Archive for December, 2005

8 yo knows there is a Santa

It is not how big a present is or how much it cost, but who it’s from and what it means to the recipient that matters.

Eight-year-old Angel Cortes reaffirmed that after he got a letter from an old friend, Santa Claus.

Angel sent a wish list to Santa on Dec. 17 after he was released from the hospital. He had been taken there after accidentally running into a plate-glass door.

He got a reply from Santa six days later.

“What a very special letter I have received from you,” Santa wrote. “As you must of sent your letter attached to a white balloon, the winds shifted and sent it eastward towards Texas where a (Bryan) Jones recovered it in a most remote area and then forwarded (it) to me.”

It was up in the air

Angel’s mother, Josefina Cortes, explained how Angel’s letter was sent.

“Our family gathers with other families for a Christmas party every year and our kids write letters to Santa,” Cortes said. After the letters are written, they are tied to the helium-filled balloons and released.

On the day of the party in Nogales, Sonora, Angel accidentally ran into a glass door breaking it and cutting his cheek.

“I don’t remember what it felt like but it hurt me a little,” he said.

After spending an hour in Los Robles Hospital in Nogales, Sonora and receiving 14 stitches on his cheek, Angel released his balloon.

Traveling more than 600 miles to Texas, it ended up in the hands of Jones, who at the time was quail hunting.

In a telephone interview, Jones said, “What impressed me the most is that I got the letter two days after it was sent.”

Jones said he was “in a most remote area and then I saw the balloon. It caught my eye because it was white and when I read it, I thought, ‘what a brilliant kid.'”

Jones said he then sent the letter to Santa.

Angel said he will write to Jones to thank him for giving the letter to Santa.

“I am happy he wrote back to me and I know now that Santa Claus really does exist,” he said.

Angel program spreads joy

Think your Christmas shopping list is long? Try fulfilling the needs and desires of 144 families and more than 400 children.

And try checking that list twice.
The Family Resource Center and the Salvation Army teamed up for the annual Christmas Angel program, which has helped Coolidge families enjoy the holidays for the past 18 years. The program provided Christmas dinners and gift packages for 144 families this year.

A bevy of volunteers gathered last week to take on the arduous – but rewarding – task of gathering age- and gender-appropriate gifts, organizing food baskets, and delivering Christmas cheer to local families in need. Judging by the hearty hams in the food baskets, parents will be pleased. Judging by the bicycles, stuffed animals and compact disc players loaded into gift bundles, kids should be downright ecstatic.

Rosie Murrieta, a case manager with the FRC, said she had “lost count” when the number of children touched by the program exceeded 400.

“The donations just poured in this year,” she said.

A nice bonus for the volunteers this year was a change in venue. For years, Garrett Motors has offered an old company warehouse for the Christmas Angel program to store and organize its gifts and food items. The only problem: the efforts had to end when it got dark outside, and in case you didn’t notice, it tends to get pretty cold in December. This year, the program shifted its operations to the board room at the Coolidge Unified School District office.

“Being able to have a warm spot to work in was nice,” said Dr. Bonnie Palmer, FRC director. “We are certainly deeply grateful to Garrett’s for allowing us to use the warehouse all these years, but it was nice to work until 8 p.m. with plenty of light and bathrooms.”

Palmer said a crew of winter visitors really stepped up to the plate, many of them working 12-hour days to ensure that needy local families received a dose of Christmas spirit.

“And operating out of the district office involved a lot more principals and administrators, several of whom went out on deliveries,” Palmer said. With school not letting out until Dec. 23, Palmer said it was difficult to enlist the help of programs such as the Coolidge High School basketball team that have traditionally aided the Christmas Angel festivities. But no worry; after all, it is Christmas.

“It’s always the case: people step up to help,” she said.

The Christmas Angel Fund, opened by the Coolidge Chamber of Commerce several years ago to provide funding for additional necessities, collected an astounding $2,400 from the community this year. That tremendous outpouring of support allowed Palmer to spend roughly $1,000 for gifts and food – with $1,400 left over for next year, a huge boost to the program.

“The rest of the community really came forth and poured their hearts out,” she said. “Blankets were taken care of through Stockmen’s Bank, and several people came in with checks.

“I think all of the kids are going to have a good Christmas.”

Christmas raises controversy in Medway

Dozens of parents last Friday continued to fume about the school district’s decision to remove Christmas references from holiday events, but sixth-grader Pierre LeBlanc has a different view.

“We were going to do a Christmas play in our class,” the boy said after school. “But we couldn’t. I celebrate Christmas, but I’m glad they are conscientious of other religions and cultures.”

Pierre was in a distinct minority Friday, a day after Gazette sister paper The Milford Daily News reported school administrators insisted students call a Christmas tree a “magical tree,” elf hats used in class plays were altered so they would not be associated with Christmas colors, and songs from “Jesus Christ, Superstar” were removed from a winter concert scheduled at the middle school for later this season.

Dozens of parents, residents and out-of-towners called to express their dissatisfaction with what one parent called “the watering down of Christmas.” A resident at 53 Holliston St., just yards from the middle school, put a small Christmas tree in his front yard with a cardboard sign reading, in capital letters, “It’s Christmas. Merry Christmas.”

As the buses left the middle school parking lot Friday afternoon, numerous people drove by, honking their horns and yelling “Merry Christmas” out the window.

“I was quite upset – somewhere between disgust and sadness,” Medway Village Church Pastor Russell Wentling said, standing across from the school. “It’s political correctness run amok. It creates division unnecessarily in the community. It’s not a constitutional necessity that these kids be kept from singing Christmas songs.”

A couple of holiday concerts were held last week in the school district. Thursday, third-graders sang “We Wish You a Swinging Holiday” instead of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Middle school class plays, to which parents were not invited, were held Friday.

