Archive for November, 2007

Holiday guide: Christmas tree expert

Thomas Sullivan never gets sick of the smell of pine needles.

The 21-year-old Michigan State University student has worked at the Anna Lovisa Tree Farm in Bath for six years. This means he can speak authoritatively about Fraser firs, balsam firs, white pines, Scotch pines and more.

And during his tenure, no one has ever lost a tree, meaning that no tree he’s put on a car has ever flown off on the highway.

But getting your tree home safe is just one of his missions. His other duties include cutting down trees, drilling the bases and lugging them to people’s cars.

We talked to him about his job and what it’s like working on a tree farm.

How did you start working at a tree lot?

My family had been going there for quite a few years. When I was 16, a high school kid working there got hurt playing hockey and my parents told the tree farm to contact me.

What’s your favorite part about the job?

Everyone that comes to get a tree is in a good mood. It’s never a poor attitude. Everyone is in the Christmas spirit. It’s great. It’s just that laid-back atmosphere.

Do you try to sell a tree to a person like a car salesman, or do you just let them wander?

Typically, people are used to getting a particular tree. They come out, we greet them and ask if they’ve been there before and most have. If they know the drill, they grab a cart, a drill and a saw and go to one of the four fields.

Do you know a lot about trees now?

Actually, I’ve learned a lot. There’s so many species. We pretty much have any kind of tree you want in the U.S.

Do you ever get sick of the smell?

That never gets old. When you get out there and start drilling trees and shaking them, all those memories come back to you.

What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened at the lot?

There’s always people bringing back a tree thinking it will fit in their house. It’s funny when we have to take a couple feet off a tree. It’s gotta fit in their house some way. We drill trees and it takes two people to do it. One holds it and one lines it up. If a person holding it lets go, you’re gonna get covered in a tree. You hope it’s a softer needled tree, but it’s usually the spruces and they poke you.

Did you ever see people fight over a tree?

No, but it’s come close. People are in a good mood, but someone will be looking at a tree and move on and someone will zap the one they were looking at. No arguments or nothing too bad. People are in too good of a holiday spirit to let it get to them.

Are there people out there that really want the Charlie Brown Christmas tree?

I have seen it. They say “I want a Charlie Brown tree.” It’s hard to find because all the trees are perfect, but you find the straggler that fits the mold.

Have you ever met a girl at the lot?

I have not. No phone numbers. I’m taken, so this year I will not be seeking any.

What makes a good tree?

Each one is different. Some people like a wild-looking tree and others like a cone-shaped (one). Some people like a lot of room for ornaments. We see it all. What one person thinks is ugly, another might think it’s the perfect tree.

When is the busiest time?

The two weeks after Thanksgiving and the first two weekends of December.

When it gets really cold, do you have to stand out there?

We have two buildings. We’ll hide out in there and have our hot cider and coffee.

Holidays not a jolly time for everyone: What to do if you’re grieving

This Christmas, Karen Wrate of New Hartford, N.Y., will celebrate with her son Sean by hanging his stocking and some ornaments he made as a child on her tree.

And she’ll decorate a tree and a wreath placed on his grave.

Sean Reilly died of a rare muscle cancer, called rhabdomyosarcoma, in the wee hours of the morning after Thanksgiving 2005.

He was 18.

Facing the holidays without her “tough-on-the-outside, heart-of-gold-on-the-inside” son is particularly hard for Wrate because of the timing of Sean’s death.

“I hate Thanksgiving,” she said.

On Thanksgiving 2005, Wrate knew that everyone else was celebrating as she watched her son suffer that day, she said.

Despite her pain, Wrate has tried hard to carry on certain holiday traditions for the sake of her 11-year-old twins and 23-year-old daughter while creating traditions to keep Sean’s memory close.

“But I know I’m going to feel depressed when I first wake up (on a holiday morning),” Wrate said.

The bonds we share with people never die, said bereavement counselor Linda Clark of Hospice and Palliative Care Inc. in New Hartford.

“Families are families, including the people who died,” she said. “They don’t get smaller … The relationship is still part of your life.”

It’s a question of balance between holding on to your memories and traditions and moving on, she said. Maintaining this balance can be especially difficult during the holidays, Clark said.

And that stress is compounded by the festive atmosphere.

“It’s supposed to be a happy season, and the expectation is that everybody is jolly,” Clark said. But people who are grieving aren’t feeling jolly, she said.

So how do you get through the holidays when your thoughts are on someone who’s no longer with you?

“For everybody, it helps to have a plan when you’re grieving,” she said.

The anticipation is usually worse than the actual holiday, so it helps to know ahead of time exactly what you’re going to do, when you’re going to do it and who will be there, Clark said.

Clark strongly suggests that those who will be alone for the holiday find something to do, possibly attending a church gathering or helping in a soup kitchen. Giving of yourself can help give the day meaning, she said.

As for holiday traditions, Clark suggested sitting down ahead of time, alone or with the family, with a checklist and deciding which traditions to keep, which to scrap and which to modify. Everyone grieves differently and will come up with a different plan, she said.

The important thing, Clark said, is to give yourself permission to change things you cannot face and to keep cherished traditions even though your loved one will no longer be there.

Wrate, for example, decided to throw out the family Christmas tree last year because Sean always had decorated it, and no one else could do it “right,”she said. Now the family has a new tree and some new ornaments in memory of Sean.

To make Sean a part of the holidays, the family now holds a candle-lighting ceremony in his honor on Thanksgiving and visits his grave to decorate the artificial tree and wreath. The next day, there’s a Mass in Sean’s memory.

On Christmas Eve last year, Wrate and the twins launched balloons with messages to Sean before the festivities began and on Christmas, the family watches a video of Sean unwrapping packages when he was 14.

And last year Wrate bought herself a Christmas present: she paid someone to make a quilt, including photos of Sean, out of his old T-shirts and jeans.

“That was the only thing I wanted for Christmas,” she said.

Clark also suggested doing things for the holiday in memory of the one who died, such as carrying on a tradition started by the one who died, giving money to a charity in the person’s memory or putting a memorial notice in the newspaper.

Another important part of grieving, Clark said, is for everyone – the bereaved, family, friends – to remember that it’s OK to talk about the deceased, preferably by name. She suggested keeping a memory book in which visitors can share memories.

