Archive for February, 2006

Foundation plays ‘Santa’ for post-Christmas season

More than one month after the Christmas season has gone, the spirit of sharing is still alive as SM Foundation continues to make children happy through its toy-giving project called “Make a Child Happy this Christmas at SM”.

A joint project with the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), Ronald McDonalds House Charity, Toy Kingdom, Toy World and Manila Broadcasting Network, the campaign aims to bring cheers to the less fortunate kids by encouraging kind-hearted shoppers in SM Supermalls to donate old and new toys last Christmas.

More than a thousand children in the different towns in Pampanga and nearby provinces became beneficiaries of this year’s Make a Child Happy project.
Among the places visited by the SM Foundation team were Barangay Baño in Arayat; Sapang Bato and Sitio Target in Angeles City; Mansgold Day Care Center in Sta. Lucia and Barangay San Jose in the City of San Fernando; and the Municipality of Sasmuan.

SM Foundation also brought cheers to orphans from the Reception and Study Center for Children, Home for the Girls Tarlac and Tarlac Lingap Center last year with an early Christmas party held last November 29 at the Entertainment Plaza of SM City Pampanga.

The kids were treated to an afternoon filled with fun, games, story-telling, magic and dance from Ronald McDonald and friends.

For the past nine years, SM Foundation’s toy-giving project has collected over 73,521 toys that have been distributed to sick children in government hospitals, as well as kids in charitable institutions.

In 2005, 22,851 children have benefited from the yearly charitable project.

Thanks from Father Christmas

Santa’s Thanks to Crayford!

President Jack and members of Crayford Rotary Club would like to thank the residents of Crayford, Barnehurst and Slade Green for their tremendous support for our Street Carol collection during December 2005.

With your generous support, we raised over £6,500, which will be passed on to the following: Barnehurst, Crayford & Slade Green Scouts; Oakwood & Shenstone Schools; St John’s Ambulance; Bexley Victim Support, and five local charities for the handicapped.

The sight of Santa and our decorated float in the two weeks prior to Christmas is now a tradition in the Crayford area and viable only with your help. Thanks again and keep listening for that music next year.

Freemans Slashes Email Volume at Christmas

Retailer OTTO’s decision to install Transversal’s Metafaq eService solution on its Freemans, Grattan, Look Again and Kaleidoscope websites, has paid off with dramatically reduced email volumes over the Christmas period. During the busiest five weeks of the retail year, the Metafaq help facility has been used by 44,000 customers and answered more than 100,000 customer questions automatically online.

Emails from the four retail websites normally double in the months leading up to Christmas. Transversal’s natural language help solution gives customers the option of finding the answers to questions, directly from the website, without having to phone or email. This has resulted in an email deflection rate of 86 per cent, enabling agents to concentrate on answering more complex enquiries thus improving customer satisfaction and retention.

OTTO installed Metafaq on its retail websites in December 2005, with the whole implementation across all its sites taking under four weeks. Metafaq enables customers to ask questions in their own words and benefit from real, meaningful, answers delivered instantly, helping them to make informed buying choices and find customer service information. Additionally, customers have the option of emailing the customer service team for additional help if needed.

“The year on year increase of Christmas online shopping shows that ecommerce is now truly mass market,” commented Davin Yap, CEO, Transversal. “Consumers enjoy the instant gratification of shopping online and don’t want to be forced to other channels for basic customer service information. Etailers therefore need to make sure their websites are more helpful and responsive if they are to differentiate themselves. The fact that Metafaq has been immediately adopted by consumers, and used so heavily, demonstrates the importance of self-service technology to online retailers.”

Independent research showed that Christmas 2005 was the UK’s busiest online Christmas. Visitors to retail websites were up 14 per cent[1] with £2,253 billion spent by Britain’s 24 million Internet shoppers in November alone[2]. This compares to a growth of just 0.9 per cent in High Street sales. Britain leads the European online shopping market, with the average consumer spending £875 online in 2005, compared to £452 for the rest of Europe[3].

Transversal’s Metafaq solution starts with an initial set of question and answer pairs and then builds additional questions asked by customers into an up-to-date, self-organising, self-learning, knowledgebase of answers – updating content is quick and easy for internal staff and doesn’t require web editing skills. Uniquely, Metafaq automatically understands and identifies the most appropriate answer for the many different ways and words customers use to ask the same question, therefore increasing its effectiveness as a customer service option.

Metafaq is also a mechanism by which customers can qualify themselves as interested in a particular product or service. It can be used to navigate customers straight to the product of interest; push relevant product offers; provide calls to action to buy, all with the aim of capturing customer interest and increasing the chances of conversion.

Christmas Day bus service success

Aberdeen City Council’s special Christmas Day bus service has been hailed a success after passenger numbers almost trebled compared with the previous year.

In a direct comparison, using the same bus routes and service, funded by the City Council and operated by First, 810 people used the service on Christmas Day 2005 compared with 300 on the same day in 2004.

Richard Waters, Planning Officer in the City Council’s Public Transport Unit said: ‘We are very pleased so many people used the service and were able to get around town using public transport which would not otherwise have been available. It proves there is a demand for such a service on Christmas Day.’

The Christmas Day bus service – supported by the City Council at a cost of £6,000 – is the result of partnership working between the local authority and the bus company for the benefit of citizens who require transport on 25 December.

WRRM’s holiday delay pays off

Christmas came four weeks late for WRRM-FM (98.5), but folks there aren’t complaining.

The soft rock station – which held off playing Christmas music until after Thanksgiving, at the listeners’ request – jumped to third place in fall Arbitron ratings released last week.

WVMX-FM (MIX 94.1), which launched holiday tunes on Nov. 7, saw its audience share drop slightly among all listeners ages 12 and older from a year ago. Ho, ho, ho.