Complaints from two parents earlier this month about religious themes in school events prompted administrators to review the scheduled performances. Last week, Middle School Principal Joanne Senier-LaBarre wrote sixth-grade chorus parents a letter explaining “Jesus Christ Superstar” had been cut from a winter concert.

School Superintendent Richard Grandmont said this week the district was being careful “to avoid activities that could be perceived as a school endorsement of religion.”

Many thought the district went overboard.

“We need to embrace our differences, not hide from them,” said fifth-grade parent Joyce Ross, as she stood in the middle school parking lot Friday afternoon talking to fellow parent Wendy Heineman.

Sixth-grader Caroline Pendleton said she was scheduled to perform a line from “Jesus Christ, Superstar” next month. Hawaiian music was substituted in the musical’s place, she said.

Eighth-graders Sabrina Kourafas and Elizabeth Schroeder said the hallways were abuzz Friday with students talking about the Christmas controversy.

“It was a little bit of mayhem,” Kourafas said. “There were a couple of arguments, and almost a fight.”

Schroeder said teachers advised students against wishing others a Merry Christmas.

“We’re not allowed to say anything that other religions may not like,” she said. “I think it kind of stinks. If you know people celebrate that holiday, you should be able to say it.”

Tracy Goldrick, a parent who called the newspaper upset at the program changes, said her phone had been ringing constantly all morning.

Goldrick took her message to morning drive-time radio on WRKO Friday.

“I’m so happy people are talking about this,” she said.

Christmas tree needles yield anti-flu element

A St. Catharines, Ont., drug company plans to turn the needles of up to 500,000 Christmas trees into the basic building block of a desperately sought anti-flu drug.

Biolyse Pharma Corp. says it will use the needles as the source of an element used to make Tamiflu, a drug that many countries, including Canada, are stockpiling in case the H5N1 avian flu virus starts spreading around the world.

If a pandemic does strike, the development could be critically important because a worldwide shortage of the compound shikimic acid is slowing production of the medicine.

“Shikimic acid exists in all plant life, from bacteria to the maple tree in your front yard,” Biolyse chemist and co-founder Claude Mercure said.

“There’s no reason for there to be a shortage of it, but there is and if there is a pandemic, we’re going to need all we can get,” he said.

Most of the world’s supply of the element is made from the seed of star anise, the fruit of a tree grown in China. As demand for Tamiflu has soared, the price of shikimic acid from that source has spiked from $45 a kilogram to more than $600 in the last year.

There are also fears China will ban its export in order to secure its own supplies. Shikimic acid is used to make the synthetic element oseltamivir, marketed by pharmaceutical giant Roche Laboratories Inc. as Tamiflu. Studies show the drug stops the flu virus from implanting in cells.

The World Health Organization has stockpiled 30 million doses of the drug to use in the early stages of a flu outbreak and is urging governments to build up their own arsenals. So far, the bird flu virus, found in chickens and migrating birds in Asia and the fringes of Europe, has killed 71 people in Southeast Asia and China.

Though shikimic acid exists in many plants, not all plants have enough to make extracting it commercially worthwhile. Pine, spruce and fir needles, however, can yield as much as 40 grams per kilogram of needles.

“That’s commercially viable,” said Biolyse president Brigitte Kiecken.

Gro-Bark (Ontario) Ltd., which has the contract to haul away Christmas trees in the Halton-Toronto area, has agreed to donate the needles to Biolyse.

“This is the ultimate recycling story, using recycled Christmas trees to help protect people from a pandemic with the potential to kill millions,” said Gro-Bark president Bill McKague.

Is it Christmas tree or holiday tree?

What is the meaning of Christmas?

The Christmas tradition has been celebrated since the year 98 AD.

Like many American customs and traditions, the observance of Christmas was passed down from Europe. The Church composed the idea of Christmas by encompassing the positive aspects of giving gifts, stringing lights, and the cheerfulness of the Saturanilia festival that took place in Rome and transforming it from pagan customs to Christian values. Thanks to two delegated bishops of Rome, (137-350 AD), Christmas was organized to be celebrated on Dec.25 as a formal feast.

Few people know about the symbolism surrounding Christmas. The two main colors presented at Christmas time, red and green, share an important significance in the true meaning of Christmas. The color red signifies the intense blood that Jesus shed at his Crucifixion, while green represents everlasting life throughout the winter and through salvation, the eternal life provided by Jesus Christ.

Another allegoric decoration involved in Christmas is the holly. The sharp bristles and tiny red dots that are entailed in the holly are essential because they embody the thorns placed in Jesus’ crown that punctured into his brow and the blood drops that fell from him while hanging from the cross.

Now the question has been posed, Christmas tree or holiday tree? As one can plainly see, the focal theme of Christmas is, in fact, strictly based upon Christianity. Since the Christmas tree is the main visual tied to Christmas, why would anyone deem it necessary to change Christmas tree to holiday tree?

There is only one possibility as to why people think it is right to change the name. People think that the name should be changed in order to take the base word out, Christ. Instead of leaving Christmas the way it has always been, based on Christian customs, society considers changing the name and meaning of it to suit everyone.

People have the right to practice the tradition of Christmas any way they please, but it has always been Christmas carols, Christmas decorations, and it shall always be a Christmas tree.

Christmas season puts the stress on family

IT is supposed to be a time of goodwill and relaxation but the festive period is more like a time of stress and fraught nerves, according to research published today.

Many hit the bottle, light up a cigarette or eat to excess in an attempt to stave off Yuletide exasperation. A survey by high street retailer Kwik Save found three in five people found Christmas stressful.

Christmas Eve was named the most daunting time of the holidays for most, but one in ten said it was New Year’s Eve which sent blood pressure soaring. A row with a family member was the most likely cause of stress, with seven in ten saying a bust-up with a sibling is most likely to ruin the holiday.

Just having to see relatives at Christmas was too much to bear for one in ten. To battle the seasonal stress, 24 per cent indulged in binge eating and 21 per cent turned to drink. One in ten lit a cigarette to try to relax.