“Every time you can bring a story about the person to the family, that’s a gift,” Clark said.

Yet people often try to “tiptoe” around Sean’s death to avoid upsetting her, Wrate said. But she’s not afraid to talk about Sean or to cry during the conversation, she said. That’s what helps her heal.

Wrate said she loves hearing people say Sean’s name and hearing stories about him.

“That’s the best gift you can give a bereaved parent,” she said.

Keep Your Christmas Tree Fresh

There is a little more than a slight concern about the condition of Christmas trees this year.

This is especially true where your prized Christmas tree may have come from an area that was in a severe drought.

Up front, most of our trees have come from areas that weren’t in a drought stricken area. Keep in mind that most of our trees have come from Christmas tree farms north of us. You would be surprised at the numbers coming from Pa. Northern Ohio and even Michigan. Lets make the assumption that you don’t know where your Christmas tree was grown. In that case and this year especially there are important hints to follow to make sure your Christmas tree doesn’t become a fire hazard before you get it out of the house.

Remember this, more than likely your Christmas tree has already been cut and shipped to our region. That means it sits at the Christmas tree lot till you purchase it. Best thing to do is purchase your tree now, especially this year.

Two things happen when getting it early. You have a better selection and it can be better cared for at your house rather than at the Christmas tree lot where it isn’t even being watered. Bring it home now and cut off about an inch of trunk. Plop it in a five gallon pale of water and place the tree in shade and in an area where it doesn’t get prevailing winds. Keep it outside in the bucket till you place it inside. Then when you do take it inside, remove another inch of trunk so that the tree has the ability to take up water. Keep it watered inside and remember that there isn’t anything I know of to add to the stand water to make the tree absorb water better.

1 in 10: Santa Claus is a biblical character

More than 11 percent of the Dutch believes that Santa Claus is a character from the Bible. This emerged on Wednesday from a poll of 2,700 people by website Vergelijk.nl.

Only 2 percent thinks that commercial competitor Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) is a biblical figure.

More than 50 percent of respondents believes Santa Claus is originally based on Saint Nicholas. 25 percent says they have no idea where Santa Claus comes from and the remaining 25 percent says he was invented by Coca Cola.

Santa Claus is presumably derived from Saint Nicholas, whose feast day the Dutch colonists brought to America in the 17th century. The appearance of Santa Claus as we know him today was largely created by American soft drink manufacturer Coca Cola.

See: Is Santa Claus based on Coca Cola? (hint: no…)

Shoppers wrap up Christmas gifts early

A new research from American Express Platinum credit card suggested that 82% of men are planning to get most of their Christmas shopping wrapped up by December 14, 2007 leaving themselves 11 shopping days for any little extras.

The research has reveled that only 16% of men questioned plan to leave their shopping until the week before Christmas. A nominal 1% of men admitted that they will be leaving their shopping until Christmas Eve. More than half of women expect to have the majority of their shopping done by the end of November, with only 4% of women leaving it until Christmas week.

According to the research report on an average, people are planning to spend GBP511 over the festive season, GBP50 more than last year. Almost half of people plan to treat themselves this year, with men expecting to spend GBP133 on themselves, while women are looking to spend a more modest GBPGBP70.

Tom Allder, vice president of UK Lending at American Express, said: “Our research shows that 90% of people are planning to do some of their Christmas shopping online this year, although store shopping still dominates overall. This could explain why most men are getting their yuletide shopping in the bag so early, so that they can be sure their online gifts arrive in time.”

More people shopping for Santa online

Online stores are experiencing a jump in traffic, as many Australians shy away from crowded shopping centres in search of the perfect gift.

The latest statistics from internet analyst Hitwise show a growth over the past month in Australian internet traffic heading towards online merchants.

For the week ending November 24, websites in the shopping and classifieds category made up 6.34 per cent of web traffic, slightly higher than 6.17 per cent for the same time last year.

Online auction website eBay Australia continues to dominate the sector with 28.74 per cent of market share, followed by eBay’s US website, Amazon.com, Trading Post Online and Emailcash Australia.

Other websites attracting attention include, DealsDirect, oo.com.au and Peters of Kensington.

An analysis of search terms may also bring a smile to Apple and Microsoft, with a jump in the number of people searching for “iPod Touch” and “Halo 3″, while a massive drop in “free music downloads” may translate into a possible growth in online music sales and vouchers.

The growth in online shopping may be attributed to some people turning away from traditional shopping for gifts.

A recent Galaxy poll commissioned by eBay Australia reveals 93 per cent of respondents find Christmas shopping stressful.

Reasons for their stress included, crowds, long queues, parking hassles and spending too much.

“It’s one of the main reasons why people are shopping online,” eBay Australia spokeswoman, Sian Kennedy, said.

“There’s also the fact that you can go to David Jones and buy what someone else is going to buy, it’s not something unique or different.”

“The good thing about somewhere like eBay…is that we’ve got lots of interesting things, like collectables, that people really do want.”

Ms Kennedy says there has been a big increase in activity, both buying and selling, in the lead up to Christmas, and expects a second wave to begin on Boxing Day.

“We always have hundreds of people logging onto the site trying to sell their unwanted gifts that they’re never going to use or never going to wear,” she said.

A previous Galaxy report estimates Australians spent more than $9.8 billion on approximately 200 million Christmas gifts last year.

NORAD set to track Santa Claus

Children from around the world will again have help from the Canadian and U.S. military’s NORAD website to keep tabs on Santa’s location as Christmas approaches.

“Last year the website received over 940 million hits from 210 countries and territories,” Acting Sub-Lieut. David Lavallee said from Winnipeg today.

“I can remember myself sitting in front of the TV listening and watching and getting those updates. It’s different now, of course, with the website.”

The North American Aerospace Defense Command accidentally began its Santa-tracking program 52 years ago, when a boy from Colorado Springs, Colo., dialled a wrong number printed in a newspaper.

Instead of Santa, he got NORAD headquarters on the phone.

The commander in charge that night told him where Santa was, and the program began. At first, Santa’s whereabouts were reported through radio and TV stations, but about 10 years ago, the service moved to the Internet.

