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Sunday, Dec. 6, 2009

No tree this Christmas in some U.S. cities

The Associated Press

FRESNO, Calif. — I t's beginning to look a lot like . . . any other day.

In some cities and towns across the United States, tight budgets have become a cruel Grinch, forcing drastic cutbacks in municipal holiday displays and celebrations that people have enjoyed for generations.

The second Christmas since the financial meltdown is coming without ribbons, holly, wreaths and bows. It's coming without lights, decorated lamp posts and parades. Trees with all the trimmings have either been shrunken down or eliminated entirely.

"It's just so sad. Why not put a little holiday spirit into us?" said Joan Wilson, a part-time receptionist.

She bemoaned the decision to forgo the rite of December in which thousands of residents gather for the lighting of a six-story tree freshly cut from the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains.

The decision to call off the ceremony was just the latest disappointment for an impoverished region already battered by drought, recession and the housing crisis. Fresno's unemployment rate is nearly 16 percent, almost 6 points higher than the national average.

But after city layoffs and the prospect of a $28 million budget shortfall, spending public time and money on a tree would only cause more financial hardship.

"We're trying to be good fiscal stewards," Fresno spokesman Randy Reed said. "We have to use our resources more appropriately."

In Chicago, the $350,000, 17-meter blue spruce in Daley Plaza would be dwarfed by last year's tree, which stood 28 meters tall and cost more than $1 million.

Critics have described the new tree as "shabby." City officials said they also saved money by lighting it the day before Thanksgiving, breaking the 55-year tradition of doing so on the following day, which is more crowded.

The tree at the South Carolina Statehouse is 2 meters shorter than in the past, competing in stature with the Confederate soldiers' monument on the capitol's front lawn.

"We've got to be a little more careful with our money," said Jane Suggs with the Columbia Garden Club, which has been erecting the tree along one of the city's busiest streets for several years.

In Orlando, Florida, officials decided to leave 800 lamppost trees in storage so they could cut $250,000 in setup and electricity costs. When the city also snuffed out plans for its downtown tree, someone quickly donated two of them, including a 10-meter tree from a North Carolina farm that private companies pitched in to transport and set up.

But instead of standing at Orlando City Hall, the larger tree is in a downtown park next to the ice-skating rink. Volunteers and the Orlando Magic basketball team are helping to decorate it this weekend.

"The holiday spirit came out in people right away," said Heather Allebaugh, spokeswoman for Mayor Buddy Dyer. "These are things that give you hope during the holidays."

After 35 years, Somerset County, New Jersey, canceled its Festival of Trees, which was cut last year from 65 to 40 firs due to dwindling finances and volunteers.

For 43 years, Austin, Texas, has held an annual Trail of Lights, a 2-km-long promenade that costs $1 million and draws 300,000 people. But planners have dimmed the lights, scaling back the display into a simpler event around a central tree.

In New Berlin, Wisconsin, the Chamber of Commerce had no money to stage the city's annual Christmas parade. And in Alabama, the city of Vestivia Hills cut costs by moving its Dec. 1 parade to a park instead of closing the highway that runs through the center of town.

In Fresno, officials insist the town has not turned into Whoville, the town in the Dr. Seuss tale where the Grinch steals Christmas decorations.

The 80-year-old holiday parade is still set for Dec. 12, and some say it's just as well that the city is not cutting down a living tree that could help reduce greenhouse gases.

And City Hall will not be completely without Christmas spirit. In the lobby, the Metropolitan Museum has provided a 4-meter artificial fir bedecked with images reflecting the museum's current exhibit: the art of Dr. Seuss.

Elf under arrest

MORROW , Georgia (AP) A 45-year-old man dressed as an elf to have his picture taken with a mall Santa Claus has been jailed after telling the Santa that he was carrying dynamite.

Police told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Southlake Mall in suburban Atlanta was evacuated, but no explosives were found.

Morrow police arrested William C. Caldwell III, who was being held without bond Thursday in the Clayton County jail.

Police said Caldwell got in line Wednesday evening to have his picture taken with Santa Claus. Caldwell was not part of the mall's Christmas staff.

Police say when Caldwell reached the front of the line, he told Santa he had dynamite in his bag. The Santa called mall security and Caldwell was arrested.

Caldwell faces several charges, including having hoax devices and making terrorist threats.

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