Women felt the pressure more than men, with 61 per cent admitting to being stressed, compared with half of the men questioned. Meanwhile, just under half of Britons say they find shopping in the January sales an unpleasant experience, separate research by Morgan Stanley shows.

Queues are the biggest gripe for 38 per cent of people, while 25 per cent dislike the busy shops.

Police officers spread Christmas cheer

Policing can be particularly difficult in a small community like Cayman Brac, where officers are very familiar and an integral part of society in every way.

Though the long arm of the law is often only felt when a wrong has occurred, the officers of the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service, (RCIPS) on Cayman Brac reached out to the people of their Island this season to spread some Christmas joy.

The officers decided to each select one member of the community they thought needed a little extra Yuletide cheer and, from their own pockets, purchased a gift for them.

The choice of who to buy for was left entirely up to each officer, said Sergeant Casey Conolly, who came up with the idea. He added that the recipients were people who don’t usually see police officers or who generally have negative contact.

On Christmas Eve, eleven officers out of a total staff of thirteen staff members in the Brac Police Service, took a break from regular duty or from their own Christmas preparations and turned up at the station with their gifts.

The group travelled around the Brac in a school bus to deliver the presents. Most of the people who received them were senior citizens, but a few were young people, according to Sergeant Conolly.

“The gifts were given to people of all different ages and from different walks of life. Every officer had a special feeling afterwards. All the officers jumped on this idea and everyone agreed to it straight away. I’m sure that this will be repeated next year,” he said.

“We had intended to use the Brac Police social fund to buy candy for the kids, but we were all very busy dealing with the Cubans here. Next year we will include the children,” said Sergeant Conolly.

Christmas congestion for texts

The huge number of text messages sent on Christmas Day led to one network’s service crashing temporarily.

The mobile phone operator O2 said it dealt with 30 per cent more text messages this Christmas Day than last year – about 65 million in total, its most in one day.

However, the network became so congested by mid-morning that its computer nearly ground to a halt and around 3.25 million messages were delayed.

A spokesman for O2 said it had “a huge volume of traffic” on Christmas Day. The spokesman said: “At 10.40 am this hit a peak and consequently a small number of our customers experienced problems.

“We estimate five per cent of our customers had messages delayed in being sent. All were delivered but some messages may have been delayed by a few hours. Most were delivered within two hours.”

The spokesman said O2 dealt with around one billion and a quarter texts per month and experienced large increases in numbers of people sending texts on certain days or for specific events.

In 2005, the company noted a particularly large surge after Liverpool’s win in the Champions League Final against AC Milan.

A taste of Belgian Christmas warms hearts of asylum seekers

There’s no more room at the inn, it says in the Gospel according to Luke. But not in the Belgian province of Limburg where a local newspaper launched a remarkable initiative among its readers: Why not invite an asylum seeker for Christmas dinner?

“Our goal was to find a host family for dinner on Christmas Day in each of the 44 communes of Limburg province,” says Gert Reynders of the daily paper Het Belang van Limburg. “Many were skeptical about the whole idea, but in barely two weeks’ time we found a hundred families who wanted to invite an asylum seeker to their table.”

With the help of local reception centres and social services, numerous asylum seekers were invited for what was to be an unforgettable Belgian Christmas experience. Host families picked up their guests by car from where they were living. One family had a non-Dutch speaking Chechen family as guests, so they immediately invited another Chechen to act as an interpreter.

Everything was done to make the guests feel at home, even avoiding serving meals that may have run contrary to their religious customs or taste.

“Our guest from Sudan may find our usual Belgian cooking too bland for his taste, so we’ve prepared a spicy chicken curry,” said Paul Machiels.

Many families even bought presents for their visitors. But hospitality and human warmth was the most important gift the Belgian hosts could offer their guests.

“It’s wonderful to be treated as normal people for once. This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Irina from Kazakhstan told reporters from Het Belang van Limburg, which issued a special supplement on the asylum seekers’ Christmas experiences.

Kadiatou’s first Belgian Christmas was filled with happy moments, but also with some sad ones. She had arrived from Guinea in West Africa with her two-year-old son Balde just days earlier, leaving behind three of her children. But her little boy immediately felt at home with the Boiten family, which hosted them.

“Balde has stolen our heart, my husband Danny has been playing with him all afternoon,” says Lizzy Boiten. “We’ve agreed to meet again soon for a walk and an ice cream, and Kadiatou has promised to put African braids in my hair!”

“Nowadays Christmas is a lot about words and wishes, but people rarely really do something about it,” says Valère Snoek, who along with his wife immediately agreed to invite two asylum seekers to their Christmas dinner. Asylum seekers Awad, a journalist from Sudan, and Yvette, who fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo after her husband disappeared while in detention in 2004, were the Snoek’s guests.

“I was very glad to be invited by a Belgian family for Christmas,” says Yvette. “Otherwise I would have stayed alone all evening in my little room in the reception centre worrying about my family.”

Despite differences in culture and experiences hosts and guests found much to talk about.

“When I opened the door for our guests, it was as if we had already known each other for years,” says Ricardo Colombo, who invited Neyriman from Iran and his wife and children to dinner. Even though they live within walking distance of each other in the city of Genk and the two families had never met, they got along immediately. The whole evening they talked about their lives and backgrounds, but also about football. Neyriman’s son is an avid supporter of local club Racing Genk.

“It was a great evening,” says Ricardo. “We are convinced that such encounters will bridge gaps between people and help to combat prejudices.”

That was what Het Belang van Limburg set out to achieve. “Our goal was to redress the negative image of asylum seekers, and to counter the generalized negative feelings of dissatisfaction among the public at large that feed such prejudices,” says Reynders. “Also, it’s in line with the newspaper’s duty to offer its readers a broader view on what’s happening in the world, and it’s true to the motto of our daily: citizen of Limburg, citizen of the world.”