It now has more than 750 volunteers fielding calls from children. Last year, it handled 65,000 calls and 96,000 e-mails.

“Right now there’s a video that shows Santa flying around different locations in the world,” Lavallee said.

The website will also begin a countdown to Christmas, with interactive games, on Saturday.

“And starting at 2 a.m. on Christmas Eve there will be minute-by-minute updates,” he said. “There will also be Santa-cam images, video and still images of Santa around the globe.”

The website is available in English, French, German, Italian, Japanese and Spanish.

Santa looking forward to children’s letters

Working at a newspaper means you experience it all.

Reporters are asked to enter the depths of prisons, stand alongside the coroner at murder scenes, travel into battle with soldiers and question governmental leaders with no mercy.

We represent you — the reader — when you can’t be there. And we take the duty seriously.

So, Tuesday I left our office, notebook in hand prepared to ask the tough questions and handle the heat.

Twenty minutes later I got the answer I was looking for.

“I saw Santa in my mommy’s room.”

The words came confidently bounding from the mouth of a kindergarten student in the reading lab of hall C at West Primary School.

I quickly suppressed a grin. The teacher standing behind the student didn’t have to.

“Oh, did you,” I said. “Did you say anything to Santa?”

“I said, ‘I see Santa Claus,’” she said.

And that was that.

But the three others at the table admitted they’d only seen Santa at the mall, never in their very own house.

“He was there, but I was asleep,” the little boy said.

And that’s a good thing, he said, because if Santa ever asked him to fly along in the sleigh, he’d be scared.

Trust in Santa ends with faith that the toys will come, apparently.

And these four 5 and 6 year olds do trust Santa for that.

In fact, their trust is so deep that they see no need at all to even let Santa know what they want this year.

The children had no plan to make their requests — for a computer, a bike, a PlayStation and a car — known to dear old Mr. Claus.

Santa knows what they want because, “He’ll think.”

And magically lists will appear in his head, I suppose.

“He has a note,” one of the children said.

“He knows who has been bad and who has been good,” another said, proving children know their Christmas songs well.

But none of the children suggested the obvious way to tell Santa what they want — by writing a letter.

I guess it’s the Internet age’s effect that makes our little ones forget the simple, faithful U.S. Postal Service.

Santa probably has multiple e-mail addresses by now, and I’m sure he texts.

In fact, these kids think Santa is so modern that he’s shut down his workshop and now gets his toys “out of a store.”

It’s thinking like this that has made one of The Democrat’s annual publications a little harder in the last few years.

Christmas Greetings is a special edition that includes letters to Santa from area children.

But in order to publish the section — which is sure to make adults giggle — we rely on children to submit letters.

And as soon as we make a copy of the letter, we forward it directly to Santa at the North Pole, via the U.S. Postal Service.

Adults can encourage their own children to write letters, or teachers can make it a class project.

We don’t worry a bit about spelling, or even whether the letters face the right direction.

Letter writers can drop off their requests at our office at 503 N. Canal St., or mail them to P.O. Box 1447, Natchez, MS 39121.

Or, if you prefer the modern-Santa way, e-mail them to santa@natchezdemocrat.com.

We’ll need all the letters by Dec. 14, in order to get them to Santa in time for him to go “shopping at the store.”

The special Santa letters publication will come out in the Dec. 20 newspaper.

Be sure to cut our your child or grandchild’s letter for the scrapbook.

Now, I have to get back to work, reporting on very serious matters.

Did someone say they saw the tooth fairy?

Santa Claus laughs in the face of irrelevant political correctness

Of all the classic Monty Python moments, few are as memorable as the Black Knight. This is the sword-wielding character who guards a bridge in the movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

In a battle with King Arthur, the Black Knight’s arms and legs are severed. Ever confident, he proclaims “’tis but a scratch” and dismisses his injuries as little more than “a flesh wound.” The scene fades with the knight threatening: “I’ll bite your legs off.”

The scene has become an allegory for stubborn, defiant types unable to reconcile the fact that theirs is a lost cause.

It’s also a most fitting metaphor for the state of political correctness. Widely mocked and ridiculed, those who still cling to this ill-advised movement refuse to concede they’ve had their day in the sun.

This recently became apparent with a silly news item out of Australia. It seems the trainees at a Santa Claus course were instructed to avoid the traditional “ho, ho, ho” because it’s offensive to women. Instead, they were told to greet shoppers and kids with a hearty, “ha, ha, ha.”

There’s nothing new about such idiocy this time of year. We’re used to reports of department stores warning employees to avoid saying “Merry Christmas.”

Similarly, the weeks leading up to Dec. 25 typically see bureaucrats make fools of themselves in self-deceiving efforts to avoid offending anyone. But there’s a difference between now and then.

In the past, people were outraged at attempts to sanitize Christmas. Every time a Christmas pageant was renamed a “winter carnival” or a Christmas tree was ordered removed, there were howls of indignation from commentators across the land. Radio talk shows and letters to the editor sections were inundated with angry reactions to those trying to “destroy Christmas.”

But now, as evident from the response to the “ho, ho, ho” story, people just laugh at these comical do-gooders.

The self-proclaimed champions of diversity and political correctness have become a parody of themselves.

When folks can merely laugh at and dismiss their adversary as little more than a bad joke, the conflict is pretty well over.

This past Sunday, Vancouver’s fourth annual Rogers Santa Claus Parade made its way through downtown. And an enthusiastic crowd of more than 300,000 people from numerous cultures and ethnicities shared the festivities. It didn’t appear too many of the cheering and smiling onlookers took offence.

This isn’t to say the era of political correctness is completely finished.

There are still people employed in the diversity industry whose livelihood depends on seeking out offence and intolerance, even when there is none. But they’re fast becoming irrelevant and, mercifully, their days are numbered.

It’s for these desperate relics we should reserve the ha, ha, ha’s.

Can you celebrate Christmas without lights?

The City of Cape Town has slammed any plans Eskom may have of asking municipalities to switch off their Christmas lights this year to conserve power.

The city’s public lighting manager, Charles Kadalie, on Sunday said he had heard rumours that Eskom could request the city to switch off its Christmas lights.

“But we are not paying much attention to that.”