“Maybe they should have waited until the pumpkins were off the front porch before going all Christmas,” says T.J. Holland, program director for WARM98, WYGY-FM (country STAR 96.5) and “jammin’ oldies” WMOJ-FM (MOJO 94.9).

“I think it helped that we asked people when they wanted to hear Christmas music. We played Christmas at the right time, when people wanted to hear it. That makes a difference,” Holland says.

The move paid huge dividends with women, the station’s target. WARM98 was No. 1 with women ages 18-34, 18-49, 25-54 and 35-64, according to Arbitron’s September-December report.

Talk-sports WLW-AM (700) and country music WUBE-FM (105.1) were the top two stations with listeners of all ages, and the 25-54 demographic that advertisers want most. WLW-AM has been the region’s top station for six years. B105 was tied for third a year ago, and fourth in the 25-54 money demographic.

WLW-AM again was No. 1 in mornings, midday and weekends. B105’s Duke Hamilton was No. in the afternoon. Rock station WKFS-FM (KISS 107.1) was the most popular station weekday evenings, followed by B105 and WLW-AM.

Other fall winners were country STAR 96.5, which rocketed from 12th a year ago to third place with listeners 18-34, and adult contemporary WKRQ-FM (Q102), which jumped from 13th a year ago to 10th.

Talk stations WSAI-AM (HOMER 1360), WDBZ-AM (BUZZ 1230) and WCKY-AM (1530) also showed fall audience gains.

Losers included talk radio WKRC-AM (550), which fell to sixth from second a year ago during the presidential election, and urban music WIZF-FM (WIZ100.9), which dropped from fifth a year ago to 10th.

City’s Christmas decorations come down.

A 4-foot-tall Santa Claus decoration sat against a State Street lightpost on a recent evening, as though he was waiting for a ride.

And, in a way, he was. But instead of a reindeer-drawn sleigh, a city Public Facilities Department truck rumbled forward and city workers Jimmy Gonzalez and James Mahan hop out and heaved St. Nick into the big truck’s bed.

It was another annual Christmas tradition in the city, in reverse: Taking down the holiday decorations.

But it’s not a gloomy time for the crews who get the job.

“Obviously, putting them up is a lot better, but the season is over,” Gonzalez said.

It was Gonzalez’ second year taking down the candy canes, snowmen, Santa Claus, angel and toy soldier figures that hang from the city light poles and light downtown green space.

“The hardest part is dealing with traffic,” he said.

The public facilities crews start in the evening, as downtown traffic thins. They can usually complete the task in five-hour shifts over two days, but hanging the decorations can take about 15 hours.

Gonzalez rode with two veterans — James Mahan, who has worked in public facilities for 10 years, while the truck’s driver, Alberto Labrador, has 19 years on the job.

They all agreed that candy canes are easy to put up, but hanging the others can be tougher.

Frosty, St. Nick and the toy soldiers can be heavy in the best of weather, and the task is less than jolly in the wind, cold and rain.

“Santa Claus ain’t no joke,” Mahan said. The famous bearded fellow weighs somewhere between 50 and 100 pounds.

There are about 50 snowmen and Santa Claus figures in the city’s collection.

Still, Gonzalez said he relishes working with the decorations.

“It’s a lot of fun. It’s worth all the kids watching us,” he said.

The city hangs 323 decorations on East Main, State, Broad, Congress, John and Water streets and Lafayette Boulevard and Housatonic Avenue. There are also 45 standing figures and more than 100 strings of lights used in making downtown merry, according to the Public Facilities Department.

The figures hang by a vertical metal bar that slides into brackets fixed on the light poles. The figures plug into a light sensor above the bulb, said John Ziobo, a city electrician for 22 years.

He estimated the decorations are 6 to 8 years old, and cost $400 to $800 each.

To take the figures down, the electricians unplug them and lower them to the ground while they are attached to the basket of a bucket truck.

Then, ground crews pick them up. The decorations can fill the beds of three trucks.

It costs about $5,000 to put the decorations up and take them down, said Paul Catino, the public facilities budget manager. About $1,700 of that represents overtime, and the rest is electricity costs, he said.

A rack truck with three workers and a bucket truck with a driver and electrician make up a crew, Catino added.

In Milford and Fairfield, the decorations are handled a little differently.

Fairfield firefighters string lights on a pine tree in front of Old Town Hall, and a tree is decorated on Sherman Green in town, said First Selectman Kenneth Flatto.

Replacing bulbs for that tree cost several hundred dollars, Flatto estimated.

The town also hangs holiday banners downtown, and holiday candles are placed in some public buildings, he said.

In Milford, the Chamber of Commerce supplies bows and lights, and the city’s Public Works Department hangs them the Friday after Thanksgiving, said Bruce Kolwicz, the DPW director.

In both communities, the decorations come down in early January.

But the officials did not know where the decorations were stored.

Bridgeport’s figures are stored in a Seaside Park facility near the horse stables until they’re re-hung in early December.

Bridgeport workers laugh at the thought of someone stealing the unwieldy decorations while they’re in storage.

“Would you want to?” Gonzalez asks.

Homemade Christmas Wreaths donated to Meals on Wheels

During the holidays, a few different Girl Scout troops and friends of Aldermere Farm joined together to make homemade Christmas wreaths that were then donated to Meals on Wheels in Rockland. These events were fun for all who participated and were also a great way to give to the community during the holidays.

One event took place on Saturday Nov. 19 as part of National Family Volunteer Day. Girl Scout Troop #2118 of Camden joined some friends and staff of Aldermere to learn how to make the wreaths then proceeded to make 12″ decorated wreaths for donation. Other volunteers that day raked leaves around the Farm and helped out where needed.

On Wednesday Dec. 14, Girl Scout Troop #575 of Rockland came to the Farm and also learned how to make wreaths and then made some beautifully decorated wreaths for donation. A total of 25 wreaths were donated to Meals on Wheels, which were then distributed to those people in the community who receive the meals. Gloria Rhode from Senior Spectrum picked up the wreaths the evening of Dec. 14 and spoke to the girls about how much people appreciate the gift.