For the editorial staff of the newspaper, it was an unexpected success, and a rewarding experience worth repeating in 2006. One family in Genk mailed the editors saying “We’ve had a fantastic evening with wonderful people, true to the spirit of Christmas. And we’ve made some great new friends!”

Amazon UK reports record Christmas

With up to half a million items delivered worldwide every day through the peak period, Amazon is claiming a record-breaking Christmas for sales in the UK.

Amazon.co.uk said on Wednesday it delivered up to 256 tonnes of goods on the busiest days of the Christmas period. The peak fell on 12 December when close to half a million items were delivered, with a Royal Mail truck leaving an Amazon depot every 12 minutes.

Worldwide, Amazon customers ordered up to 3.6 million items daily, or the equivalent to 41 items every second. More than 108 million orders were placed globally during the whole of the holiday season.

In its traditional bookselling business, Amazon’s UK arm said its most popular title was the New Scientist book, Does Anything Eat Wasps And 101 Other Questions, which sold more than twice the number of copies sold by last year’s bestseller. Other top titles in the UK included Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit? by Alan McArthur and one for those tired of turkey, Jamie’s Italy.

Unsurprisingly, digital music players led the way in electronics sales. Their popularity was also shown by the lines of queues at Apple’s UK stores.

According to Hitwise, the Web analysis agency, download sites such as Apple’s iTunes Music Store saw a 50 per cent rise in traffic between 24 and 25 December, 15 per cent higher than last Christmas, thanks to new iPod owners.

Weekly downloads now exceed 650,000 and may pass the one million mark for the first time this Christmas.

Retailer Comet reported a 294 percent surge in online traffic while Currys saw an increase of 279 per cent on Christmas Day, as eager shoppers checked out the winter sales prices.

Volunteers Spend Christmas with Tsunami Orphans

Lynne Mac Connell spent her Christmas this year in a place she’d never though she would end up.

“India was the one country I said I would never visit,” she said.

But after losing her husband last Christmas, Mac Connell had a new outlook on life. She realized how much she had to give and decided a trip to India wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

“It was heart wrenching. It was exciting,” she explained. “It was filled with hope for the new opportunity for the kids who have the option now for a much better life than even before the tsunami hit.”

Lynne was part of a group of sixteen from Rochester who spent their Christmas vacation in India. The trip’s focus was on children orphaned by last year’s tsunami. Many of the kids saw their loved ones die in front of them. Some made drawings of their experience. In one, a boy is on the roof screaming for help, while his sister is dead below.

“They have to go on in life and after you experience grief like that, a lot of people don’t want to go on,” Michelle Pandian explained. Michelle and her husband John, both of Rochester, founded the Miracle Garden Children’s Orphanage in India. They have 52 children in all and have spent the last year trying to help them deal with their pain.

“There was one boy when we took him in, had stopped talking all together. Now he always has a smile on his face,” said Pandian.

The children were all smiles when their Rochester friends showed up. The Rochester group spent six days at the orphanage. Mac Connell and others brought Christmas gifts for the children and were their shoulders to lean on the day after; the one year anniversary of the tsunami. It turns out the trip didn’t just have an impact on the kids.

“I will never forget it. It was a powerful Christmas and I think other Christmas’ from now on will be different in light of this experience,” Mac Connell declared.

Danbury Christmas Miracle

Connecticut is a wonderful place to spend Christmas, possessing all the appropriately-themed accoutrements from covered bridges, to stores that call themselves “ye ol’ shoppes.” The fictional town of Bedford Falls in It’s A Wonderful Life was invented by combining the names of two towns from New York (Bedford Hills and Seneca Falls). However, Frank Capra’s vision could have just as easily played out in New Milford or Torrington.

Most people don’t realize that there are slight regional differences in Christmas traditions around the state. For instance, in Bethel the holiday is celebrated by having police officers pull over every car that looks like it came from Danbury. Some say they love the tradition so much, that every day is Christmas in Bethel!

In Ridgefield, the season kicks off with the appearance of sidewalk Santas on Main Street, and the filing of legal papers to have them removed.

According to Bill O’Reilly and Fox News, these Christmas traditions may be “under siege” from “secular progressives.” Far be it from this columnist to deny Bill the joy of finding a new loofah in his stocking. In order to help this pious holy man, I offer this traditional tale of The Danbury Christmas Miracle.

The girl who worked at ye ol’ one hour photo shoppe at the Danbury Mall, lived in a rickety apartment on Lake Avenue, near the gun store and the massage parlor. Every night she would sit on the porch and watch her neighbors peel out and burn rubber up and down the street.

The photo shop had one of those machines that would allow customers to see the pictures come out after they were developed. Every so often, photos of naked people would start coming out of the machine, and the girl would have to cover them from public view with a sheet. She was quite good at her job and although it gave her great satisfaction, it barely paid a living wage.

With Christmas approaching, she realized she had no money to buy a present for her boyfriend, and would cry herself to sleep while listening to the peel outs and smelling the burning rubber. It was under these sad circumstances that the answer came to her, in a dream.

Two weeks later, a box was delivered to the rickety apartment on Lake Avenue. The photo shop girl and her boyfriend opened it together. While she read the enclosed letter, he spilled the contents of the package onto the kitchen table.

Dear Satisfied Customer:
Normally, we wouldn’t do something like this. But your letter touched my heart (I have a daughter about your age). We’re glad your boyfriend enjoys our fine products, hopefully the enclosed will bring some joy to the holiday season for you both.

Merry Christmas,
Consumer Relations Department

The girl wept tears of joy, for their kitchen table was covered with Slim Jims, and Slim Jim-related promotional products. There were many flavors of beef sticks: tabasco, chili, nacho and original. Also included were Slim Jim wrist bands, a beer cozy, stationary and even a Slim Jim pen! For it was truly a Danbury Christmas miracle!

Mother and daugher, reunited at last, celebrate holidays

An ornately-decorated Christmas tree sparkles in the corner of the family room as Olga Espejo strokes her three-year-old daughter’s hair.

