Archive for February, 2006

Family put holiday on hold to welcome soldier

For most people, the Christmas tree has long since been thrown out, the holiday lights and decorations taken down and put away until next year.

But one Valley cul-de-sac has kept its decorations intact, and a family has held off Christmas celebrations until this week in an effort to give a local Marine a taste of the holiday cheer he missed out on while stationed in Iraq.

Lance Cpl. Donald Thurnherr II, 20, returned home Thursday night after being wounded in Fallujah, Iraq, to find his neighborhood glowing with Christmas lights more than a month after the holiday had passed.

“It was a complete surprise,” said Thurnherr, who lives in the 14000 block of North 55th Place in Phoenix. “I came down the street and the whole block had kept their lights up for over a month, just so I could see Christmas lights.”

Thurnherr, who graduated from Phoenix’s Horizon High School in 2004, was injured on Dec. 23 when two roadside bombs exploded near him, knocking him unconscious for more than 12 hours and leaving him without hearing in one ear, a temporary loss of feeling in his left arm and shrapnel wounds in his left leg.

He spent Christmas in an Air Force hospital 40 miles north of Baghdad before returning home on a temporary leave. He must return next week to the Twenty-nine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in California.

His mother, Pam Thurnherr, said the timing of her son’s injury was especially nerve-wracking.

“It was very stressful, almost surreal,” she said. “It’s hard to accept at first. We never stopped worrying, but it just intensified at that point.”

Pam Thurnherr said her daughter Amanda, 17, first came up with the idea of postponing Christmas until Donald returned home.

“I thought it was a great idea,” Pam Thurnherr said. “I talked to the neighbors, and everyone agreed. It just snowballed from there.”

Don Garoutte, 43, of Olympia, Wash., a neighbor of the Thurnherrs since 1993, said he was excited to help the family.

“We were going to be out of town for two weeks for Christmas, so we weren’t even going to set up lights,” Garoutte said. “But once I heard, we made sure to set them up.”

All of the houses in the cul-de-sac have Christmas lights still hanging. One has a number of Christmas wreaths hung on the wall, and an inflatable snowman stands watch in one front yard.

Miniature American flags line the edge of another lawn.

Donald Thurnherr’s life has changed significantly since he left for Iraq on July 4, a date his mother said now holds even more significance.

He proposed to his girlfriend of over two years upon returning to the United States. She said yes. His son recently turned 3. The family dog just had puppies.

His family’s decision to wait for him to celebrate Christmas was special, even if it was in February. “It felt just like how I remembered Christmas as a little kid,” Thurnherr said. “Being home is the best gift I got.”

A Christmas tale: The story behind the University of Charleston’s holiday card

John Vintroux says it began in 1996 with a dog, a paper plate and a bologna sandwich.

That’s what he saw when he looked out the front window of his Kanawha Avenue home: a dog trotting down the street, carrying a bologna sandwich on a paper plate.

Minutes later the dog trotted back, carrying the plate, this time without the sandwich. Perhaps it was dog’s jaunty air that struck Vintroux as humorous; perhaps the dog’s sense of purpose. But he decided to keep an eye on the situation.

Sure enough, almost daily the dog would repeat the routine: trot down the street, pick up a bologna sandwich on paper plate, take it to his home, eat it, then return the empty plate to Vintroux’s neighbor.

Curious, Vintroux, 72, a retired accountant for Columbia Gas, began to watch for the dog. Every day or so like clockwork, the dog would trot back and forth carrying plate and sandwich in one direction and empty plate in the other.

This gave Vintroux an idea and thus began a delightful tradition of making personal greeting cards for neighbors and friends at Christmas.

Though Vintroux was an accountant, he had developed an appreciation and skill for drawing. His father, Kendall Vintroux, was the Charleston Gazette’s artist and political cartoonist from 1922 to 1968, creating such popular features as “Dog Wagon,” in which he featured prominent and sometimes not-so-prominent local characters.

John Vintroux had learned to draw at his father’s elbow and had been art editor of the Charleston High Book Strap and Marshall University’s Parthenon. While at Columbia Gas, he was often called on to make illustrations, flip charts and cartoons even though he worked in the accounting department.

So Vintroux drew the home of the dogs’ benefactors, Dennis and Mary Pennington. In the foreground on the sidewalk, he drew the golden retriever, known in the neighborhood as Fendi, carrying a plate with a bologna sandwich.

Thus began an annual tradition for Vintroux, drawing and coloring six or seven individualized Christmas cards for his neighbors.

He draws not just the house on the street, but the neighborhood with the Capitol dome in the background, populated with squirrels and neighborhood dogs — and usually portraying some humorous incident or memory that the recipient will relate to.

It is an extremely personal gift, a gift of his talent, drawing and painting.

His sister and brother-in-law, Ann and Bob Morris, asked him to do a Christmas card showing their home decorated for the holidays.

“After that, I started doing cards for neighbors usually with some humorous event or trait — pets, hobby or special memory.

“A lady who lived nearby walked her two dogs around the neighborhood. That year one died. I did a card for her showing her walking her two dogs. She sent me a card, she was very touched,” he said.

Most ideas come through observations throughout the year.

“One neighbor [the late Sam Moore] was a ham radio operator. He had a lot of antennas on his roof, so I sent him a card showing Santa all tangled up in his antennas, yelling ‘Help.’”

Vintroux takes frequent walks around his neighborhood that he affectionately calls South Ruffner. One day, walking along Kanawha Avenue he noticed the pleasing view of the University of Charleston president’s home and the Clay tower, with the Capitol dome in between. He thought it would be a nice memory card for UC President Ed Welch and his wife, Janet.

He sent them the card. Welch called and thanked him and asked to use it for the official UC Christmas card for 2005.