This is the fourth year that Aldermere Farm and Girl Scout troops have worked together to give wreaths to the Meals on Wheels program. “It has been an honor working with the Girl Scouts on the wreaths. When making the wreaths, it was easy to see that everyone was excited about what they were doing and took great pride in making them look nice,” said Sarah Post, Program Coordinator for Aldermere Farm.

Aldermere Farm would like to thank all those who participated in making wreaths this year and being gracious enough to donate them after putting in the time and effort to make them look so wonderful. This has now become a tradition that they hope will last for many years to come.

Workplace law changes mean little to celebrate next Christmas

MANY Australian workers will probably be unaware that they have just enjoyed the last time they will be paid penalty rates for working over the Christmas-New Year break. Come next December there will be many Scrooge employers.

Last month John Howard had all his Christmases come at once with the passing of the workplace reform legislation. It won’t be too long before current affairs television programs feature stories of workers being deprived of their rights, or new job seekers embarking on their first job being given a trial run but without the authentic touch of a salary.

Employees dismissed from a small business on a technicality will air their grievance to talk-back radio. As things develop, workers will be forced to take a wage discount or see the conditions of employment diminish to save their jobs. Many, of course, will be intimidated to speak out for fear of losing their jobs. We will end up with a labour market of fear. John Howard has proclaimed that no prime minister in his right mind would ever seriously contemplate reform that meant lower wages and poorer conditions. He would and should say that, but the army of penny-capitalists, contractors and franchisees will insist on hiring labour at bargain basement prices and placing them on call. The deregulation of the Australian labour market is now complete, with unions all but banished from the workplace.

On the first anniversary of his win over Mark Latham, John Howard and the Workplace Relations Minister, Kevin Andrews, launched the Workplace Choices bill. It came with a $55 million advertising blitz to allay concern within the community about its intent and to answer the accusations made of it by the unions in their own pre-emptive media blitz. Two months later, the bill has been passed into law, with some amendments such as workers not facing dismissal if they object to working on Christmas Day. For the moment the electorate’s apprehension has been mellowed by the somnolence of January.

It is ironic, though, that these workplace reforms will start coming into play exactly 75 years since the wage-fixing body known as the Arbitration Court authorised a similar-type adjustment to wages and conditions. On January 21, 1931, the Arbitration Court, now known as the Industrial Relations Commission, handed down a judgement that meant a 10 per cent money wage cut for every Australian worker.

The circumstances were diametrically different from today. Australia, then, was in a difficult hole. Her export prices had crashed and all the states were finding it difficult to service their huge portfolio of overseas debts. They also had huge budget deficits to contend with. Today, we are far away from such dire economic circumstances.

Yet the alacrity in which the Government has acted would suggest that we were. Of course, the mantra from the business lobby groups is that we need more economic reform to remain internationally competitive. They told the Government not to weaken in their resolve. In fact, the Business Council of Australia has been running their own media campaign outlining the need for more economic reform. And the way in which the Howard Government follows the agenda of the BCA, it’s as if it had its own seat within cabinet.

‘Christmas in January’ for stores as troops return from Iraq with money to burn

One short test drive and Army Spc. Todd Strange is gushing “Oh, sweet! I love it!”

He’s been home from Iraq a little over 30 hours and already he’s trading in his little 2001 Dodge Neon for a muscle car – a 2006 Mustang GT, V-8 engine, price tag $26,320.

“I’m buying the car to show off, pretty much,” admits Strange, 26, of St. Louis.

Business has been booming in this southeast Georgia town since just after Christmas when thousands of 3rd Infantry Division troops from neighboring Fort Stewart began returning from a yearlong tour in Iraq and finding their bank accounts flush with combat pay, tax breaks and bonuses.

“Christmas in January” proclaim newspaper advertisements for one local furniture and electronics store.

That’s especially true for retailers who suffered through 2005 while some of their best customers were overseas. Now, they worry about keeping new cars and home theater systems in stock.

“It’s been a lonely year,” said Monica Doering, manager of Freedom Furniture and Electronics, less than a mile from Fort Stewart’s main gate. “It’s not only the soldiers’ Christmas, but what we’re experiencing now is actually our Christmas.”

The 3rd Infantry has 19,000 troops returning to Fort Stewart, Hunter Army Airfield in nearby Savannah and Fort Benning in Columbus.

Hotels in Hinesville have been booked solid by soldiers’ families attending homecoming ceremonies. Restaurant parking lots are full, and rental properties that sat vacant for nearly a year are filling up again.

“We needed it badly. If they are not here, we can hardly pay our bills,” said Mike Randerwala, manager of the Quality Inn in Hinesville. “Last year, I had a loss of more than $100,000.”

The overall economic hit hurt but doesn’t appear as bad as many feared, Mayor Tom Ratcliffe said. For the first 10 months of 2005, the latest figures available, sales tax revenues in town were down only 6 percent compared with the same period in 2004.

It’s not just a year of being unable to hit the shopping malls and car dealers that has troops flush with cash. During their yearlong Iraq deployments, they earned combat pay and other incentives, and their income wasn’t taxed.

Several soldiers interviewed estimated they earned an extra $700 to $800 per month while in Iraq, totaling up to an extra $9,600 for some from their year overseas.

“Without the extra money, I couldn’t go out and get this stuff,” said Spc. Sherrod White, 21, of Fayetteville, N.C., as he picked out a $1,499 desktop computer with a $599 flat screen monitor at Doering’s store.

“A lot of people, they just go crazy with it,” he said.

At Hinesville Ford, where Strange picked out his Mustang, general manager Fred Mingledorff said he’s on track to sell more than 120 cars this month – compared to 80 during a typical month and 40 while the 3rd Infantry was overseas.