A lot has changed since last holiday season, she says.

Last year, there was no laughter in the Espejo home.

There were no Christmas lights or fun-loving holiday get-togethers.

And there was no sign of Espejo’s precious only daughter Maria, who had been kidnapped and swept off to South America by her father.

“I was living a nightmare,” Espejo said of the 11-month ordeal that ended recently when she reclaimed her daughter in Colombia. “I was crying all the time, and thinking God must be punishing me.”

Espejo’s harrowing journey to get her daughter back — one that involved dozens of officials and agencies here and in South America — began December 9 last year, just days before Maria’s second birthday.

Amazon celebrates record Christmas

Amazon, the online retailer, today claimed to have delivered up to 480,000 items a day in the UK alone in the run up to the festive season, breaking all previous records.

Amazon.co.uk shipped more than 256 tonnes of goods on its busiest day – with a Royal Mail truck leaving one of its three distribution centres every 15 minutes.

Across the worldwide business, customers ordered 3.6 million items on its busiest day, December 12, equivalent to 41 items every second. More than 108 million orders were placed globally during the whole of the holiday season.

Its most popular book, Does Anything Eat Wasps And 101 Other Questions, sold more than double the number of copies of last year’s bestseller. Other top titles in the UK included Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit? by Alan McArthur and cook book Jamie’s Italy by Jamie Oliver.

Madonna led music sales with her Confessions on a Dance Floor album, followed by Now That’s What I Call Music! Vol 62 and Intensive Care by Robbie Williams.

Amazon’s consumer electronics division was dominated by sales of MP3 players and accessories, with the ILogic docking station for iPod music players the best-seller.

The company has been delivering gifts and products for free when customers spend at least £15 on its UK website, down from £19 last year, in a bid to combat tough competition among retailers.

The group warned in October that sales growth in the final quarter of this year across its global operations could be as low as 13 per cent – well below the 31 per cent recorded in the same period of last year.

Amazon.co.uk started life as independent online store Bookpages, which was established in 1996 and acquired by Amazon.com in early 1998.

Amazon was not the only online retailer to thrive this Christmas. According to Hitwise, the internet ratings agency, visits to Comet’s website increased 294 per cent, while rival Currys saw an increase of 279 per cent on Christmas day, as shoppers appeared to be checking out the prices of goods in advance of the winter sales..

Hitwise also reported that with MP3 players being popular Christmas gifts, visits to music websites increased by 50 per cent on Christmas day, as consumers sought to download tracks on their new gifts.

Play.com, the Channel Islands-based online CD and ring tones retailer, was the most visited among the music sites, beating Apple’s iTunes and Sony’s Connect.

Connect – ranked only 15th among music sites on December 25, 2004 – experienced a 1103 per cent increase in its market share on Christmas day, thanks largely, it is thought, to sales of its new MP3 Walkman.

Napster, MusicMatch, and Tesco Downloads all held places among the top ten music sites on Christmas day and all experienced significant increases in market share of visits that day.

The high level of traffic to online retailers confirms what many analysts had suggested when attempting to explain the apparent slow business on Britain’s high streets in the run-up to Christmas.

Conventional retailers were at least delivered a post-Christmas boost today with a year-on-year increase in the number of shoppers on Boxing day, according to FootFall, the market-tracking agency.

FootFall’s latest report showed that the winter sales drew nearly one-fifth more shopper visits compared to last year.

“Clearly, many consumers left their Christmas shopping as late as possible to try and take advantage of any last minute deals going”, said Howard Archer, economist at Global Insight.

“Similarly, many consumers may now be looking to treat themselves and their families in the sales after being relatively restrained in their spending over much of 2005.”

FootFall’s 17.4 per cent figure would seem to confirm statistics released yesterday by John Lewis, who reported that this Christmas has seen an 11.7 per cent increase in sales over last year.

The department store group claimed that the boost in sales were due in part to an increase in demand for luxury goods such as high definition televisions and designer handbags.

The stockmarket reacted well to the news from the retail sector as it re-opened today following the Christmas break.

Christmas shoppers boost US chain store sales-reports

Sales at chain stores rose in the week before Christmas, retailers said on Wednesday, with last-minute shoppers and the late Hanukkah holiday boosting the bottom line.

However, some retailers said most transactions took place on Dec. 23 and were disappointed shoppers did not take advantage of the extra shopping Saturday on Dec. 24.

Chain store sales were 2.8 percent higher in the week to Dec. 24 after rising 2.4 percent in the prior week, according to a report by the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) and UBS Securities LLC.

In a separate report, Redbook Research, an independent research company, said sales at major retailers rose 4.5 percent on a year-over-year basis in the week ended Dec. 24.

“Procrastinating consumers and a late Hanukkah (Dec. 25) helped to lift the holiday season’s performance,” said Michael Niemira, ICSC’s chief economist and director of research.

Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, is based on a Hebrew lunar calendar, which means it falls on different dates of the Gregorian calendar every year. This year it began on Christmas day for the first time in decades.

Despite differing views on the week preceding the two holidays, retailers are looking forward to the next phase of holiday shopping, gift card redemptions.

“While retailers are pleased with last week’s performance, the holiday shopping season is far from over, since about 60 percent of gift-card redemptions occur between December 26 and the end of January,” Niemira said.

Since revenues related to gift cards are recorded only once they are redeemed, retailers hope consumers use them soon, Redbook Research said.

“Increasingly, retailers view this period as ‘Phase Two’ of the season when fresh merchandise is needed to attract the consumer,” Niemira said.

The ICSC-UBS Weekly Chain Store Sales Snapshot is compiled from a group of major discount, department and chain stores across the country that report their weekly results.

The Redbook data are compiled from a sample of same-store sales at general merchandise retailers representing about 9,000 stores. Same-store sales measure revenue at stores open at least a year.

Niemira said sales for the month and the holiday season remain on track for a moderate year-over-year increase of 3.0 percent to 3.5 percent.