Vintroux does six or seven cards a year depending on when he gets an idea for a card. His sister, Ann Morris, often makes suggestions. Every card is drawn in pen and ink, then copies of the pen-and-ink drawing are made and watercolor is applied to the copy. The finished card is then copied and printed on card stock, so the process is very exacting.

He has no plans to come out of retirement and get into the card business. He wants to continue to draw as long as energy and health permit.

“I like to have life in my art. I more or less see art in everything and art can be applied to everything. Like work, leisure, everyday events, I like to look at them in a humorous vein. Look for the humor.”

Vintroux is fascinated by a similarity between his professional field of accounting and his avocation as artist.

In accounting, you have debits and credits. In art, you have light and dark. You want balance in both. Art is creative and, he notes wryly, that looking at some of the national accounting scandals, accounting has become very creative.

Storm-struck residents finally have Christmas

On a chilly February night in Florida, a few children got exactly what they were dreaming of: a bright Christmas.

They had toys and a tree and a man in a Santa Claus hat and — especially — lights.

Here in Usher’s Trailer Park, residents missed Christmas on Dec. 25 because Hurricane Wilma destroyed the electrical hook-ups. They lived without power for 101 days until all the electricians and permits were in order and the work got done. The lights were switched on a week ago today.

And that’s why on Tuesday night, three pastors agreed it’s OK to throw a Christmas party just in time for Valentine’s Day.

“All the churches are here. It’s the whole community coming together to celebrate. It’s a little late, but not too late,” said the Rev. John Mericantante, pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church.

The party was organized by Larry Wright, a political gadfly who works at the local flower shop. He had been moving behind the scenes for weeks to bring together the pastors and the electricians and the residents ever since he learned that Usher’s lacked power. And he vowed that when the lights came back on, he would bring Christmas to the park to celebrate.

“We’re giving them the Christmas they never had,” Wright said.

It started as the sky turned dark and a little tree lit up the lot. The artificial tree was draped with blue and gold garlands. The children lined up for coloring books and candy canes and stuffed animals. The women fawned over new purses and shoes.

They listened to a stereo play Joy to the World and I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, and they ate fried chicken and sandwiches.

It looked a lot like Christmas. Theodoro Rodriguez even took the opportunity to put up the colored lights around his mobile home that he missed during the season.

“Thank you to everybody,” he said. “The people are celebrating. People come to help celebrate, to bring Christmas and Christmas gifts.”

Residents in the run-down park are planning to keep the tree on for two weeks as a symbol of hope and progress. The Rev. David Broadbent, who raised the money to hire an electrician on behalf of the residents, said seeing the lights go on was one of those moments when he could truly understand the purpose of his mission.

“If it’s possible for you to smile in your heart, I smiled in my heart to see it happen,” Broadbent said. “You sometimes don’t get to see something as complete as the last trailer getting its lights on.”

Although the homes have their power back, there is still more to be done, Wright said. Seminole Ridge High School and a volunteer landscaper are going to restore green to the park, he said. A nearby hotel owner is working to get a few families a room rent-free, and a charitable organization is trying to bring in some double-wide mobile homes.

“A lot of people are just trying to help, and it probably fills a lot of people’s hearts with joy — and even mine,” said Leonor Calderon, 10, whose family has been living at Usher’s in a travel trailer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Because I lost my home also, and it kind of hurt, but in life you just have to move on.”

Start saving for next Christmas

It might seem a bit early to be thinking about next Christmas, but that is exactly what Bradford & Bingley is urging people to do.

With many people still recovering from the shock of opening their credit card bills at the end of January, planning for next Christmas is unlikely to go much further than vowing not to spend as much money.

Figures from the British Retail Consortium show that the average person is expected to have spent about £330 on gifts and the average household £920 on Christmas day celebrations.

But a little forward planning can avoid a repeat of this year’s post-Christmas financial stress, and Bradford & Bingley has devised an innovative savings vehicle to help out.

It has launched a specially designed, limited issue Christmas Saver account paying eight per cent AER.

Customers can put away between £10 and £150 each month and are then permitted to withdraw their savings and interest on the first day of advent – December 1st 2006 – in time to go Christmas shopping or pay off their credit card bill in January.

“Choosing the ‘spend now, pay later’ way that many of us do can be costly,” said Steve Potter, head of savings at Bradford & Bingley.

“For example, if a customer spent £900 on their credit card last Christmas and then pays the minimum-monthly payment, which is typically five per cent at 16 per cent APR, they will take 64 months to pay off their debt and will end up paying out £288.74 in interest. This is a false economy. Arranging a regular savings plan could take much unneeded stress out of Christmas.”

Under the terms of the account, the minimum amount need to open it is £10, and a contribution must be made each calendar month.

The maximum balance is £1,500 and interest will be paid when the account matures on December 1st 2006, before which no withdrawals are permitted.

Mr Potter added: “We hope to encourage people to put some money away each month for big expenses like Christmas and see them rewarded with a really good interest rate.”

Project Merry Christmas still bringing smiles

Just because Christmas is gone, doesn’t mean the smiles of more than 700 children who benefited from Project Merry Christmas, or PMC, have to disappear as well.

PMC coordinator Mary Sue Henry said the program was able to distribute bikes, basketballs, footballs, board games, and “dolls galore,” including strollers and dollhouses to 784 children, ages 2-12, in Marengo County.

“This is the largest amount collected in the history of the program,” director of the Marengo County Department of Human Resources Jack Marler said. “And it is remarkable that in 2005 with such great need because of all the natural disasters, that the response to Project Merry Christmas would be so overwhelming.”