And the troops aren’t settling for economy cars, he said.

“They’ve been fighting a war for a year. When they get back, they sure deserve to be able to spend their money,” Mingledorff said.

The Hinesville Wal-Mart Supercenter has conspicuous gaps in its wall of large-screen TVs because impatient buyers have taken the display units.

Even the shelves of pots, pans and other mundane household items have been picked practically bare as soldiers furnish homes and apartments.

“This is something that typically we would never have out of stock,” said Wal-Mart manager Ted Sells. “As you can see, they’ve just wiped us out.”

And it’s not just the businesses that are celebrating Christmas a month late.

Heidi Harms, the wife of an Army chaplain, still has her tree, stockings and lights up and agreed not to even shop for presents for their five children until her husband gets home.

“He loves shopping for the kids, so he said ‘Please don’t do anything until I get back,”’ said Harms.

Their children, ages 11 years to 18 months, haven’t seemed to mind the delay, especially since they got gifts last month from Capt. Lee Harms’ parents.

“They just know Santa Claus was taking care of the soldiers in Iraq, and he’s coming home with dad,” she said.

Cornerstone display exceeds expectations

The twinkle of the holidays continues at Cornerstone Christian Church. Only it’s not in the form of Christmas lights, but in dollar signs — $100,000 to be exact.

The money — proceeds from the church’s 15th Festival of Lights display — is being sent to Mississippi toward efforts to rebuild a child care center destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

There was no charge to attend the light display, but a $10 donation per car was recommended. Final tabulations arrived at the church last week, beyond expectations of church leaders.

Pastor Jess Gibson said the church wanted to provide an opportunity for people to give directly to victims affected. The original goal was to raise $50,000, he said, which would have covered expenses to purchase drywall.

“We’ve taken a great step forward in getting more (money) on their way,” Gibson said Friday. “People were more generous than before.”

In all, 50,000 people visited the light show, including 6,000 who elected to participate in a walk-through display.

The walk-through — “Christmas Through a Child’s Eye” — was a new fixture to the display, featuring inflatable cartoon characters and a laser-light show projected on the Elfindale Mansion.

The money raised will be distributed in increments to Service International. The St. Louis group is assisting Moore Community House, of Biloxi, Miss., with rebuilding efforts.

The child-care center, pushed off its foundation by Katrina, helps low-income working parents with free child care and emergency assistance. There are also networks for grandparents and teen parents and adult education classes.

Ed Fasnacht, project director at Service International over the Moore site, said eight buildings were demolished at the facility because damage made them unsafe to occupy.

A former Methodist church is being remodeled to house about 75 clients awaiting its anticipated spring reopening, Fasnacht said. The funds from Cornerstone will purchase building supplies to bring the building up to code.

“It’s a very huge thing,” Fasnacht said of the donation for Moore House, one of 450 Gulf coast sites Service International is helping.

“We’re putting jeopardy on (the) future of mothers by not having child care available to them.”

Gibson said $30,000 was raised before the doors of the display opened on Thanksgiving Day. Donations gathered at the 14-acre light display are normally used to cover utilities for the church to put on the show concluding New Year’s Eve.

It takes church crews three months to install the nearly 1 million lights that sparkle through the display.

Floating angels suspended over the drive-through were being taken down on Friday. Reindeer were resting in a barn.

“You take a deep breath of relief when it’s done,” said Gibson of the show run by church volunteers, “but then before you know it, it’s back up again.”

Gibson said a group form Cornerstone will visit Moore Community House in March.

February Christmas tradition this weekend

The destitute grey-green stack of twigs that used to be a Christmas tree doesn’t have to endure a pointless fate.
Instead of disposing of Christmas trees after families are through with celebrating the holiday season, why not recycle them?
Cochrane’s 8th Annual Tree Chipping Event will be happening Saturday, Feb. 4, at Mitford Ponds.
The event will be nothing short of a celebration, with skating, games, and free hot dogs and hot chocolate for everyone.
“The big thing is getting everybody together,” said Wally Hume of the Town of Cochrane.
Beginning at 11 a.m., people can bring their trees, free of decorations, tinsel, metals, netting, or nails in the tree base to the parking lot, located west of Highway 22 at the end of West Rock Road.
Then, for two hours, until 1 p.m., they can skate, eat, play, and gather with friends for some fun, put on by the Town of Cochrane Recreation Department.
“We encourage as many kids as possible to come out,” said Tracy Nault, manager of Recreation and Culture with the Town.
After all the trees are gathered, they are chipped down and turned into mulch using Asplundh Canada Inc.’s tree chipper.
The event is sponsored by Fortis Alberta.
While the town doesn’t keep a tally of how many trees are recycled each year, Hume said the event is always a success.
“It improves environmental stewardship in the community,” Hume said about the event.
On average, the town makes 155 cubic yards of mulch per year.
While regular mulch is used in many Cochrane public parks, as well as residential yards, the mulch made from Christmas trees is not ideal for these uses.
“Christmas trees are so acidic, it’s not a real diverse product,” Hume said.
But it is a great product for a tree nursery, as Bow Point Nursery takes the mulch every year from this event and uses it in their tree beds.

Christmas in February is crazy

THREE-foot plastic Santas and similar Christmas luminaries were still hanging in Cockermouth’s main street on January 20.

I’m told lit-up Christmas trees are still adorning shop fronts in Kirkby Lonsdale.

Meanwhile in Ambleside, Hays Garden Centre’s half-price Christmas decoration sale has rolled into February.

This store now has an unashamed connection with Christmas that lasts five months (September to January).

Is there any wonder autumn-watchers like me insist on bypassing the grotto through the nursery to head for coffee and scones upstairs.

Goodwill to all men forbids me to list what else I’ve seen flapping in the wind around West Cumbria, except one which really takes the biscuit.

Are you the hotel owner whose wall poster is still urging us to “book early for Christmas?”