He said the festive season did not have a significant impact on energy resources and calling on people to celebrate Christmas without lights was not the answer.

“The lights must come on as per usual; they (Eskom) must concentrate their efforts on asking consumers to conserve energy in other ways.”

On Saturday it was reported that Eskom was considering asking municipalities to switch off their Christmas lights, but Eskom’s regional communications manager Jolene Henn said on Sunday that there was no substance to the claim.

“Eskom cannot force them (the city) to switch their lights off as there are certain constraints. We can never take away from the spirit of the festive season.

All we are asking is that consumers enjoy the season but also assist us in our drive to save power,” Henn said.

“In order to alleviate the load, we’re asking customers for a mindshift.

“Electricity users need to come to the party by switching their geysers and all non-essential appliances off before going to bed.”

Henn said consumers tended to be more relaxed about electricity usage during the festive season because demand was usually lower as most industries closed for the holidays.

In addition, she said Eskom was also advising customers to replace their regular light bulbs and use the energy saving bulbs on their lights, including Christmas decorations. “Use power sparingly,” she urged.

Christmas tree farm puts ‘green’ in its evergreens

A family run Christmas tree farm has been lauded for putting the green in its evergreens.

The Michigan Farm Bureau this week presented the Candy Cane Christmas Tree Farm its Proactive Leader in Ecology Management award. The farm in the Oakland County community of Oxford, about 30 miles north of Detroit, also has been certified by the Michigan Agricultural Environmental Assurance Program, which promotes pollution prevention programs.

Candy Cane’s owners say the outside recognition reflects their passion for all things that grow.

“We decided early on that we have to live in concert with the earth,” Cathy Genovese, who owns the farm with her husband, Frank, told the Detroit Free Press for a story Saturday. “We want to leave it a better place; to farm so that we do no harm.”

Among the farm’s eco-friendly practices:

• Workers plant each tree of the thousands on 18 acres by hand using an electric auger, rather than the large tractors used on most farms.

• The farm uses a drip-irrigation method that saves water and energy compared with overhead sprinkler systems.

• Planters intermingle, rather than concentrate species of trees, which helps limit the spread of diseases and pests.

• The farm was among the first to sell “pot in pot” live Christmas trees. Those are specially planted evergreens that can be transplanted outside after the holidays.

“The Genoveses have a good, green healthy relationship with the environment on all different levels,” Carrie Vollmer-Sanders, agricultural ecology specialist with the Farm Bureau, said.

The Genoveses, who have run the farm for 32 years, are master gardners and organic experts.

“It is a nice life,” Cathy Genovese said. “When you are on our farm and you take a deep breath, it’s just wonderful.”

Santa Train a return to magic of childhood

More than 60 years ago, 5-year-old twin sisters were among the first generation to experience the Santa Claus Special as it passed near their Trammel, Va., home on its first run.

And more than 40 years ago, a 5-year-old girl saw Santa pass near her home — waving from a caboose — as she played alone in her family’s yard in Elkhorn City, Ky.

On Saturday, all three returned to their roots as the Santa Train, as it is more commonly known, made its 65th run from Shelby, Ky., to downtown Kingsport.

And all three shared the spirit of the occasion with family.

The twins, now North Carolinians, gathered with more than two dozens family members at a stop near their childhood home.

They were among the hundreds of families to do so along the train’s 110-mile route, during which Santa and his helpers distributed more than 15 tons of candy, toys and other gifts at 14 stops.

The little girl who played in Elkhorn City, well, she’s living near Atlanta now: with a husband, some grandchildren — and a Grammy Award, among other honors, for the playing she’s done in the years since.

She’s singer Patty Loveless.

She was Santa’s special guest Saturday, among dozens of “elfs” helping toss gifts from the train’s rear platform at most stops — but stepping off the train for a more personal approach at two: Elkhorn City; and Freemont, Va.

“I love getting out and among people,” Loveless said afterward. “Ever since I started singing years ago — when I was like 12 years old — mingling with people was what I loved. Getting out there on the ground with them, one-on-one, and talking with them, shaking hands and taking pictures — all those things — I enjoy them.”

And the people clearly loved the opportunity to meet Loveless.

At the Freemont stop — where the Santa Train’s ground crew has made a habit of meeting the needs of some special needs children and their families — one young lady seemed more touched by Loveless’ touch than the gifts she received.

“I touched Patty Loveless,” the girl said in a childlike whisper as an adult led her out of the crowd gathered around Loveless. “Patty Loveless touched me.”

There is one thing Loveless would like to change about the experiences: “I just wish we had more time.”

Loveless, who’s ridden the Santa Train twice before (1999 and 2002), made it a family affair this year. Also aboard were her husband, two sisters, and a brother-in-law.

“It is a real family tradition,” Loveless said of the Santa Train’s place as a community touchstone across the three-state region and multiple generations it spans.

“There are members of my family who remember going to the Santa Train,” she said.

Loveless, who turned 50 this past January, said her first memory of the Santa Train is seeing Santa from her own yard in Elkhorn City when she was about 6 years old.

“I did see Santa on the back of the train, right across the river I was playing out in the yard and next thing I know Santa was waving on the caboose. I was absolutely sure that’s what I saw. … I thought ‘I can’t believe this.’ I was afraid to tell any of my family because I thought they’d think I was making it up or imagining things.”

The chance to return to the region is one reason Loveless says she likes riding the train.

The chance to look into the eyes of all those children along the route is another.

“I just love children,” Loveless said. “It’s so enjoyable to see their belief. It’s like they’re out there with a dream that’s come true — seeing Santa. It just warms my heart to see the little ones out there. It makes me wish I had hundreds more toys to throw out to them.”

Donations come in for the Santa Train year-round through its three sponsors: CSX Transporation; The Kingsport Chamber of Commerce; and Food City. This year, donations came from at least 38 states.

After riding the Santa Train in 1999, Loveless co-wrote the song “Santa Train.”

“It was the whole experience of my first ride,” Loveless said of the song.

As Loveless helped toss gifts from the Santa Train at St. Paul, Va., Saturday, twin sisters Sue Mann and Lou Burgess, 70, looked on from the edge of the crowd. With them were Mann’s husband Henry and the twins’ niece, Delores Milam, 73.