2,000 flee Disney hotel Christmas tree fire

A 35-foot Christmas tree caught fire today in the lobby of the Disneyland Grand Californian Hotel in Anaheim forcing the evacuation of more than 2,000 guests.

No one was injured except for a guest who complained of a strained back and another with symptoms of stress, officials said.

The sprinkler system kept the 3am. blaze in the artificial tree in check, and firefighters were able to quickly put it out, said Maria Sabol, a spokeswoman for the Anaheim Fire Department.

She called the fire “electrical in nature,” saying it started after employees changed some lightbulbs on the tree and turned the lights back on.

The 745-room hotel in the centre of the Disneyland Resort was at full capacity with about 2,300 guests, said Rob Doughty, the resort’s vice president of communications. They were evacuated but were back in their rooms by 7am., Sabol said.

Amazon shoppers ordered 41 Christmas gifts every second

A science book that tackles life’s more trivial mysteries was the surprise Christmas hit, the online store Amazon said yesterday.

Does Anything Eat Wasps And 101 Other Questions – a collection of reader’s queries from New Scientist magazine – outsold last year’s festive bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, by two to one.

Ignoring the big scientific questions about the origins of life, the future of nuclear power and the ethics of cloning, the book concentrates instead on why people have eyebrows, how long someone can live on beer alone and why dogs howl at sirens.

Amazon revealed the seasonal bestseller after reporting a record Christmas in the UK, delivering up to 480,000 gifts a day in the run-up to the holiday weekend.

On its busiest day, Amazon.co.uk shipped more than 256 tons of goods, with a Royal Mail truck leaving one of its three distribution centres every 15 minutes. The busiest day for online shopping was December 12 when shoppers ordered 3.6 million items – 41 every second.

Amazon’s record year mirrored good sales for almost all online retailers. Earlier in the month the e-retailers body IMRG reported a 50 per cent year on year rise in sales in the 12 months to November 2005.

Amazon’s second best-selling book was Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit?- a rant against everything from Richard Curtis to the Daily Mail by Steve Lowe and Alan McArthur, followed by Jamie Oliver’s latest cookbook, Jamie’s Italy.

Madonna topped the store’s music sales with her Confessions on a Dance Floor album, followed by Now That’s What I Call Music! 62 and Intensive Care by Robbie Williams.

Amazon’s consumer electronics division was dominated by sales of MP3 portable music players and accessories. The ILogic docking station for iPod music players was the bestseller.

On the high street yesterday shoppers’ appetite for bargains appeared undiminished as many stores reported brisk trade. However, the freezing weather and return to work for many people had an impact on numbers. Following a record Boxing Day, Brent Cross shopping centre in north London reported customers queuing six deep outside Marks & Spencer on Tuesday morning,.

Brent Cross’s head of marketing Norman Black said: “That is something we have not seen before at Brent Cross, bearing in mind the sale started the day before.”

Crowds queuing in the bitter cold outside Harrods yesterday were treated to a glimpse of Kelly Brook, the 26-year-old actress, who opened the winter sale. The store was expecting to sell around £10 million worth of goods in 12 hours.

The Trafford Centre in Manchester also reported a busy day with 25,000 people in the stores by 11.30am. It was a similar story at Sheffield’s Meadowhall shopping centre. A spokeswoman said: “Retailers are reporting that their trading is up against last year and those coming to the centre are spending more.”

The snow was a deterrent in the East and North East. Karen Carr, the marketing manager at the Metro Centre in Gateshead, said between 55,000 and 60,000 people had been in the centre by mid-afternoon, behind last year’s tally of 118,000.

She blamed the weather as a “hindrance”, but said numbers were still expected to top 100,000.

The latest figures from the analyst FootFall confirmed that stores were busy for their second day of sales.

On Tuesday, the number of visitors was 6.5 per cent higher than the same Bank Holiday Tuesday in 2004 and 1.9 per cent higher than Monday 27 – the second day of sales last year.

Natasha Burton, the marketing manager at FootFall, said visitor numbers were up eight per cent on the first two days of the sales compared to 2004. “After the lacklustre Christmas build up, this shows that prudence is definitely the watchword for this year’s shopper,” she said.

“After the final months of 2005 which saw a reluctance to spend on credit and rising household bills, it seems the reduced prices and offers of the sales are what shoppers have been waiting for.”

Throughout December, footfall was down around 5 per cent on the same period last year.

The Most-Returned Holiday Gifts

From the CD you can’t stand to the sweater that’s three sizes too small, all sorts of unwanted presents are headed back to the stores this week.

The refund counter at the Kearny Mesa Wal Mart was bustling today with people returning almost everything you can think of.

As the returns pile up, store employees are noticing some trends.

“A lot of electronics, a lot of toys,” one employee said.

Manager Dawn Ginn says house wares in particular are high on the list of unwanted gifts this year.

“Some of the appliances, toaster ovens, blenders,” she said.

But shopper Richard Peterson thinks he knows the most returned item of all.

“I’d have to say clothes,” he said. “People buy for people and it’s not the right size or it’s not their style.”

And he’s absolutely right. According to a leading retail research firm, apparel accounts for about 65 percent of the items returned after the holidays. Electronics are a distant second at seven percent, followed by house wares at five percent.

Overall, Americans are returning much less than we used to. Ten years ago, nearly 40 percent of holiday presents got taken back. This year, it’s expected to be just 14 percent. It’s the result of stricter return policies, and the booming popularity of gift cards that ensure you’ll never give an unwanted present.

Even so, the folks at Wal Mart have their work cut out for them as they process mountains of gifts that didn’t quite work out.

“Hopefully we’ll have it all back on the shelves by New Year’s,” Ginn said.

Retail analysts say gift cards account for about 15 percent of all holiday spending. The average card has a value of $35.

Stolen presents returned to family

After weeks of Christmas shopping for more than 200 area families, Friday was Brian Knudson’s time for “power shopping” for his own family.