The joy and peace of this glorious advent season will never fade, but surely these garish trappings have a sell-by date.

‘Shrek’ director helms Christmas comedy

Victoria Jenson is in final negotiations to direct New Line’s holiday comedy Four Christmases, according to Variety.

Written by Matt Allen and Caleb Wilson, the script tells the story of a young couple who are forced to visit their respective parents, all of whom have divorced, giving them four Christmases to celebrate.

The film will mark Jenson’s live-action debut, having previously directed animated features such as Shark Tale and Shrek, the latter alongside The Lion,. The Witch and The Wardrobe’s Andrew Adamson. Gary Barber and Roger Bimbaum are producing.

Four Christmases is likely to reach screens during Christmas 2007.

US consumers splashed out over Christmas

US consumers spent more than they earned over December, dipping into their savings to finance purchases, according to a report by the Department of Commerce.

Personal income increased 0.4% over the festive period, while spending increased by 0.9%, an extra $80.2 billion from November. Personal saving was a negative 0.7%, reflecting spending that exceeds disposable income as Americans either dipped into savings or borrowed. The report said that a 5% increase in durable goods purchases was fuelled by motor car and parts sales.

US retailers were prompted to discount heavily during the run-up to Christmas in an effort to drive sales volume in a weak trading environment. With debt levels the worst in 25 years and incomes rising only sluggishly, spending was expected to be curtailed during the last months of the year. JC Penney and Wal-Mart both offered significant markdowns in November, and revenues rose as a result.

In an economy driven by consumer spending, the figures look promising for 2006. Analysts believe that a boom in the housing market is encouraging Americans to spend, but this may change as the economy starts to slow down. The Central Bank has raised the interest rate this week again another quarter of a point to 4.5% to keep inflation under control, increasing lending rates.

‘Christmas Season’ to Begin Early in 2006

The American Family Association says it will begin in June 2006 reminding national retailers that the word “Christmas” is not a four-letter word for most Americans, and it deserves to be included in store promotions and greetings in November and December.

AFA founder and chairman Don Wildmon does not want retailers to have the same excuse some used this past Christmas season. “We will start this summer to give retailers plenty of time to include the simple sentiment in their promotional activity,” says Wildmon.

AFA and other pro-family groups, as well as conservative radio and TV personalities, raised the issue over the Christmas holidays in 2005, when it became obvious that many retailers had removed the word from their promotions.

“Christians are growing tired of being ignored except when stores want their money,” says the AFA founder of the Mississippi-based ministry. “The outpouring of frustration over the banning of the word ‘Christmas’ was amazing.”

For example, AFA ended its boycott of Target after that company changed its policy and announced that it would include Christmas in advertising and in-store promotions. Nearly 700,000 people had signed up at AFA’s website to join the Target boycott.

Other stores also made changes after being deluged by complaints from AFA supporters. Lowe’s, for example, announced that it was going to “avoid confusion” and sell “Christmas trees” instead of “holiday trees.” Walgreens, Sears, Kroger, and Wal-Mart are among companies which responded positively.

“This was dramatic evidence,” notes Wildmon, “of the simple but effective power of consumers communicating their concerns to the businesses where they shop.”

Christmas spending sets savers back by 51 days

It will take the average Briton 51 days to get their savings back on track after the annual Christmas spending splurge, a new survey suggests.

Birmingham Midshires’ “Saving Britain” campaign found that savers successfully managed to put away an average £680 over the final quarter of 2005.

However, in order to finance Christmas they found it necessary to spend more than half of this three-month saving (£385).

Birmingham Midshires therefore calculated that it would take 51 days to return savings accounts to pre-Christmas levels – if saving continued at the same rate into the new year.

Overall, 27 per cent of survey respondents said that they had been forced to resort to savings when they found funds in their current accounts had dried up.

However, age seemed to be a decisive factor in the extent to which savings were used to pay the Christmas bills.

The under-30s saved the most (£784) and used the least (£183) in the run up to Christmas, setting them back just 21 days on their saving regime.

And it was actually the over-50s who fared the worst, saving £571 and spending well over 80 per cent of that amount, £496, when their thoughts should perhaps be firmly on saving for retirement and supplementing their pension provisions.

Keith Mountford, Birmingham Midshires’ head of savings, said that while it was “at least encouraging to see that we’ve managed to leave some of our savings intact…51 days is a very lengthy hangover and it is worrying to see that this escalates to 79 days amongst the over fifties.”track

Bringing Christmas to nursing home residents an all-year project

The woman was dying of cancer and could barely talk.

Dorothy Lee had to bend close to hear her.

“ I don’t have anyone,” she said. “Would you adopt me?”

Lee, of course, said that she would, and she has been visiting her regularly ever since.

The Bonne Terre woman met the cancer patient while doing her annual project that brings personalized Christmas baskets to nursing home residents during the Christmas holidays. Lee and her husband Don distribute the gifts through Christmas day.

“A lot of the people in nursing homes don’t have anyone,” Lee says.

She worked in a nursing home, so she has seen the need firsthand, she explains. Christmas is the longest day of the year if you have no family left. It was that which drove her to begin the project that now serves more than 700 people.

She talks to administrators at each facility to find out the individual special needs of the patients and their dietary considerations. She brings each resident a Christmas gift bag with items selected for them.

Lee began doing this a few years ago, but recently it has taken off and grown to an exponential degree. She has created what she calls a warehouse in her basement so that she can collect goods for the project yearlong. She buys men’s and women’s socks when they are on sale. She nabs cartloads of lotions that are on special. She buys men’s and women’s hankies, high-quality soaps, butter cookies, cherry chocolates as well.

Sometimes store manager’s find out the purpose of the cartloads of stuff and give her even more. Lee is grateful for all their help.

“We can’t just wait until near Christmas to supply the need. We need to collect items all year long now,” she said.