Braving the crowd for a closer look at Santa and Loveless — and for a better chance of catching something being tossed — were about two dozen relatives of the four.

Milam lives nearby and comes to see the Santa Train every year.

She’d been encouraging her aunts, who witnessed the Santa Train’s first trek through the region, to come back and see it again.

“I called them just as soon as I saw this year’s Santa Train date listed in the news,” Milam said, adding that another relative had in recent years sent the Manns a postcard featuring the train.

Burgess needed little encouragement — seeing the train again already was a goal.

“I said ‘I’m going if I have to go by myself,’” said Burgess. “I was going to come alone … but they came, too. I’ve always wanted to see it one more time.”

The twins said they regularly went to see the Santa Train from that first year until they were 12.

Saturday was the first time back for Henry and Sue in 50 years.

“We came back in 1957, when our daughter was 16 months old and we came back to Trammel,” Henry said. “That’s the last time we’d been back until now.”

A granddaughter of the Manns was among children who performed clogging routines before the train’s arrival in St. Paul on Saturday.

Milam said that sense of community is what keeps people coming back year after year.

Burgess and the Manns said they’d probably visit a future Santa Train — “If we’re able.”

Back on board the train, Loveless told CSX, Chamber and Food City representatives she’ll be more than happy to return in future years.

The Santa Train began in the 1940s as a way to say thanks to people along the route for patronizing Kingsport businesses. Some still refer to Santa ’s trip from Kentucky, which ends with his bringing up the rear of the parade, as “the world’s longest Christmas parade.”

Serial killer proves hit on German advent calendar

A German advent calendar for children has become a hot seller since word got out it has a picture of a notorious serial killer on it.

The cartoon calendar shows Fritz Haarmann, who murdered 24 young men and boys in the 1920s, lurking under a tree with a hatchet next to the door for December 1. Below him, Santa Claus hands out presents to children in a festive-looking Hanover.

A local tourism office included the serial killer alongside 23 other celebrities in the northern city, including philosopher Gottfried Leibniz and hard rock band The Scorpions.

Haarmann’s depiction featured in last year’s edition, but this year it is attracting wider attention because top-selling newspaper Bild questioned whether the use of the murderer in a children’s calendar was in good taste.

“People are queuing up to buy the calendar now,” said a surprised Hans Nolte, director of the city’s tourism board.

Nolte said he expected the initial 20,000 copy run of the calendar to sell out soon as orders were pouring in from Berlin, Vienna and other parts of Austria. Proceeds from the sales are going towards a local charity for children with cancer.

“It’s part of our history,” Nolte said.

Nonetheless, the serial killer, who was beheaded in 1925, will not appear in next year’s edition, Nolte said.

Mini-global warming splits Christmas tree

Christmas will be coming a little late to Belfast this year after a mini global warming disaster struck the city’s Christmas tree.

The 45ft Norway Spruce tree from Parkanaur near Dungannon, was cut down last week.

However, it quickly began to split in two.

A council spokesman said: “The wet summer and unseasonally dry autumn had a devastating effect on the tree but we hope to source another immediately.”

Time’s running out for the council though, the big switch on of the Christmas tree lights is due to take place on Tuesday, November 20. About 15,000 people are expected to attend.

The council says a new tree will be there for the switching on.

Lord Mayor Jim Rodgers will be joined by the singer Shayne Ward and Blue Peter tv presenter Zoe Salmon.

It is not the first time Christmas events have not gone exactly to plan in Belfast Council.

There was heated discussion in 1995 as to whether President Clinton or the Power Rangers should have the honour of switching on the lights.

In the end the president got the vote.

Meanwhile, assembly members from the north west are set to try and break the world record for having the most Santas in one place at the same time.

The event is scheduled to take place on Sunday 9 December on the Derry Walls.

It is one of the largest charity events ever organised in Northern Ireland and all of the proceeds raised through “10001 Santas” will be divided between four local charities: Children in Crossfire, Foyle Hospice, Macmillan Cancer Care and iCARE.

Red & Green Christmas Lights to be Banned as “too religious”

A special task force in a Colorado city has recommended banning red and green lights at the Christmas holiday because they fall among the items that are too religious for the city to sponsor.

“Some symbols, even though the Supreme Court has declared that in many contexts they are secular symbols, often still send a message to some members of the community that they and their traditions are not valued and not wanted. We don’t want to send that message,” Seth Anthony, a spokesman for the committee, told the Fort Collins, Colo., Coloradoan.

He said the recommended language does not specifically address Christmas trees by name, but the consensus was that they would not fall within acceptable decorations.

What will be allowed are white lights and “secular” symbols not associated “with any particular holiday” such as icicles, unadorned greenery and snowflakes, the task force said.

The group was made up of members of the city’s business and religious communities as well as representatives from some community groups. Members met for months to review the existing holiday display policy, which allowed white as well as multi-colored lights and wreaths and garlands.

In previous years, there also was a Christmas tree at the city’s Oak Street Plaza.

A vote on the proposal will be coming up before the city council on Nov. 20, officials said.

“As far as I’m concerned, the group ended up in a very fair place in which primarily secular symbols will be used on city property,” task force member Saul Hopper told the newspaper.

Anthony told WND that there actually would be colored lights allowed.

“Colored lights would be allowed as part of holiday display inside city buildings, and as part of the multicultural display at the museum. Our recommendations allow wide latitude as far as what can be included in those displays, which are the displays the public sees and interacts with the most,” he said.

However, a copy of the actual proposal said for city building exteriors, “white lights” are allowed, and for city building interior common areas, such as lobbies, hallways and conference rooms, administrators should follow the guidelines that include allowances for “snowflakes, snowmen, snow balls, ice skates, skies, penguins, polar bears, white lights, etc.”

The new guidelines include no provision for colored lights.

The existing holiday display rules were adopted in 2006 after a rabbi requested that the city display a menorah.

The only apparent exception to the completely secular rule would be at the Fort Collins Museum, where a “multicultural display” of symbols and objects would be collected to represent Diwali, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Christmas among others.

“I expect criticism from people who feel like we are taking Christmas away. And I expect we will get criticism from people who think educational display endorses religions,” Anthony said. “(But) to the extent we can, recognizing that offending no one will be impossible, we want to be inclusive.”