This past year’s project raised a total of $19,200, including donations ranging from a nickel from a kindhearted first grader to a $5,000 contribution.

Henry said the program had been steady at approximately $17,500 for the past few years, but hit a new high in 2005.

“We are hoping it’ll stay at this much or that we’ll raise even more next year,” Henry said.

Even though PMC began as a voucher program when families were given a specific amount according to size, the program also began to accept monetary donations.

The money is used to purchase various toys for Christmas and also for emergency situations throughout the year, while the vouchers are sponsored by local vendors and can be traded for gifts.

“Some people adopt a family and some send money, but the folks in Marengo are very giving people,” Henry said. “We gave vouchers to about 400 children and the other half received a gift. We gave them games, but they were board games. We didn’t go the electronic route. That’s too expensive.”

Although the vouchers were mailed to families, the Tombigbee Emergency Medical Services staff volunteered their services to help distribute the toys.

“Some of the toys were delivered, but some had to be picked up by the parents. It was a great help to us for them to volunteer their time,” Henry said. “And anyone who wants to help this year can just call us and we’ll work something out. This is totally a volunteer effort.”

Among other volunteers and contributors, Henry said, were churches, civic groups, clubs, Sunday school classes, businesses and individuals from across the county and beyond.

“I think other counties may be doing something similar to PMC because they’ve called and asked us about getting it started,” she said. “But I think we are the only county to do it on such a large scale since people from surrounding counties call to participate in ours.”

However, PMC only caters to Marengo County families.

“We don’t want to get into more than we can handle,” Henry said.

On Christmas and dress codes

My letter on two issues is a little late. However, I did not want to write in haste and let emotions take control.

I am writing about my thoughts on a “Blue Christmas” and the school “dress code.”

I think blue is a great color, for the sky, the lake or ocean, a baby’s eyes or even a favorite suit. Blue is soft and subtle and peaceful to a lot of people. But a blue Christmas was not what I expected this year. While the death of my dad, my mother-in-law and an aunt made it a difficult season, I tried to have somewhat of a family Christmas.

The holidays were sad for my whole family as other families, I’m sure, have shared these emotions at Christmas or other holidays as well. I tried to force myself to get “in the spirit” for the children in the family. So, while out driving around looking at decorations, it was depressing when I found myself on Main Street in Campbellsville.

Always before I had been pleased to have a “down home country feeling” driving through town or especially through the park. This year it was a lonely, depressing, dark and unfriendly Main Street. The dim blue lights that wrapped the poles were hideous. I saw no joy or seasons greetings in this display.

While I was pleased to see a welcoming park display, it was sad to have to drive to Elizabethtown, Greensburg and Lebanon with my family to see a beautiful “reason for the season” display of light and warmth. While other towns are also struggling to hold on to their “Main Street Attraction,” Campbellsville was singing the blues for not only my family but many other friends and neighbors.

In closing, maybe next year we too as a town can “let our lights shine.”

As for the dress code for our local high school students, I think personally that the uniform policy is definitely a plus. Status symbols create a lot of conflict for families that struggle financially. A uniform would allow more focus on studies and not the latest fashion trend. Most kids grow physically each year and “new duds” are a must anyway. So, not having to have various designer jeans, fad T-shirts and expensive jackets should help the financially challenged.

Popcorn, peanuts and soda should not be our only concern at school for families and their children’s best interest. Many of us recall the day of girls being able to wear only skirts or dresses and boys having to wear shirt tails tucked in, belts and hair above the ears. Privileges are earned and abuse of these privileges such as taking them to the extreme by some, are what causes changes to be forced on all.

High school is an important event in most children’s lives. It prepares them for college, technical schools or the work place. Dress codes are enforced in health care professions and the military as well. Learning to conform and grow into responsible adults should be part of our children’s education at school as well as at home.

Random Act of Kindness: Christmas made merry due to Secret Santa

Thanks to a random act of kindness, a Two Rivers woman had a Christmas holiday filled with gifts.

Germaine Thiel submitted the January winning entry in the Random Acts of Kindness Contest, sponsored by U.S. Bank and the Herald Times Reporter.

Following is Thiel’s story:

On Thursday, Dec. 22, Sarah Gallagher of the Two Rivers Senior Center came to my house with a surprise. When I met her at the door, she handed me three big packages, all wrapped in a pretty snowman paper, plus a pretty gift bag.

I couldn’t believe it was for me — I never had anyone do this.

Sarah told me my “Secret Santa” had contacted her at the Senior Center with the following story:

When I was very small, we had a large family and money was tight for us. One Christmas, my parents didn’t have the money for gifts so they asked a local store if they could charge a gift for each one of us and pay later. Well the storeowner took them around his store shortly after closing and helped them pick out gifts for us, filling three carts. When they got to the register, my mother told him that they had could not afford it all. The storeowner told them each year they give a Christmas to a family, and this year the family was ours.

So each year, my family gives another family a Christmas. We usually have a human services agency pick out a family for us, get a present list, and go out and shop. This year, we thought we would do it for a senior who possibly doesn’t have family or is very limited financially … someone who is in need of feeling good this Christmas.

The family picked me this year, and I am truly grateful.

It was so exciting. I could hardly wait for Christmas Eve to come when I could open these beautiful packages.

They gave me help for those things I need like a grocery store gift card, monthly bus pass, tickets to ride in the rolling wheels, so I can get to the doctor. They treated me to a beautiful green spring jacket, a housecoat and slippers. I also found body fragrance and splash-on cologne.

I just couldn’t (and still can’t) believe one family would do this for me. I don’t have much family: a daughter, who is ill, and a granddaughter out of Wisconsin.

This was truly a special Christmas and thank you to the Secret Santa in Two Rivers.