Lee will accept donations of items between now and the next Christmas as long as they don’t have an expiration date before 2007. She can also use empty baskets, or cash to buy things when they are on sale. She said she keeps receipts for everything she buys to show donors what their money purchased. For more information, call her at (573) 358-3226.

It was largely through donations that Lee was able to reach so many people this year. “Businesses and individuals all were great in their donating this year, and I say thank you to each and everyone,” Lee said.

Lee said she will have a couple additional volunteers next year. “My husband and I had Roger and Karen Hinkle helping us this year,” Lee said. “Roger is a guitar player in Dorothy’s Leadbelt gospel singing group.”

Lee listed the following businesses as contributors to her project: Horton-Wampler Funeral Home, Country Mart in Bonne Terre, Dllar General Store Corp., Commerce Bank of Bonne Terre, Wal-Mart in Farmington and Desloge, Shawn of B.T. and J.B. Contracting, Big Lots in Leadington, Frankclay Assembly of God Church people, Beta Sigma Phi No. 1593.

Lee also had praise for individuals who donated to the cause. “Thanks a million for the joy you brought to a nursing home resident, many of whom would not have had a gift otherwise.”

Brits book more trips at christmas than any other time

Following the busiest January ever, Waymark Holidays have experienced first-hand that British travellers used the Christmas break to plan their next escape in record numbers.

Waymark Holidays said they were inundated with last minute bookings in the week leading up to Christmas – with more than 25 per cent more bookings than for the same period the previous year, while bookings in the days between Christmas and New Year soared more than 75 per cent.

“We were literally run off our feet,” said managing director Neil Saunders. “Whether it was the great snow in Europe or the late start to Winter, I’m not sure, but all of a sudden the phones just went mad. We had loads of bookings on Christmas Eve and the days after Christmas were even busier.”

In the same week, online travel company last minute was also inundated, having had to close down their site due to overloading on 27 December, according to media reports.

Mr Saunders said the usual trend for British travellers was to sometimes wait until the last minute for discounted deals, but this did not apply to Waymark as they never discount their trips.

“We have never offered cut price last minute deals, so the only thing I can put this down to is a huge increase in demand to get away,” he said.

“And it wasn’t just for winter skiing holidays, as nearly half of the bookings were for summer walking trips, many as late as October 2006.”

Watch out! This Christmas was a warzone!

Working extra hours at my job over break, I was, unfortunately, kept especially in tune with what was going on in the world of retail clothing, and as a few irate customers and frazzled co-workers let me know, the hot trend this winter season was apparently a retro one.

The perennial debate about whether or not retail clerks should say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” a debate that my earliest memory of can probably be dated roughly to sometime within the first Bush presidency, still rages on. And by “Bush,” I mean “George H.W.,” a man who some of you freshman may only know via “I Love the 80’s.” Who knows? I’m old; I can remember Reagan being president.

But all of that is beside the point. My ruminations on past presidents were just a roundabout way of saying that this quibbling has been going on way longer than it ever needed to, because frankly, it’s all kinda stupid. For some reason, however, the debate really seemed to reach fever pitch last year. Contrary to past years, when the whining of the religious right was only a minor annoyance, this year it seemed as if I couldn’t open up a newspaper or watch cable news without some sort of commentary on this alleged godawful oppression of Christianity. So, I had a near constant source of reminders of what a silly thing it is to be worried about.

“War on Christmas?” Puh-leez. Contrary to what Bill O’Reilly and friends will tell you, the clerk at your local five and dime is neither the Grinch nor the Antichrist. In fact, by choosing to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” that clerk may be exercising simple Christian kindliness. See, after only dealing with you for the few seconds it takes to ring up and total your purchases, it’s very hard for a sales clerk to determine what religion you are (unless, of course, you are wearing a crucifix, a burqa, a yarmulke, or a pentagram. But even then, assuming is risky business). This means that they have no way of knowing whether or not you celebrate Christmas. Which means that saying “Merry Christmas” just might not be appropriate. Conversely, there’s also no fair reason to assume that all clerks celebrate Christmas themselves, so why should they be forced to say it if they don’t want to? “Happy Holidays,” on the other hand, encompasses everything, as most people celebrate at least New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, holidays both, maybe even in addition to a religious holiday.

Since Christmas just so happens to be one such holiday, I don’t see how Christians can say that wishing someone “happy holidays” constitutes any sort of affront to Christianity. Sure, Christians are in the majority in this nation, but it doesn’t give them the right to assume that everyone else is Christian or to place their holidays above everyone else’s. After all those centuries of being fed to lions, you’d think that Christians would maybe have learned a little humility. Whatever happened to “the meek shall inherit the earth?”

And you can go on all you want about the “secularization of Christmas,” but let’s be honest here. Liberals attempting to uphold their interpretation of the First Amendment aren’t responsible for the secularization of Christmas. That happened a loooooooooong time ago. If you want to point a finger for that one, look no further than the system of laissez-faire capitalism that all you conservatives seem to hold so dear. I mean, who do you think brings the gazillion dollars worth of presents you buy down the chimney? I’ll give you a hint, it sure ain’t Jesus. Of course, Santa Claus is “based on” the Christian story of St. Nicholas, but anyone who’s ever watched Lifetime knows what “based on a true story” really means. For one thing, I really doubt that St. Nicholas went around crawling down chimneys, and it’s highly unlikely that he flew using reindeers, especially because a map I found on the internet of their natural habitats says that Germany doesn’t have any.

All that said, I do kinda sympathize with these “war on Christmas” folks. It must be a strain to kvetch so much in such a limited amount of time. But I’d assume that so much kvetching over so many years would leave them slightly kvetched-out. So, I would encourage them to take 2006 off. They’ve worked so hard at filling our media with their petty complaints that they deserve a break. Furthermore, the rest of us could use the silence to finally enjoy our holidays as we see fit.