City officials touted their own efforts.

“I am really delighted to see us taking this step,” Mayor Doug Hutchinson said when the task force was being assembled. “I think Fort Collins is a great city, and I think great cities are inclusionary.”

In a forum for the Coloradoan, outrage was pretty evident.

“Let’s spend our CHRISTMAS money somewhere that believes in CHRISTMAS!” wrote barbie333. “Where does the ‘PC-ization’ stop? Maybe if the town leaders realize that we do not live in Boulder (or California)!?”

Added “Stick,” “No Virginia, there is no Santa Claus, he is dead from lack of political correctness and the elves have all been sent to China to make toys.”

“Seth Anthony says, ‘Some symbols, even though the Supreme Court has declared that in many contexts they are secular symbols, often still send a message to some members of the community that they and their traditions are not valued and not wanted. We don’t want to send that message.’ Guess what, Seth? That’s EXACTLY the message you sent me!” added “notpc.”

“If the city council decided to not acknowledge Christmas on public grounds this year then all city offices should be open for business on Dec. 25th, white lights shining! Don’t want to offend anyone by stopping city business for a day to celebrate a holiday not everyone believes in,” added Amidon.

Diamond covered Christmas tree: now only $1.8m

For those who don’t mind splurging a bit this holiday season, a Japanese department store is offering a Christmas tree with 400 diamonds for a cool $1,8-million.

Takashimaya department store chain is selling the tree – actually a small tower of preserved roses with a teddy bear – for a symbolic ¥200,7-million from Wednesday to kick off its year-end sales campaign.

The tree, which stands 40 centimetres high, features about 100 carats of diamonds from southern Africa and Australia, the department store said.

The smaller diamond pieces “sparkle charmingly like morning dew on petals, while two-carat and three-carat pieces mesmerise admirers with their noble glow”, the store said in a statement.

The tree is based on a design by Parisian flower boutique Claude Quinquaud.

Christmas tree covered in 400 diamonds

Big savings with Santa’s little helper

The benefits of doing your Christmas shopping online are obvious: no traipsing around stores, no waiting for the bus and no crowds.

But now Which? has confirmed that shopping online can also save you money. The consumer group surfed the internet for the best deals on Christmas presents and compared them with prices on the high street. The research found that online shoppers can save more than £1,000 on a shopping list of five popular items and achieve savings of up to 29 per cent on televisions and 23 per cent on hi-fi music systems.

The Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG) expects online Christmas spending to smash the £10 billion mark for the first time this year. Average online spending for presents is expected to increase by 57 per cent this year, to £376 for women and £365 for men.

Jason Lloyd, of Moneysupermarket. com, the price comparison website, says that the rapid take-up of broadband in people’s homes has helped to fuel the increase in online shopping. However, he advises people shopping online for Christmas presents to plan ahead in the same way that they would on the high street.

Mr Lloyd says: “Create a list of things you want to buy to prevent you from window shopping online. And to save time when shopping, visit a number of comparison sites to make sure you find the best deals. Also be aware of the delivery times. For some presents it could take up to 28 days.”

To compare prices, online shopping robots, or “shopbots”, search thousands of online retailers to come up with a table of the best prices for your chosen product. Then you simply click through to the retailer’s website, buy direct from the retailer and have the purchase delivered to your door.

There are plenty of shopbots to choose from. Kelkoo.co.uk, Shopping. com and Pricerunner.co.uk are generally regarded as the main players for searching all products. However, it can be worth searching all three because each of them lists differing numbers of products from various retailers. Other shopbots specialise in certain products, such as Bookbrain. co.uk for books and cdscan.co.uk for CDs and DVDs.

“Shopbots tend to have commercial relationships with most of the shops they list,” says Martin Lewis, of MoneySavingExpert.com. “So if you click through to a retailer, it is likely that the shopbot website will either be paid per click or via a small percentage of whatever is purchased.

“This is not a problem, provided that the results are presented fairly, without bias and do not add anything to the price you pay. However, it does mean that each shopbot may cover a different range of retailers.”

A quick trip to the nearest high street shows the savings that can be made on the internet. An Xbox360 core system console costs £249.99 in Woolworths, but a Kelkoo search reveals that the same console can be bought for £179.99 at Laskys.com, a saving of £70. In Woolworths a Dirty Dancing Twentieth Anniversary DVD costs £14.99, but cdscan.co.uk lists a number of sites, including Play.com and HMV.com, that sell this DVD for £12.99 with free delivery.

When using a shopbot or online retailer remember to take postage and other costs into account. If you are buying a washing machine, for example, some high street stores take your old one away and install the new one. So if you are buying online, check that you will receive a comparable service.

As well as finding online bargains, shoppers can earn a cashback on the money they spend by using sites such as giveortake.com, quidco.com and topcashback.co.uk. These sites earn commission on users’ online purchases when they click through to partner sites. They pass that commission back to users in the form of rebates or cashback payments. So once you have found an online bargain, it is worth checking if these sites will give a cashback on your purchase.

Which? recommends that shoppers take a few precautions to avoid being ripped off on the internet. It suggests that you look for a customer services number and postal address on the site and call to check delivery times and costs. If you buy a product that costs more than £100, use a credit card because it offers more protection than a debit card.

Use a secure website to enter your card information. Look for a padlock symbol in the bottom right-hand corner of the browser window and check that the website address begins with “https://”.

Look for a physical address and telephone contact details.

Check the seller’s privacy and returns policy.

Click on the padlock to check that the seller is who it says it is and that its certificate is current and registered to the right address.

Sign up to MasterCard SecureCode or Verified by Visa. These are secure payment systems developed by Visa and MasterCard for safer online transactions. When registering for these services a cardholder chooses a private password for use when making a purchase using their card over the internet with a participating retailer.

Never reveal your Verified by Visa or MasterCard SecureCode password to anyone else.

Bree Hackel, left, does all her shopping online, from groceries to Christmas presents.

The 24-year-old business development executive from Fulham says: “Online shopping is easy and I can do it in my lunch break. It is also easier to send presents to my family in Australia. I can order a gift from a website, choose a card and wrapping paper and they will deliver it.