Christmas lights will remain lit for troops

Christmas may be over, but the red, white and blue lights outside the Middlebury Volunteer Fire Department are going to stay up for awhile, said the town’s fire chief.

Chief Paul Perrotti said this week that he plans to leave the patriotic lights, which were strung for the holidays, up until the conflict in Iraq ends. The separate strings of lights are strung around three light posts near the department’s flagpole.

“Residents keep asking me when I’m going to take down the Christmas lights,” he said. “But we’re going to keep them up to honor the troops.”

Perrotti, a former U.S. Marine, and other volunteer firefighters are responsible for placing the large “support our troops” signs around town. He said the department plans to rebuild the signs in the spring.

“We’re a patriotic department and we think the most important thing we can do is support the troops,” he said.

Resident Selma Frohn’s son, U.S. Army Maj. Damian Bartholomew, returned to the United States in December from his third tour of duty in Iraq. He will return later this year for a fourth tour. Frohn, whose son lives in Texas, said she appreciates the fire department’s support of the troops.

“I think it’s fabulous,” she said Tuesday. “Anything anybody can do, whether it’s the fire department, the police department, the town, I support it 100 percent.”

Bartholomew, who served as keynote speaker at the town’s Memorial Day ceremony two years ago, sent an Iraqi flag to the town last August while he was stationed with the 228th Combat Support Hospital in Mosul, Iraq.

Because he was overseas and unable to attend the town’s Memorial Day celebration last year, the flag and a letter that accompanied it was Bartholomew’s own show of support for both his town and its residents who have served in combat overseas.

“Our hospitals are overflowing with our injured soldiers to the point of where it’s unbelievable,” Frohn added.

“And the American public, myself included, has to show them as much support as we can.”

Festive display lights up lives

A BIG-HEARTED Whalley family’s Christmas lights display has helped to bring a smile to the faces of sick children.
The Edwardsons, of numbers 3 and 5 Limefield Avenue, raised £2,100 in aid of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
The money was raised through their spectacular Christmas lights display.
The lights attracted hundreds of spectators from across the Ribble Valley and beyond.
The Edwardsons spent a whole week preparing the display and they tried to make it as impressive as possible by adding more lights and inflatables this time.
The lights were lit until New Year’s Eve and Mrs Betty Edwardson, along with her daughter-in-law Helen, welcomed visitors to walk around their display and make a donation.
Speaking about the sum raised, which will go towards bringing a time of magic and joy into the lives of children suffering with life-threatening illnesses, Mrs Edwardson said: “We have lit our house for years at Christmas, but this is the second year we raised money for a good cause.
“We are pleased that we have been able to give poorly children a little bit of happiness as the Make-A-Wish Foundation grants the wishes of youngsters aged three to 18 living with life-threatening illnesses.
“We would also like to thank all the people that came to see the display and donated generously. Our busiest day was during the Pickwick Night festivities.
“We had crowds of people fascinated by the lights.”
The family exceeded its last year’s total of £1,237, which helped to boost funds for the North West Air Ambulance.

Defiance declines to buy Christmas lights display

The city of Defiance has decided not to buy a Paulding County man’s elaborate Christmas light display that led to a lawsuit against him after sightseers were injured when their limousine was struck by a drunken driver in 2004.

“This was an opportunity to buy one huge display, and it was going to be a lot of work,” Defiance Mayor Bob Armstrong said, adding that his commission on city decorations decided to look at holiday decorations “more custom-fit for Defiance.”

Gene Baughman’s lights, in 63 displays, were powered by more than 50 generators on his Paulding County property.

The price Mr. Baughman asked for his display was never specifically disclosed but reportedly was more than $100,000. It was not the issue, Mr. Armstrong said.

Sightseers filed the lawsuit in April, 2005, after their limousine was struck the preceding December in front of the property on State Rt. 613.

Retired teacher pays Christmas visit to Antarctica

Ross Thomas has visited five continents in the past six years.

Oops, make that six. He spent part of December in Antarctica.

The East Texan says he has many a tale to tell from that trip. Like the incident when he lost his passport.

“I lost it while I was in Chile,” he says, pausing for a moment to think back. “Well, actually it was in Miami, Florida, before I got to Chile.

“I had checked in at the airport in Chile but had not yet cleared the gate when I think I lost it. Somewhere in those few moments.” So, his passport that saw the world with him, Thomas says, is lost. All that he has now is an almost brand new passport.

Though he was able to get on the flight, when Thomas reached Santiago, he says he was not allowed to leave the airport or even the secure area. He was then told he would be put on the next flight back to the United States.

“I don’t know what happened, but after a couple of hours the police softened and said if an airline employee would accompany me to the U.S. embassy, I could go there and get a duplicate passport.” Which he did.

A retired school teacher, Thomas says he spent his Christmas in Antarctica. “It was one of the most beautiful Christmases ever. Just beautiful.”

The ship that took him to Antarctica was the Nordnorge. It had 177 passengers aboard.

On Christmas Eve, he recalls, the crew and passengers gathered in the lounge for a “cup of hot wine, wassail and caroling.” The sun shines for about 22 to 23 hours in December in that part of the hemisphere. “It was not really eve, even though it was Christmas Eve.”

The passengers sang “Silent Night,” “O Come All Ye Faithful” and other carols. Then they gathered around for a traditional Norwegian Christmas dinner, but not before hearing the captain read the Christmas story. White Antarctic landscape — “truly picturesque,” Thomas says — passed by them as they sang.

“It was a very emotional experience for me.”

One of the reasons he chose to sail the Nordnorge, he says, is because it has smaller boats which allow its passengers to actually go ashore and walk on the Antarctic continent. “The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators allows only 100 non-scientific personnel ashore at any one time, and that’s the reason larger ships don’t allow their passengers ashore. The Nordnorge does, and that’s the reason I chose it,” Thomas says.