Med 3’s Christmas Parol

TO ANYONE who knows Christmas, I believe he or she always has a Christmas parol. It doesn’t have to be that humongous type, with all the colorful lights and expensive paper, those that originated in Pampanga and are sold for thousands of pesos and whose lights played tricks with our eyes. Or that which is made of less expensive material, like foil or Japanese paper or clothe. It doesn’t have to be those many variants we know of, either the Filipino parol made of coconut material or that solely made of Christmas lights, all in many star shapes and sizes. No, it doesn’t have to be tangible at all.

We would like to define a Christmas parol as something very much like that guiding star on that first Christmas night. It was that star, which led the kings and shepherds to find the baby Jesus, lying on that manger. You see, that star symbolized the way or the path. And it was not all about the star or the path, but it was all about knowing what, where or who it led to.

A few weeks before the Christmas break, just after the Medicine Batch 2007 of the Davao Medical School Foundation, Inc. felt the usual drain the group had already caught the season’s fever. For some reason, something was tugging deep within the hearts of these happy-go-lucky third year medical students. Spearheaded by the class president, Khalil Guinomla, the 61 members of the class found themselves led into an extraordinary experience of meaningful and purposeful fun.

The plan was simple. They were to go caroling for five consecutive nights at the homes of informed and willing doctor-mentors and friends with the sole purpose of raising an amount for an outreach project.

This so-called project was named “Oplan Big Brother and Big Sister” and this was to be culminated by an afternoon full of games, food and gifts and surprises for the pediatric patients of Davao Medical Center.

So the class sung and danced their way into the homes of supportive doctor-mentors and friends, with some nervousness and thrill in their hearts. Despite the exhaustion after having to reckon with a series of lectures for the day and despite the anxiety over sounding good to raise enough money for the project, they continued to sing at the top of their voices with smiles and the lightness of hope in their hearts.

December 17, 2005 was a day to remember, for on that day, sparkling eyes and jubilant smiles replaced the once-forlorn faces of DMC’s pediatric patients.

Christmas carols filled the lobby of the Pediatric ward rendered by no other than the medical students themselves, games were conducted, which sent laughter and cheers ringing across the hallways, gifts and food were distributed to the satisfaction of the children and parents. And who could forget the delight brought by Jollibee, the country’s most famous and, perhaps, largest bee?

It was truly a memorable afternoon, which the class carried with them as they partied later that day at Pacific Harbor. For the first time, the class had a real reason to celebrate. It was a day full of gift giving, from the outreach project to the exchanging of gifts between manitos and manitas during the class Christmas party that followed later that day. But the greatest gift ever given or received that day was not something tangible or material… it was that light, happy feeling knowing that they, as a class, did something meaningful and worthwhile.

Something, which even after leaving the school premises as graduates, will remain as a legacy: a legacy of sharing and extending love on this blessed, yuletide season.

And as for the Christmas parol, if anyone took a peek at Med 3’s classroom at that time, not a single Christmas decor could be seen. But this was of no importance because an intangible and immaterial Christmas parol has been made- one that would surely last a lifetime.

Western Christmas in Moscow

Just a few years ago when I first moved here, back in 1998, I revelled in the refreshing lack of festive season celebrations. The process in England, which is where I’d come from, had managed to turn me off this annual event big time.

There, I noticed, as soon as the summer outdoor furniture and garden displays were removed on September 1, officially the start of autumn, in crept the Christmas decorations and foodstuffs. Thus we were subjected to a barrage of ‘shove-it-down-your-throat-whether-you-like-it-or-not’ marketing. By November, the magazines marked for publication in December were out on the streets, and surprise, surprise, full of nauseatingly prescriptive articles on how to find the perfect outfit for the big day, how to dress your table and your tree perfectly for the big day, how to avoid conflict with your relatives with whom you would be sharing the big day, just what presents you should be buying them and so on, and so on. Television lifestyle programmes would do their bit to pile on the pressure.

In clone towns around the country, Christmas lights would be switched on starting mid-November and shops would start various in-your-face campaigns to lure the shoppers in to spend their hard earned cash. You get the picture – the festive season was one great big bore by the time 1 December rolled round.

Not in Moscow though. There was no mention of Novy God (New Year) until, bless his cotton socks, Yuriy Luzhkov, the master of Moscow otherwise known as the mayor, decreed (I love it when he decrees things, reminds me of Roman emperors) that the city shall be decorated for the festive season from 1 December. That gave us a good month to properly build up a head of steam and concentrate on the celebrations without overkill.

Now I notice, to my great chagrin, the festive frenzy is starting to leach in from the West. Take my local Auchan supermarket for example, no doubt their French merchandisers decided that by mid-November, it was okay to start selling baubles for the yolka (Christmas tree) and other decorations, strategically positioned near appropriate gifts for the shopper’s nearest and dearest.

Before we know it, the annual round will start 1 November and who knows, even earlier, given the consumerist frenzy Moscow finds itself in these days. The only thing for it, is to move east, where no doubt time still has to catch up.

Christmas with grandchildren

We spent this last Christmas in Arkansas with our son Alex and his family, Arrate, Elise, Hannah, Alden, and Sabin. The family moved there from San Sebastian Spain last February. The triplets are five and a half, and Sabin was just 40 days old when we arrived. Our very special little Christmas present. Whoever said, “If I knew grandchildren were so much fun, I would have had them first,” really had it right!

With triplets that age, it was a three-ring circus. The Energizer Bunny can learn from them. Alden the story-teller: “Daddy, you know what?” Elise the organizer: “Hannah, you use that side of the doll-house and I’ll use this side.” And of course, Hannah, the dare-devil: “Hannah, don’t you dare do that!” They also taught us a more efficient way to count: “One, two, skip a few, ninety-nine, one hundred.”

