Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Buy Your Tree Early Or Get a Rotten Yolka

'Tis the season for shopping, and Christmas/New Year's shopping begins with the quest for the perfect -- or at least an acceptable -- novogodnyaya yolka (New Year's tree).

In Russia and around the world this time of year, people are wrestling with that age-old accursed question: nastoyashchaya ili iskusstvennaya (real or artificial)? And these days the choices for Russia are greater than ever. The economy has ripened to the point where you can pay more than $1,000 for an iskusstvennaya yolka if you want to. On the other hand, I bought a tiny little artificial tree for my office desk for just 12,000 rubles ($2) the other day.

Unfortunately, the market for natural trees has not improved much since Soviet times. Now, as then, one can always resort to grabbing an ax and trudging out into the woods to poach one. Otherwise, the only choice is the traditional yolochny bazar (New Year's tree market), which miraculously pop up all over the country this time of year.

While the trees at the bazar are definitely nastoyashchiye (real), that is about all you can say for them. They remain some of the scrawniest, saddest looking things you've ever seen, every one of them evoking memories of Charlie Brown's Christmas. A couple of years ago, my Russian father-in-law brought back three trees from the bazar, which we artfully tied together into one tree that could be reasonably viewed from two or three different angles.

As New Year's eve draws closer late shoppers must resort to buying up yelovye vetki (pine boughs) from old women near metro entrances. To my mind, there are few moments more fully Dostoevskian than seeing a drunken alcoholic on New Year's eve spending the price of half a liter of vodka to buy a pathetic little tree branch to decorate his room in the communal apartment. And it happens every year, if you keep your eyes open.

Tree in hand, you need to decorate it. The first necessity is a podstavka dlya yolki (a tree stand). This was one of the hardest things to find in the entire Soviet economy, but now it should pose no problem.

After that, just stock up on all the usual decorations, a collection of diminutive words that sound as cute as the real things look: igrushki, shary, kolokol'chiki and lampochki (decorations, balls, little bells and lights). Lampochki, incidentally, can be either migayushchiye (flashing) or nemigayushchiye (steady burning). And don't forget the dozhdik (tinsel, literally, little rain).

Under the tree, Russians place a small Ded Moroz (Father Frost), with or without his nubile sidekick Snegurochka (Snow Maiden).

At this point, you can lean back, relax, drink a cup of tea or introduce your Russian friends to the concept of eggnog. Then it's back into the streets for some podarki (gifts) to put under your yolka.