The tourists were not allowed to pick up anything, explains Thomas. “There are strict rules about picking up penguin feathers or rocks.”

Having said that, Thomas chuckles. “But I did manage to get a golf-ball sized rock as well as penguin feathers from there.”

The rock is now part of his son’s water-rock garden, he confesses.

Thomas says there is no one favorite place amongst those he visited. “The places I’ve been to are so pretty. I don’t want to compare one against the other. In Alaska, every day was prettier than the other.”

One of these days, he predicts, Antarctica will be a major tourist destination.

He says he is not against mining in that continent, like some of the others are, but he still wants them to maintain its beauty.

All his travels, he says, have taught him to appreciate other people.

Australia is the only continent, Thomas says, he has not visited. But he plans to do it soon — sometime before he turns 79, which means he has 11 years left. “That’s because a person has to be less than 79 years of age to travel on a freight ship,” he says.

Thomas prefers traveling either by water or by road, where he can see what he’s passing by. “You cannot see much if you are squeezed into a tube and in the air.”

So he would like to travel to Australia by ship.

“But it’s expensive,” Thomas says, adding that he takes up odd jobs in the places he visits to pay for his expenses. For instance, he worked as a cab driver in Alaska, he says. But he otherwise pays for his trips from his savings.

It was his mother whom he credits for his love of traveling. “She was a well-educated woman who traveled quite a bit,” he says of her. Thomas says she ran one of the first travel agencies in Lufkin.

And as he dreams of his next trip, he hums a melody: “Far away places, With strange sounding names, Far away over the sea.”

Donations sought for Christmas in April

Christmas in April organizers have selected 12 families to receive their renovation services this year, and now they are looking for volunteers and money to make those dreams come true.

The event will take place April 29.

The group is trying to raise at least $40,000 to cover this year’s renovations and the beginning of next year’s expenses, organizer Grant Holder said.

So far, the organization has raised about $28,000, thanks in part to a recent $3,000 donation from the First Methodist Church of Hobart. Holder said an organization can sponsor a house for $1,500, or co-sponsor a house for $750. Smaller donations also are welcome, he said.

This year, the Hobart Garden Club has volunteered its services for the event. Members will focus on sprucing up the outsides of the homes.

“They’ll plant and cut shrubbery and do things like that,” he said. “They’ll give the homes some curb appeal.”

Six of the homes are in Hobart, five are in Lake Station and one is in New Chicago. Volunteers do a lot of maintenance around the house, but don’t repair roofs or replace windows, primarily due to the time constraints and expense involved.

Christmas credit card spending at record high

British consumers put more money on plastic this Christmas than ever before, new industry figures have revealed.

According to the Association for Payment Clearing Services (Apacs), which oversees all card transactions, UK credit and debit card spending in December totalled £28.5 billion, an 11 per cent increase on the same month in 2004.

The figures suggest that while consumer spending remained relatively subdued last Christmas, shoppers are putting more of their purchases on credit and debit cards, with card spending accounting for 61.4 per cent of all spending in December, up two per cent on 2004.

The survey also shows an increasing switch from credit to debit cards, with 67 per cent of all card purchases over the month made on debit cards.

Nevertheless, with total credit card spending increasing by 0.9 per cent year-on-year, Apacs director of communications, Sandra Quinn believes that both credit and debit card spending will continue to rise in 2006.

‘We spent a record amount this December on our plastic cards, and we are seeing an ongoing trend of paying by debit rather than credit cards – perhaps reflecting that we’ve become a nation who want to keep a tighter rein on our finances,’ Ms Quinn said.

‘This said, the fact remains that credit card spending continues to rise and so do repayments.

‘And this can only be because we like credit cards, and enjoy the flexibility and benefits they provide – especially where they give added protection and the flexibility to spread the load over time when buying high value items.’

However, she warned credit card users to ensure they plan their repayments carefully to avoid paying excessive interest or incurring fines for late payments.

‘Anyone who borrowed money over Christmas if they haven’t done so already should sit down and work out exactly how they plan to repay,’ she said.

A recent Datamonitor study revealed that Britons’ love affair with plastic has seen the UK top the European personal debt league table.

According to the market analyst’s report, the average Briton has outstanding personal debts totalling £3,034. This is more than a third higher than the second-most indebted nation in Europe, Germany, where average debts total £2,037.

Brits Christmas spending splurge

BRITS spent a record amount on their plastic cards over the Christmas period, but the rate of growth of credit card spending has slowed dramatically.

According to the UK clearing service Apacs, £28.5bn was spent on plastic cards in December – 8.9% higher than the same period in 2004.

Spending on debit cards rose by 15.1% during the month to £17bn, but credit card spending only grew by 0.9% to £11.5bn.

Although the slight increase reflects the fact that shoppers are tightening their belt, there is also anecdotal evidence that new chip & Pin rules are starting to impact on card sales.

Many retailers started to introduce the new chip & Pin laws before Christmas, meaning that customers that couldn’t remember their credit card Pin were asked to pay by alternative methods.

The proportion of purchases made with cash and cheques continued to fall, from 35% in 2004 to 33% in 2005. In total, there was 630.5m purchases on plastic during the month, a 7.9% increase on December 2004.

Apacs director of communications Sandra Quinn said: ‘We spent a record amount this December on our plastic cards, and we are seeing an ongoing trend of paying by debit rather than credit cards – perhaps reflecting that we’ve become a nation that wants to keep a tighter reign on our finances.

‘This said, the fact remains that credit card spending continues to rise and so do repayments. This can only be because we like credit cards and enjoy the flexibility and benefits they provide.’