Knudson is founder of Children’s Christmas Benefit, which this year raised about $6,000 to provide gift packages to Rock County families.

But on Friday, while Knudson was paying for his own family’s gifts at the Janesville Mall, thieves took off with all his presents.

“I was planning on getting all my shopping done in one night, so I was really going to town to try and get it all done,” Knudson said.

Knudson, a Rock County Board supervisor from Brodhead, had spent about $500.

At a Boston Store checkout, he didn’t notice someone grab all of his bags-filled with clothes, jewelry, candy and tools-that had been sitting on the floor beside him.

“They were pretty sly about it because I still can’t believe it. I didn’t see it or notice it,” he said.

His gifts were gone, but on Christmas morning a phone call from a Janesville woman restored Knudson’s faith in kindness. A couple hours later, he was picking up about $200 worth of the stolen presents.

Wendy Zanoni and her family had been at the Janesville Mall on Friday, too, and later were hauling presents from her mother’s rental car when they noticed a bag with unwrapped Sears tools.

From what Zanoni and Knudson can conclude, the thieves got spooked as they ran from Boston Store with Knudson’s stolen gifts. They suspect the thieves dumped the heavy bag of tools into the backseat of the Zanoni car, which was unlocked and parked outside Boston Store.

Zanoni and her family initially laughed about the idea that someone had put the items in the wrong car. But regardless of the reason, they wanted to get them back to the owner.

Knudson had paid cash for all of his items and left the receipts in each bag. But because he works at Sears, Knudson had used his employee discount when buying the tools. His name was printed on the bottom of the receipt.

Zanoni searched the phonebook and called Knudson about five times Christmas Eve simply because “it was the right thing to do,” she said.

“She wouldn’t have had to do that,” said Knudson’s mother, Kay. “It just made our whole Christmas to know that there’s someone that good out there, because it really takes the wind out of your sails when something like that happens.”

Despite losing $300 worth of gifts, Knudson said Zanoni’s actions were a great Christmas present.

“It was just unbelievable … to know that there’s people that are honest all the way through,” he said. “It’s a wonderful feeling. (Wendy) is just a super, super nice person.”

Knudson was lucky to find all the same presents Saturday when he returned to the mall to buy new ones, he said.

Friday night, he joked with the clerks, was just practice.

Shop with a cop helps kids experience joy of Christmas

Whatever happened to the true spirit of Christmas? On the quiet evening of Dec. 20, three West Union families walked in its glow, while those with them experienced the true joy of giving.

Each family was struggling with hardships, and the parents had no hope of giving their children gifts to enjoy for Christmas. Thanks to thoughtful donations in memory of Sherena (Shari) Richter, the West Union Shop with a Cop program was able to help out.

On that evening, three officers from the West Union Police Department volunteered to take the families out to eat at Frisch’s and then Christmas shopping at Wal-Mart.

Each family had three to four children who ranged from preschool to seventh grade.

Officer Sean Grooms, Corporal Jason Daniels and Sergeant Roy Stricklett of the West Union Police Department dined with the families, who eagerly enjoyed meals of their choice.

Once at Wal-Mart, each officer went along with one of the families to help. The three families were able to split $1,200 between them.

“One little girl really got next to me,” Stricklett said later. “She was a little upset when we went to the check out. She took me aside and asked ‘Isn’t there anything we could do for Mom and Dad?’ She was happy once she found out there was still enough funds to shop some more.

“We’re going to try to continue this program each year,” Stricklett continued. “We’re here to help if we can, and the officers are very good about volunteering.” According to Stricklett, the Shop with a Cop program is completely dependent on outside funding, and the West Union Police Department would appreciate donations from the public for the coming year.

Richter, 34, a 1989 graduate of West Union High School, died unexpectedly on Oct. 3, 2005 from an aneurysm at her home in Atlanta. Sherena volunteered with children, and counseled them, through the Fellowship Bible Church in Georgia.

Miracle meal comforts 6,000 spirits

To Daniel Trust, it was more than the turkey, the pecan pie and the backpack filled with toys that made Christmas so memorable.

“I saw Santa Claus,” said the 6-year-old, jumping up and down outside the Denver ChopHouse & Brewery.

Daniel was one of about 6,000 people attending the 10th annual Miracle on 19th Street. The all-day event – sponsored by the ChopHouse and the Rock Bottom Foundation – fed the homeless and families who require shelter services.

Robert Kaczmarczyk, managing partner of the ChopHouse, said kitchen employees had been cooking “24 hours a day since Wednesday” to pull together enough ham, mashed potatoes and green beans.

Volunteers also gave out thermoses, backpacks and flu shots.

As he went from table to table, Santa Claus was greeted with gleeful shrieks from children. Miss Colorado received a similar reaction from some of the teenage boys. Bryan Archbell, 14, even had a Polaroid picture taken with her.

About 4,000 people were bused in from 30 area shelters, and another 2,000 drove or walked in. Some had been in the Denver metro area for years. Others had arrived only in the past few weeks from places such as Tulsa, Oklahoma and Texas.

Although some of the walk- ins had to wait in line for a couple of hours, the unseasonably warm weather allowed adults to sit down as their children were entertained by a juggler in an orange

Mom in her own home for the holidays

On Birchdale, in a manufactured home, on a plot of land that now says “sold,” a story is unfolding.

Betty Gibson calls it a miracle. The fifth miracle of her life, falling in place just after the births of all four of her children, she decides.

She still can’t believe all of this is really happening. She still can’t believe that a USDA Rural Development loan led her to Brewbaker’s Housing & RV in Onaway, which led her to the front porch of this manufactured home on a plot of land that now says “sold.”

Because for years, it was like Gibson was standing on the outside of a snowglobe and peering in at the perfect home with the perfect yard and the way the snow falls perfectly all around.