“When I buy things for myself, I normally have them delivered to my workplace. They generally take a few days to arrive and I have not had any problems with items not turning up. Most of the stores have pretty good returns policies.”

Miss Hackel usually searches a number of websites for the cheapest price before making a purchase and also uses the product search facility on Google to find what she wants. Her favourite shopping sites are HMV, the fashion store ASOS, Tiffanys for jewellery and Topshop.

Thoughtful gifts that won’t soon be forgotten

People complain every year about Christmas shopping — “What to buy for the person who has everything?”

Some local churches have a ready answer.

Over the next few weeks there will be several alternative gift-giving fairs that offer purposeful gifts that can be given at Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or on birthdays.

The Rev. John Dieterly, the pastor at Peace United Church of Christ, which holds its gift fair on Dec. 2, said many people today feel stressed about the commercialism of Christmas.

“They want to bring more of the meaning back to Christmas,” he said. “And gee, if in a church we can do that — not just through worship, but providing people with an opportunity to provide a meaningful gift, something that truly honors the person who receives the gift and something that can be life changing for the recipient family — why not?”

Dieterly once worked with Heifer Project International, through which donors can buy animals to be used on farms for power or for breeding in Third World countries and other poverty-stricken places.

Each participating farmer agrees to pass on the gift by giving the animal’s first-born female offspring to a neighbor in need.

One option: Give your sweetie a Noah’s Ark Christmas card saying that honeybees bought in his or her name will go to a poor farming family so they can use bees for the production and selling of honey in the fight against hunger.

And another: Buy a one-of-a-kind oil painting for your parents through Ten Thousand Villages, a nonprofit, and feed the artist’s family, a continent away, for a month.

“Last year was the first year and we had a good group of people — and we had more people afterward who said they wished they had known more about it,” says Sheri Chamberlin, this year’s “Gifts of Grace” coordinator at First Lutheran Church. The church will hold its shopping fair on Nov. 17.

There are honor cards from Greensboro Urban Ministry, for example, which will be available and can be bought in denominations of $5.

Designed by artist Bill Mangum, they support the agency’s work with the homeless and hungry.

Westminster Presbyterian began offering alternative giving nights in the 1990s.

The church wanted to recreate the feelings of Christmas past, when holiday commercials at least ran after Halloween.

First Lutheran had long been involved in efforts that benefit others. This year a missions group from the church brought back jewelry and other items from Costa Rica that they hope to sell to raise money for a church there.

In some cases, alternative gift items can be ordered online directly from the nonprofits.

But going the giving fair route offers the opportunity to browse for one-of-a kind items.

“I don’t expect people to come and buy only these things for gifts,” Chamberlin says. “I think it is a balance.”

Marketplace Santa swoops into town by helicopter

Santa Claus has visited The Marketplace mall many times before but never with such a grand entrance.

On Saturday, Kris Kringle arrived at the mall via helicopter, touching down at the north parking lot. Dressed in his traditional attire of black boots and a red suit lined with white fur with a matching cap, Santa waved a white-gloved hand at the families gathered to greet him.

Stepping out of the helicopter, he bellowed out a hearty “Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas!”

The Marketplace annually hosts Santa’s arrival two weeks before Thanksgiving, and wanted to add a special attraction this year, said Kara Selke, the mall’s marketing director.

“This was kind of a fun way to bring him down,” she said.

Santa, a.k.a. Richard Garling of Canaseraga, Allegany County, then climbed into a horse-drawn wagon provided by Heberle Stables. Inside the wagon, he sat with 10 children who won the chance to ride with Santa via a contest sponsored by WRMM-FM (101.3). Children yelled with delight as the wagon took a spin around the parking lot, then dropped Santa off at the mall entrance.

A large house for Santa, coupled with sparkling Christmas trees and other decorations, stands near the east entrance of the mall. A line of about 80 people had already formed there waiting for him to arrive to take pictures with children.

For their picture, Cassie Glende, 5, of Chili sat on Santa’s left leg while her brother Alex, 8 months, took the other leg. While his sister smiled for the camera, Alex — dressed in a miniature Santa suit — took great interest in Garling’s long white beard and decided to pull it. Garling is one of four Santas who will be at The Marketplace through Dec. 24.

Tom Glende has taken his daughter to see Santa before, and Cassie let Santa know that, this year, a Hannah Montana guitar is high on her Christmas gift list.

There are some other toys she hopes to get “but I always forget stuff,” Cassie said, smiling.

Devon Hillman, 4, and his brother, Key’ontae Doughtery, 3 months, also took a photo with Saint Nick on Saturday. Devon uttered two words when asked his first pick for a Christmas gift: “Spiderman toys.”

Santa’s helpers making list of Yule needy in Toronto

A flood of positive and persistent calls from families inquiring about the status of their Star gift boxes is what sticks out in Kim DiPassio’s mind from her time at the city’s “Christmas Bureau.”

“I think maybe that signifies the importance of the Santa Claus Fund,” DiPassio says.

For more than 50 years, city hall’s Christmas Bureau has been referring needy families to agencies offering holiday support.

This year the bureau will be taking calls during business hours on weekdays up until Dec. 24.

Inquiries about the century-old Santa Claus Fund, which stocks gift boxes with warm clothing as well as a toy and treats, start pouring in on day one, DiPassio says.

Each September, Toronto families on social assistance or disability are sent a letter inviting them to register for a Star gift box. Affirmative replies are sent to social services, which compiles the master list.

The first wave of calls to the Christmas Bureau are often families “just making sure” they can expect Star gift boxes, DiPassio says.

Last Christmas closed out two years at the bureau for DiPassio, whose regular job is supervising caseworkers in social services.

This year’s supervisor, Joanne Isaac, says it’s a rewarding experience. “It’s so different from what you do every day.”

Isaac, along with an associate who’ll take over the reins next year, runs the bureau with volunteers drawn from social services offices.

Rockefeller Christmas tree is a big one: 84 feet tall

This year’s Rockefeller Center tree is 84 feet tall and 48 feet in diameter.

It’s scheduled to be cut down today by a two-man crew using a giant hand saw at the Shelton, Connecticut home of Joe and Judy Rivnyak.