Christmas volunteer gets fine overturned

CAMDEN Council has been forced into a U-turn over its refusal to waive parking fines for two Christmas Day volunteers.

Lottie Moggach and Elizabeth Bell got tickets through the post after being caught on CCTV dropping off pensioners for Christmas lunch at Hampstead Community Centre.

Initial appeals to the council’s better nature fell on deaf ears, but after heartless parking bosses were exposed in last week’s Ham&High, the council has cancelled one of the tickets.

Ms Bell said: “I received a cheque on Saturday, with no explanation, other than that this was ‘purely a discretionary gesture’.

“I have a feeling everyone would like me to shut up and go away. But I am still not happy about the arrangements for the community centre.

“I want to know what the council is going to do if I am dropping off passengers disabled by age or infirmity at the community centre in future. There can’t be this nonsense every year. It’s a waste of everybody’s time and energy.”

Ms Moggach is still waiting to hear confirmation that her ticket has been overturned. Responding to Ms Moggach’s appeal last month, parking official Catherine Wood wrote: “You have stated that you were dropping off elderly people to the Hampstead Community Centre for Christmas lunch. Whilst I appreciate that you were acting as a volunteer for the centre, vehicles are not permitted to pick up or drop off passengers on zigzags.”

This week a council spokesman said: “We have cancelled the parking ticket because of the charitable purpose of her visit to Hampstead on Christmas day.”

Parking tsar Councillor John Thane was unapologetic about the ticket last week and this week refused to comment on the climbdown. But his reaction has attracted outrage from residents.

Ed Wolf from Rudall Crescent wrote to the Ham&High: “John Thane should immediately be sent on two courses – one on common sense and the other one on public relations. Regrettably it may be too late for him to profit from the former course.”

Alex Henney from Swains Lane, who is the secretary of London Motorists’ Action Group which campaigns against parking controls, wrote: “The episode you reported on last week’s front page is contemptible, even by Camden’s standards. It is just another illustration of our psychotic and dysfunctional council’s unpleasant tax farming operation.”

Volunteers have had problems dropping people off at the centre ever since the camera was installed in April to ‘stop crime’. Taxi drivers refuse to stop outside with elderly and infirm pensioners because they get tickets, even if they use the HGV loading bay.

Centre co-ordinator Richard Weaver said: “The council has done the right thing in overturning the ticket as they were not even parking dangerously. Last year the council wanted to turn those ‘dangerous’ zigzags into a loading bay, so how is it dangerous?

“It’s ridiculous. You would have to give over 60s a lift in an HGV to avoid getting a ticket. We do need an undertaking as these tickets are a threat to our Christmas Day.”

Meanwhile this week around Hampstead one (possibly desperate) driver has been leaving Valentine messages for parking attendants saying: “Warden Valentine! Leave my car alone today please! I still love you.”

Toys for Tots spreads Christmas joy to area youngsters, families

Toys for Tots gave toys to 140 children from 43 families for Christmas, thanks to area donations. Six new bikes were purchased with a $500 donation designated for bikes.

Organizations involved in providing the toys to the families were the Southern Hills Bikers Assoc., Hot Springs Police Department, VA employees and Pamida, which gave a discount on toys.

Police Chief Roger Exum displayed the toys in his garage, where the children could come and pick out some toys they wanted. Exum said it was fun to watch the children. “It’s a joy to see people and how appreciative they are,” said Chief Exum. “It gives me a good feeling—I kind of felt like Santa Claus.”

Christmas parade moves to Sunday

Lincoln’s annual Christmas parade will have not just a new co-sponsor, Main Street Lincoln, but also a new time and date – 1:30 p.m. Dec. 3, a Sunday, Main Street Lincoln director Wanda Rohlfs said today.

Rohlfs said Main Street’s board authorized the changes Monday, changes she said would better serve the Lincoln Community High School band, other marching bands and parade marchers.

Last year’s parade was limited in entries when marching bands and other entries dropped out the day of the parade – the bands reportedly out of a concern for damaging band members’ instruments in the cold.

Evening temperatures on parade day dipped into or near single digits.

“We wanted to have our high school band in the parade,” said Rohlfs, a retired high school teacher. “The temperature was so cold for little kids and adults. We want to try something” by rescheduling the event to a daytime festivity, at least this year.

Rohlfs said a Main Street Christmas parade committee will meet at 6 p.m. Thursday at Einstein’s to plan volunteer support for the event.

Rolhfs said Mayor Beth Davis’ concern is to continue having the event close to the Thanksgiving holiday.

The city provides parade sponsorship funds.

Main Street Lincoln President Dr. Kristen Green-Morrow said last week that the board voted to further investigate and strongly consider running the parade. She said a decision would be made this week.

The new date proposed would be within nine days of this year’s Nov. 23 Thanksgiving holiday.

Rohlfs said if the parade’s daytime format proves unpopular, the Christmas parade could be returned to an evening event.

Students adopt two area families for Christmas

Student members of WINS (Women in Non-traditional Studies—the club is open to all students) at Alfred State College this holiday season “adopted” two area families recommended by Steuben County Rural Ministries to help make their Christmas “merry and bright.” The club raised more than $300 through student donations in order to purchase warm clothing and toys for the families. Each of the children received underwear and socks as well as two items that they requested in addition to the necessities. The students in the photo gathered at Joy Carlson’s house (professor, Computer Imaging and Architectural Engineering Technology Department, and club adviser), on Dec. 11 for breakfast and wrapping. Presents were delivered on Dec. 19.