And then on Tuesday, she stopped by her new home and saw all of the empty rooms. She chatted with Matt Pasella, the salesman from Brewbaker’s. She picked up her son and daughter from St. Mary Cathedral School. And she returned to the manufactured home on Birchdale. When she turned the knob to the front door this time, though, she walked into the unimaginable.

She had no idea that the staff from Brewbaker’s, after learning Gibson had no furniture, after learning that her kids were sleeping on the floor, gathered items together in just a couple of weeks: furniture, dishes, a Christmas tree, presents for her two younger children, a washer and dryer, cabinets filled with food, a television.

“How do you tell someone thank you for this?” Gibson asks, her hands cupped around a black mug of coffee. She puts the mug down and points to the couch, loveseat, kitchen table, chairs, and to the first thing she saw when she walked in, the china cabinet.

“It was beautiful,” she says of the china cabinet. “The light was turned on and all I could think of was the kids’ stuff I wanted to put on the shelves.”

Just a handful of years ago, Susan Altman, a family independent specialist from the Montmorency County Dept. of Human Services, introduced Gibson to Jenine Repke with Catholic Human Services. Together Repke and Gibson began filling out the paperwork for a USDA Rural Development loan, a program assisting very low and low-income families with the purchase and repair of homes. Last year, with a loan maximum of $117,493, the USDA approved four loan applications for Otsego County. In October 2005, the loan maximum was increased to $150,000.

Gibson was denied on her first application because of her credit, but she began taking budgeting classes and working on her credit. When Repke and Gibson filled out the USDA paperwork a second time, Gibson was given a certificate of eligibility.

Because Gibson was interested in a manufactured home, the USDA sent a list of company names who would accept the USDA loan. Gibson chose Brewbaker’s Housing & RV in Onaway where she met Pasella.

“She’s had a rough road and she’s worked very, very hard at cleaning up her credit,” said Pasella. He was touched by her story, by the fact that she called him every day to thank him for all of his help. He said he would try to get her a couch and a couple of end tables. But the more the employees from Brewbaker’s Housing and Brewbaker’s Furniture found out, the more they wanted to help.

“Everyone needs a boost when you’re down, and she was down,” said Pasella.

When Gibson opened the front door of the manufactured house on the plot of land with a sign that says “sold,” it was like she divided her life in half. She doesn’t want to talk about what led her to Department of Human Services or Catholic Human Services or the USDA or Brewbaker’s. That part of her life is a part of yesterday. And Gibson wants to focus on today.

“I reflected,” she says. “I started seeing what I was doing. I was looking at my life and seeing all the bad, that there was more bad than good. And I had to say. ‘ wait a minute.’”

Sitting at her new kitchen table, the sunlight slanting in through the sliding glass door, she looks out at her back deck where the flakes have settled perfectly.

“Right now, this is my fresh start,” she says.

A feast of leftover Christmas spam

OFFICE workers returning from Christmas holidays this year will have to spend longer than usual wading through spam emails collected in their absence.

Two scam emails purporting to be from the National Australia Bank have flooded the nation’s in-boxes, in some cases arriving more than a dozen times a day.

Christmas is a peak time for phishing, where fraudsters send bogus emails en masse in the hope that some people are fooled into sharing personal information.

The NAB has issued a security alert on its website warning customers of the fraudulent spam emails and urging customers not to respond.

“If you have responded and/or entered any personal information, it is recommended that you change your password immediately, update your virus, firewall and anti-spyware protection and scan your computer,” the bank’s website advises.

“We have a team of people working around the clock, including through the holidays, to safeguard against fraud taking place,” a NAB spokesman said. “This includes liaising heavily with the Australian High-tech Crime Commission.”

The spokesman said customers had very good awareness of internet fraud and there had been no reports of loss so far.

“NAB’s policy, though, is to reimburse any of its customers who have been affected by fraud,” he said.

Headed “National Australia Bank – urgent security notice”, one email asks for the customer’s account details to be updated as part of the bank’s regular account verification process.

The other warns that the customer’s National on-line account is about to expire and account details need to be updated.

Another scam email also doing the rounds is designed to look like it is from German bank Dresdner, which similarly asks for customers to provide their banking details.

According to the international Anti-Phishing Working Group, more than 90 per cent of phishing attempts targeted financial services. The group records about 15,000 scam emails a month – 10 times more than a year ago.

The average time that a phishing website remains online is about six days, with the longest recorded being 30 days, the group says.

National Australia Bank customers with concerns should call 1300 651 656 or refer to the bank’s website.

Christmas thief steals ‘Nun Bun’

A cinnamon bun that bears a striking likeness to late Catholic nun Mother Teresa was stolen from a US coffeehouse on Christmas Day.

The owner arrived to find that the famous flaky pastry had vanished from the shop in Nashville, Tennessee.

Bob Bernstein said he thought the culprit was angry over the display.

The “Nun Bun” has drawn tourists since it was preserved and put in a glass case at the shop, where it was discovered by a customer in 1996.

The bun became international news following the find in the folds of its pastry.

The Bongo Java coffee shop sold T-shirts, prayer cards and mugs with the bun’s image until Mother Teresa wrote a letter asking the sales be stopped, before her death in 1997.

Mr Bernstein said the thief “went right for the bun”, ignoring cash lying nearby.

“Unfortunately I think it’s somebody who wanted to take it to destroy it,” he said.

Americans Return to Stores for Post-Christmas Sales

Christmas is over, but the U.S. holiday shopping season continues, with many Americans returning to stores to take advantage of new sales.

Some stores opened at dawn Monday, offering post-Christmas discounts to lure consumers back and boost profits.

U.S. retailers are hoping to improve on the mediocre sales that followed the Thanksgiving holiday in late November.

Analysts examine store receipts from large retail chains such as Wal-Mart during the holiday shopping season for clues about the strength of the national economy.

Full sales data on the holiday shopping season are not yet available, but preliminary data indicate sales rose over last year, but the increase was slightly less than expected.