We were Gram-mama and Gram-papa. We played dolls, Candyland, Chutes and Ladders, operated Alden’s remote-controlled monster Jeep, and got our sports and recreation from playing “Go Fish.”.

I spent a lot of time with little Sabin. In Basque, his name is “XABiN. I was with him for his first words. At first, I thought he was pulling a fast one and speaking Basque – my Basque is a little rusty – but I finally realized that he was saying: “E equals M C squared.”

I could sense that Sabin was a little befuddled in this multi-lingual household. Arrate speaks Basque to the triplets, the triplets speak Basque to each other (what an advantage this gives them in school!). Alex speaks English to them, Arrate speaks Spanish to the nanny, and Alex and Arrate speak Spanish to each other – a veritable Tower of Babel! So I taught Sabin Classic Mandarin.

It was a great learning experience. I taught Sabin some of the basics: primary colors, lullabies, quantum physics. He had some difficulty with fractions, but handled fractal and chaos theory (just observe the triplets!) with no trouble. Sabin learned how to pop the pacifier into my mouth on the first try, and could get me to fall asleep within three minutes. I also thumb wrestled with him. He beat me two out of three. I need to get back into my Strong Living class.

Sylvia and I are both suffering from acute withdrawal symptoms. We need to get back down there for a fix

Christmas tunes bank thousands for fund

A CHRISTMAS CD, DVD and concert project featuring hundreds of Suffolk schoolchildren has raised more than £22,000 for charity.

Heaven2Earth was organised by a group of Christians from Felixstowe to celebrate Christmas and highlight the Make Poverty History campaign.

The 20-track CD was recorded by a group of musicians with help from 1,300 youngsters from 24 schools in Felixstowe, the Trimleys, Woodbridge area and Ipswich.

The children also performed the songs as part of a series of five special concerts – which also included video inserts, dance and drama – at Felixstowe’s Spa Pavilion theatre.

Publicity officer Andrew Thomas said everyone was thrilled with how the project had gone and it had raised more than £21,000 for the work of Christian aid agency Tearfund. He thanked everyone who had contributed, bought CDs and DVDs and supported the concerts.

“In addition, the children all appear to have had a fantastic time and the feedback from the schools has been incredibly positive since it has allowed children from all schools involved to join together and really make a difference,” he added.

It is the fifth charity CD the group has made in the past 12 years, raising nearly £60,000 in total.

Christmas Trees Placed On Lake Monona

A number of Christmas trees arranged in the shape of a peace symbol were placed out on ice-covered Lake Monona.

The state Department of Natural Resources said that whoever put the trees out on the lake intended to let them fall through the ice.

The person needs to get a permit to place the trees there because there are certain criteria to follow for putting things like this on the ice, WISC-TV reported.

Authorities said that they were concerned about what the trees might do to the fish and wildlife habitat when they go through the ice.

Christmas in January: Family waits for son’s return from Iraq

Although Sgt. Jackson Wells of Michigamme just returned Wednesday from his tour of duty in Iraq, he made it home in time to celebrate Christmas with his family.

“We’re having Christmas on Saturday at my mom’s house,” said Wells, 26, the son of Jack Wells of Michigamme and Paulette Wells of Marquette. “My family waited to celebrate it until I came home, which is really nice.”

Wells is among the 56 soldiers from Company A of the Michigan Army National Guard’s 107th Engineer Battalion to return to the Baraga Armory Wednesday. An additional 56 from Company C of the 107th Engineer Battalion returned Wednesday to the Gladstone Armory.

“My mom was the first person from my family that I saw when we arrived in Baraga. She was holding a huge welcome home sign and was probably the loudest person in the gym,” Wells said. “It was the best feeling in the world to finally see her after months of talking to her on the phone and reassuring her that I was OK and coming home soon. It couldn’t have been a better homecoming.”

Jack Wells was also at the Baraga Armory to welcome his son home.

“I’m really proud of him for serving his country, but it’s great to finally have him home,” he said.”

The 1998 Westwood High School graduate enlisted in the National Guard in 1997 following his junior year of high school.

“I joined as a way to pay for my college education, but the possibility of going to war was always in the back of my mind,” Wells said.

War became a reality for Wells on Feb. 7, 2004, when he was deployed to Camp Anaconda at Balad, about 45 miles north of Baghdad. His unit spent the majority of the tour in Abu Ghraib, about 12 miles west of the capital city, providing base camp construction.

“I was both excited and fearful to go to war, but I knew it was something I had to do,” Wells said. “The worst part was seeing my family’s reaction, especially my mother’s. She had a hard time with it.”

Paulette Wells said she was devastated by the news.

“Jackson knew at his sister Courtney’s wedding in August of 2004 that he was being sent to Iraq, but he waited to tell us because he didn’t want to take away from her day,” Paulette said. “Looking back, that was probably a good idea because my thoughts were instantly the worse and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

Last year was extremely difficult, she said.

“It was a very, very long year. I didn’t know where Jackson was going to be and then I find out he’s on the outskirts of Baghdad. That really scared me,” Paulette said. “It feels so good to have him home and to know that he’s safe. I can’t imagine what our troops are going through over there.”

Hopefully, she won’t ever have to send her son off to war again. However, Wells broke the news to his mother Wednesday that he is re-enlisting for three years.

“She took it pretty well, actually,” he said. “There’s always a chance that I’ll have to go back, but I don’t want my family to spend every day worrying if it will happen.”

For now, though, Wells is looking forward to spending time with friends and family – including his siblings Courtney Johnson, 29, of Midland; Holly Wells, 28, of Appleton; and Joshua Wiljanen, 18, of Ishpeming – continuing his degree in ski area business management at Northern Michigan University, and hitting the trails with his brand new 2006 Ski-Doo Summit 800.

“I had my dad pick it up for me before I came home. That’s my Christmas gift to myself,” Wells said. “But the best gift is being home. I can’t even begin to explain how happy I am.”