Hospital Christmas gift

Cruickshank Construction presented Winchester District Memorial Hospital Foundation with a cheque for $6,000 on Monday, January 30, 2006 as a Christmas gift to the hospital. Les Cruickshank, Board Chair for the construction firm said, Some years ago, Cruickshank Construction decided to make an annual donation to one of several community hospitals where we are most active, in honour of our clients as a way of celebrating the Christmas season. This year, Winchester District Memorial Hospital is the recipient. We see this as a win-win for all concerned our company and our clients, and our local hospitals. We have asked the hospital to direct this gift for the purchase of new equipment for the upcoming hospital reconstruction pproject

Hospital Board Chair, Bill Smirle, thanked Cruickshank Construction and said, Cruickshank Construction is a major supporter of the Renewing the Vision campaign and has been a strong supporter of this hospital throughout the years. With this gift, Cruickshank Constriction continues to demonstrate their community leadership. We are most appreciative of this donation and the manner in which it is given  in recognition of their clients at the Christmas season. Thank you very much.

Tobyhanna sponsors Christmas DVD for the troops

The Tobyhanna Army Depot Chapter of the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) sponsored a Christmas Tribute for Our Pennsylvania Soldiers DVD. The theme of the DVD was ‘Pennsylvania citizens thanking Pennsylvania Soldiers for fighting for our freedom.’ Wayne Hansen, a disabled Vietnam veteran, produced this video with his band. The video features local bands playing a variety of music and Pennsylvanians saying thank you to Pennsylvania soldiers. The DVD was mailed to the commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 28th Infantry Division (Mechanized), Pennsylvania Army National Guard. From left, seated, are Alan Bucklaw, Tobyhanna chapter vice president, Patricia Hansen, Wayne Hansen, and Dr. Jim Meyl, Tobyhanna chapter president. Standing: George Zarcone, Tobyhanna chapter vice president, membership renewal; Steve Bucklaw, Tobyhanna chapter Web master; retired Sgt. Maj. Elizabeth Lawrence, Tobyhanna chapter vice president, retiree affairs; Sonya Walls, Tobyhanna chapter vice president, marketing; Sgt. Maj. Robert Anderson, Tobyhanna chapter vice president, soldier affairs; Alecia Sebring, Tobyhanna chapter vice president, family programs; and Chris Webster, Tobyhanna Army Depot video editor.

Post-Christmas Credit Blues

Consumer spending is the backbone of the American economy. And more and more, society is geared to encourage us to spend.

The commercialization of Christmas is particularly demonstrative of the importance of consumer spending to the economy. Months prior to Christmas—even before Thanksgiving—advertisements blanket the airwaves. “Buy now—pay later” and “no payments to 2007” have become synonymous with our guilt-free view of living for the present moment.

As many of those commercials demonstrate, debt has fueled much of the recent consumer spending. But few consider that debt is a form of enslavement. Few seem to remember the biblical proverb, “The borrower is servant to the lender.”

America’s consumption-based economy is at the tipping point, and increasing debt payments might be the bump to push it over the edge. As Martin Cantor, director of economic development with Sustainable Long Island, an advocacy group, says, “No matter how bad the economy has gotten, everybody pointed to increasing consumer activity to sustain it …. If that goes, there’s nothing left” (Newsday, Dec. 11, 2005).

How long can we keep spending money we don’t have?

Since the end of the last recession in November 2001, the average worker’s wage has not increased. In fact, inflation-adjusted average wages are still below what they were when economic recovery began more than four years ago (Wall Street Journal, January 4).

Instead of cutting back on spending when faced with a dip in real wages, consumers decided to maintain or improve their standard of living—even if that meant spending their savings and taking on more debt.

Consequently, the personal savings rate plummeted from 10.4 percent in the early 1980s to 1.8 percent in 2004. In 2005, for the first time since the Great Depression, the annual personal savings rate was negative.

Among the many record-breaking occurrences over the past year, the negative savings rate may be the most underrated and underreported sign of sickness in the U.S. economy yet—because a negative savings rate means that the consumer might finally be getting spent out.

In view of the fact that consumer spending now accounts for over two thirds of U.S. economic activity, if spending falters, so does the economy.

One of the means by which consumers have been able to continue to spend more than they earn is through easy debt provided by credit cards. But for many Americans, the cost of easy credit has just gone up. This past December, new legislation requiring credit card companies to increase minimum payments went into effect.

Approximately 40 percent of Americans carry a monthly balance on their credit cards. Of that number, 7 percent pay only the monthly minimum (Financial Times Information, January 3). That equates to more than 8.2 million Americans who will be forced to shell out higher monthly minimum payments.

In a decade, average credit card debt per household grew from $4,640 to $7,300 by 2004 (Newsday, op. cit.). Last year, the trend continued. Credit card company Visa recently announced that holiday shoppers charged 18 percent more money on its credit cards during the three months leading up to Christmas than they did the previous year.

As these consumers pay more to service their credit cards and pay off their bills, they will be forced to cut spending elsewhere.

For an economy so reliant on high consumer demand, this is not good news.

But American consumers are not the only ones who have been feeling the pinch of too much credit card debt. According to accountancy firm Grant Thornton, a record number of personal insolvencies are predicted for first quarter 2006 in England and Wales. Approximately a third of those will occur because of “excessive Christmas spending” (Independent, January 3).

Amazingly, two thirds of total EU credit card debt is British. It is no wonder that more personal bankruptcies are expected to occur in Britain during 2006 than in any other year since records on personal debt began to be kept 45 years ago, and that bankruptcies are surging at an annualized rate of more than 30 percent (ibid.).

The American and British economies are more precarious than most people think. The mountains of debt that now face American and UK consumers are about to come back to haunt us—even enslave us! Most people do not want to accept reality, but it is time for people to wake up and get their financial house in order.

