty. We waited a while arguing over which tree Byron would like best. But in time, it became apparent that the vendor had called it a night and gone home. My wife and I looked at each other, silently thinking the obvious Truth neither of us dared to speak. If Byron was to get a tree this snowy Christmas Eve in Chicago, we would have to steal one. This could prove extremely embarrassing if a cop happened by and caught us in the act. Headline in tomorrow’s newspaper: “Rabbi and Wife Busted for Stealing Christmas Tree on Christmas Eve.”
Just then, a quartet of Christmas revelers came down the street. By all appearances, they had enjoyed an evening overflowing with spiked egg nog and were now looking to purchase a tree. As we were the only ones there, they reached a logical conclusion and asked about prices. Ethics Issue #2: If we told them the truth — that the owner had gone home and we were planning to steal to a tree — wouldn’t that be encouraging larceny which might be even worse than committing it? So I made up a price — $40 — took their money, and wished them a Merry Christmas. My wife and I resolved our disagreement over which tree to steal by flipping a coin, and headed home with the winner illegally protruding from the trunk of our car.
Byron refused to believe our explanation for why reimbursement was unnecessary. He repeatedly proclaimed to anyone who would listen that the rabbi living on the 27th floor had gone out into the ice and snow to bring him a gift Christmas tree. This bestowed upon us a largely undeserved aura of saintliness that made us living legends throughout the building for at least the next week. (P.S. I gave the $40 to Catholic Charities.)
Truth be told, Byron’s request was something of a Christmas Eve Gift of the Magi to me. I have a deep love for Christmas. Despite the obscene commercialization, it often brings out the best in people. I’ve always wanted to participate, even as an outsider who doesn’t embrace its theological and historical underpinnings. I’ve filled slots at hospitals and elsewhere to enable Christian volunteers to celebrate with their families. But going out into the snow and freezing wind of a Chicago blizzard to bring back a Christmas tree for Byron was a joy I’ll never forget.
Rabbi Ira Youdovin is executive vice president emeritus of Chicago Board of Rabbis. He retired to Santa Barbara 12 years ago.