The tree will then be hoisted by a huge crane onto a 115-foot long trailer and brought to New York City, where it is expected to arrive on the ninth of this month.

New Yorkers will get to see it lit up in a ceremony planned for November 28.

Holiday Spirit

Argh, now I did it myself! [backspace] Holiday Christmas spirit.

There. That’s better.

Sorry but I couldn’t help myself any longer. With 43 days to go until Christmas I’ve placed the first Christmas ornament in my office. OK, it’s tiny but still…

It’s a little house, snow decorated, that sits on top of my printer. No worries, it won’t fall because I don’t use my printer that often. All digital here, you know.

It was wonderful to be out today really shopping around for the perfect Christmas decoration to put up first. Because, yes, everything is still wrapped up in boxes in the basement. So I just “had” to buy something…

It comes from a dollar shop but that doesn’t change anything for me. Hey, in fact, it makes the thing feel that much more joyful to me then when it would have cost ten times more!

Christmas: it’s the cozy season.

Christmas Crackers

That’s just too cool! I was in the supermarket today to pick up some croissants when my eyes were drawn to a tower of “holiday” Crackers (hey, remember, these folks have a hard time saying “Christmas”…).

2 Packages of Christmas Ritz & Christie crackersI’m not sure these haven’t been around longer but it’s the first time I see them.

The Christie Holiday Christmas Crackers are the most fun. In the box are crackers in 4 different shapes: Christmas tree, a bell, a snowman, and Santa Claus.

The Ritz Holiday Christmas Crackers are in the shape of a snowflake.

They were on a 50% discount special here so I picked up a bunch of boxes.

Of course to be festive you don’t need commercial, pre-packaged Christmas snacks:

Downgrading Christmas

The UK Institute for Public Policy Research is recommending that Christmas, which cannot be obliterated, should be down-graded to promote multiculturalism.1

The report, not published yet, has raised so much dust in the UK that the IPPR is now responding and saying “no, no, no, that’s not what we said at all!” Sorta…. Try to follow this:

[…] this does not mean equivalent public holidays for all faiths – no one is asking for that. It does mean being sensitive to important cultural concerns, giving people consideration and respect, and taking measures to combat discrimination. In this respect our report is not arguing for significant change, except in intensifying efforts to narrow the inequalities in life chances that exist between black and minority ethnic groups and the national average.
Source: Rick Muir, IPPR

That’s funny… No equivalent holidays but narrowing the inequalities to combat discrimination.

Uhuh… Because Christmas is, after all, The New Evil Empire?

Window on the Christmas past

When Ana Fernandes and Denis Frenette from the Bay’s creative design team visited Spaeth Design studios in New York in August to view their store’s holiday windows for this year, something was missing.

In the toyshop scene, elves were building toys, but only for good little boys.

“Can you imagine if that was customer feedback, a little girl who said there were no dolls? We would fail!” Frenette says.

Changes were made and the old-fashioned Christmas scene unveiled last week at the Bay’s Queen St. location now has an abundance of rag dolls and dolls with china faces.

The five windows tell the tale of Santa Claus’ Christmas journey, from the elves preparing the reindeer at the North Pole to Christmas morning when an exhausted Santa relaxes at home after a night of delivering presents.

“What we are doing this year is reconnecting. We are a company that has so much history,” Frenette says of the story the display tells.

“The art of window dressing is making a comeback,” says Keith Burlton, an instructor at Ryerson University who teaches a visual merchandising and display course. “It has been so quiet within the last 10 years, it was dying. I dare say it was places like the Gap that said, `We don’t need window trimmers. We can use simple forms.'”

Burlton fondly remembers the late ’70s and early ’80s, when shopping centres boomed, Eaton’s and Simpsons still existed and each store competed with its neighbour.

“It was really quite the thing to do, to outdo designs in the window,” he says.

But times changed and the recession in the ’90s forced stores to rely more heavily on signs instead of creative display teams.

“I know a lot of retailers who would say, `Why do we need a $350,000-a-year display program across the country when we can have an associate do it?'” Burlton says.

“By having salespeople setting up displays, the professionalism isn’t there. They aren’t trained to do that; they are trained to sell product and customer service…. The fine details like lighting, positioning, cleanliness that people learn over the years are lost.”

Though the Bay will not say how much it has spent on this year’s holiday windows, Frenette hints at the cost. “If I compare this to the rest of the windows we do during the year, this is three or four times the budget.”

Spaeth, the design company hired to build the Bay’s windows, also creates the elaborate holiday windows for Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy’s.

In New York, the window display scene is fiercely competitive. Stores win awards for outstanding windows and Spaeth ranks among the top designers.

Frenette and Fernandes returned to New York in October to oversee the finishing touches. They inspected each window, pinpointing concerns that would border on the absurd to the untrained eye.

“I’d like a little dog there,” Frenette decides about a window scene in which a family prepares for Christmas morning. “I’d like the chandelier to be up higher. I would like the rug running this way. Is the wallpaper going to match this wall?”

For a moment, Fernandes and Frenette look like adults playing in a dollhouse as they move figures, add props and analyze the purpose of each character in the scene.

“This elf isn’t doing anything,” Fernandes says about a little elf in the North Pole scene that moves back and forth, vacantly interacting with nothing. “It should polish Rudolph’s nose,” Frenette says.

All agree the idea is brilliant.

After last year’s controversy over a Christmas tree deemed offensive in the lobby of a provincial courthouse, it may seem odd that the Bay would create windows that revolve around the story of Santa Claus. Some may consider the scene too closely associated with religious symbolism.

“When you look at those lineups for Santa, that is one icon that unites many people,” Fernandes responds.

Frenette’s concern is whether children will accept it.

“We want to do the windows for the kids but we also do the windows for the adults who remember what they looked at when they were kids,” he says.

“Personally, I think it will have an impact on the baby boomers and the little kids who are pre-iPod,” Burlton says. “But 8 and up, I don’t know if it will matter to them.”

At the windows’ unveiling last week, a group of teenagers passing by gave them a glance and quickly returned to chatting.

It was the baby boomers who snapped photos with their cellphones and Generation Xers with children who pointed out details.

“I measure success with all of the smears and fingerprints left on the windows at the end of the day,” says Fernandes.