The Trumpet can state with certainty that the American and British economies will collapse—bringing on a global crisis of unrivaled proportions!

If you want to know why this economic collapse is coming and where it is leading, request our free book The United States and Britain in Prophecy. It will prove to you where the U.S. and British economies are headed and how that will subsequently affect the world economy. Are you willing to face reality

Rally celebrates ‘Merry Christmas’ in February

Supporters of a campaign to urge Wayne County residents and businesses to say “Merry Christmas” instead of a more generic holiday greeting held a “victory rally” Friday.

About two dozen people attended the gathering at Wilber’s Barbecue.

Allen told attendees that the campaign had received widespread support across the county.

“They are trying to take out constitutional rights. It says in the Constitution that no entity shall infringe on the right of religion. If we don’t stand up now, we will never be able to stand up,” he said.

State Rep. Louis Pate said he believes the issue is important.

“I had heard and read about it, but it hadn’t occurred to me that we were losing Christmas until I saw some ‘Holiday Trees’ for sale. Once I paid more attention, I noticed the ‘Winter Holiday’ for the kids and other things. This is a battle we need to join and this is an opportunity to fight back. Christmas should be celebrated for what it is,” Pate said.

Allen said the campaign made a difference.

“There are some changes being made. I don’t have a problem with other people’s religious beliefs. I served in the military to give you that right. But it’s gotten ridiculous. They are trying to force the removal of crosses on the graves of our soldiers that have died all over the world. They are trying to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance,” Allen said.

He said many businesses around the county accepted his “Merry Christmas” banners and the accompanying message that it is all right to express their religious beliefs.

UK govt spends more on ethnic fests than Christmas

In a country where the majority of the population are deemed to be Christian and where the monarch doubles up as head of the Church, thanks to her ancestor King Henry VIII founding the sect, government ministers are being accused of discriminating against Christianity in favour of Islam and Hinduism.

David Davis, a Conservative MP has complained of an “anti-Christian prejudice” in the government which bends over backwards to pander to ethnic minority festivals, while ignoring Christian ones. He accused ministers and government departments of spending more of the tax-payers money on marking festivals such as Diwali, Eid ul-Fitr and Chinese New Year than Easter or Christmas.

Davis who raised a number of questions in the House of Commons was told that the Home Office spent more than £15,000 in one week celebrating Diwali and Eid last year. It had invited 200 guests from the Hindu, Sikh and Muslim communities on November 14 for a Diwali/Eid celebration at a cost of £8,933. An internal staff event six days earlier celebrating the same festivals cost £7,557. The government which boasts of being as an equal opportunities employer and which uses positive discrimination to employ more people from the ethnic minorities has a large contingent of Asian origin staff.

The Department of Transport even sent staff to attend a Diwali celebration about 200 miles away at the NEC in Birmingham, but did nothing for Christmas except tell workers about carol concerts, complained Davis. It was also revealed that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office hosted VIP receptions to mark the same festivals but had no plans to observe the Christian festival Easter coming up in a couple of months.

A government spokesman justified the expenses arguing that it used religious events to fulfill its legal obligations to reach minority communities. “The cultural significance of Christianity in our country’s story is indisputable,” said a Home Office spokesman.

Minorities in the civil service argue that this is the only time that their separateness is pandered too. “The whole country celebrates Christmas and Easter because it is a national holiday, as a Hindu I also have a right to celebrate Diwali. It is my main festival and it is only fair that my colleagues should find out about my religion too,” said Manjula Patel, a government clerical officer.

However critics argue that these strategies promote sectarianism as they define people by their religion. “The government should stand aside from religion. They are in a sense proselytising which is not what our taxes are for,” said Claire Rayner, honourary associate of the National Secular Society.

Christmas House Tour being brought back to benefit senior center

After a three-year hiatus, the Abington Christmas House Tour may be brought back this December to help fund the future Abington Senior Center.

Ann Reilly, long-time Abington resident who helped begin the tour 13 years ago, said the committee is anxious to bring the fundraiser back to the town provided there are enough volunteers to make it work as successfully as it has in the past.Reilly said she hopes anyone interested in being involved will attend an informational meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 7 p.m. in the Copeland Room at the Burton Wales Library.

In order for the town to qualify for a grant from the state to assist in building the proposed Senior Center, the town has to come up with matching funds, said Reilly. “The senior citizens have paid taxes in Abington all their lives and have worked tirelessly for many other projects that have improved the town, such as the library and town hall,” said Reilly. “It’s their turn to reap the benefits. They need a place where they can gather and be social. They’ve earned it.” Abington is one of the few towns on the South Shore without a Senior Center.

The Christmas House Tour was originally started by a group of local women to raise money for construction of the new town library. Since then, Christmas House Tours have also raised money for Abington’s Millennium Memorial – the new all-weather track and bandstand. Each tour has raised over $20,000.

This year’s tour would include up to five homes, with a reception where ticket holders can gather for hot beverages and desserts. Reilly said as many as 100 volunteers are needed to plan and decorate. “The seniors are so willing to help wherever they can, from serving on committees, to selling tickets and baking for the reception. They want this to happen as much as we do, and they’re willing to work for it.” added Reilly.

Fish take refuge in Christmas trees

FISH in Rickmansworth are taking refuge in discarded Christmas trees as part of a new environmental initiative.

The Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust (HMWT) has been using the trees to make reefs for fish in Stockers Lake nature reserve. Based on an idea first tested by the US Army, the wildlife trust drills holes in the trunks and wires four or five to a heavy base, before lowering them into the lakes.

Fish are an integral part of the ecology of Stockers Lake reserve and provide food for many species of birds.

The dense tangle of branches and twigs created below the water gives cover for fish.