In some cities, Christmas comes without tree

/ Source: The Associated Press

It's beginning to look a lot like ... any other day.

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

The second Christmas since the financial meltdown is coming without the 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, bemoaning the decision in Fresno 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.

Latest disappointment
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 is nearly 16 percent, almost 6 percentage 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, 56-foot blue spruce in Daley Plaza would be dwarfed by last year's tree, which stood 90 feet 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 on 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 6 feet 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.

Leaving trees in storage
In Orlando, Fla., 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 31-footer 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, N.J., canceled its Festival of Trees, which was already cut last year from 65 to 40 firs because of dwindling finances and volunteers.

For 43 years, Austin, Texas, has held an annual Trail of Lights, a mile-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, Wis., 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 12-foot artificial fir bedecked with images reflecting the museum's current exhibit: the art of Dr. Seuss.