Archive for December, 2007

British Muslims say: Put Christ back in Christmas

Muslim leaders joined Britain’s equality watchdog Monday in urging Britons to enjoy Christmas without worrying about offending non-Christians.

“It’s time to stop being daft about Christmas. It’s fine to celebrate and it’s fine for Christ to be star of the show,” said Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Mr. Phillips, reflecting on media reports of schools scrapping nativity plays and local councils celebrating “Winterval” instead of Christmas, worried the unintended consequences of secularizing the holiday would “fuel community tension.”

So he joined forces with minority religious leaders to put out a blunt message to the politically correct: leave Christmas alone.

Muslim Council of Britain spokesman Shayk Ibrahim Mogra said, “To suggest celebrating Christmas and having decorations offends Muslims is absurd. Why can’t we have more nativity scenes in Britain?”

“Hindus celebrate Christmas, too. It’s a great holiday for everyone living in Britain,” said Anil Bhanot, general secretary of the UK Hindu Council.

Sikh spokesman Indarjit Singh said: “Every year I am asked ‘Do I object to the celebration of Christmas?’ It’s an absurd question. As ever, my family and I will send out our Christmas cards to our Christian friends and others.”

More than 70 percent of Britons – some 41 million – are Christian, according to 2001 census figures. Muslims are the second-largest religious group with about 1.6 million in Britain.

Suicide bombings by British Islamic extremists in July 2005, which killed 52 people in London, have prompted much soul-searching about religion and integration in Britain, a debate that has been echoed across Europe.

The threat of radical Islam, highlighted by the July attacks, prompted reflection about Britain’s attitude to ethnic minorities and debate about whether closer integration was more important than promoting multiculturalism.

Shoppers splurge $7000 a minute on Christmas gifts

SHOPPERS at Melbourne’s mega-malls will pay as much as $7000 a minute in the countdown to Christmas.

More stores will be open for longer this year as the festive spending spree hits top gear this weekend.

Chadstone Shopping Centre expects more than 200,000 people this weekend alone.

New figures reveal shoppers splurge an astonishing $412,000 an hour at the centre during the festive season.

Chadstone will add an extra 20 hours to its trading schedule this year and will again be open around the clock on December 23.

Highpoint at Maribyrnong will also trade all night.

The centre will also launch a $20 valet parking service.

From Wednesday, shoppers can pull in at the Myer entrance off Rosamond Rd, have their car parked and then returned when they leave.

“For people who do all their shopping at one time, many will believe it is worth it,” marketing manager Marlene McGregor said.

Open Family will receive $5 from each $20 ticket.

Most major shopping centres begin extended trading hours this weekend.

Chadstone centre manager Stephen DeWaele said the Christmas rush had begun slightly later this year.

Staff were being encouraged to park off-site to free spaces for patrons.

Mr DeWaele said shopping in the small hours had hard-core support.

Up to 7000 people an hour pass through the centre’s stores between 2am and 3am, he said.

“It’s incredible. For some people it’s a real social destination as well as being popular with last-minute shoppers,” Mr DeWaele said.

Chadstone will be open from 8am next Sunday until 6pm on Christmas Eve.

Its Boxing Day sales start at 7am.

Chadstone launched its shopping season with its annual VIP night on November 21, when more than 70,000 people turned up.

The Australian Retailers Association is expecting a fruitful Christmas season with sales of more than $35 billion nationally.

A survey this week tipped each Victorian would spend an average $882 this year.

Each shopper would buy 12 Christmas presents for family and friends, the Sensis Consumer Report found.

Family delights in putting twinkle in children’s eyes

Just on dusk, pajama-clad children begin appearing on the lawn of a Cambridge house.

With great anticipation the switch is flicked, and the lawn is lit with thousands of fairy lights.

“You hear them go `ooh’ and `ahh’,” said Oaklands Dr homeowner Jos Philip. “The kids really love it, it has become a tradition.”

Mrs Philip, her husband Glen and their two-year-old son Luke are one of the growing number of Waikato families decorating their houses with Christmas lights.

“This year there are about 16,000 lights. We almost didn’t do it this year because there was vandalism last year, but we had kids asking for the `twinklies’ so we couldn’t let them down.”

The Philip family’s collection began eight years ago as a single string of fairy lights, and things have since snowballed.

On December 1 friends and family held a working bee to help hang the lights and set up the collection of six white Christmas trees, a flying Santa, reindeer, candy canes and “another reindeer or three” at a cost of thousands of dollars.

“I would hate to know how much we have spent on it but people really love it and now we have our son and another on the way it is something really nice to share with them,” Mrs Philip said.

Should you say “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas?”

This season we are once again presented with a controversy that seems to rear its head more and more this time of year…

Should you say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays?”

It’s a simple question, but the answer is far from easy…

“MERRY CHRISTMAS Everyone,” calls Daniel Dudley at the Red Bank Christmas Parade.

People aren’t shying away from Merry Christmas this year in Red Bank.

A push toward the more inclusive “Holiday” by some major retailers has brought a major back lash.

Many Christians feel there is an active War on the religious theme of Christmas…

Marcine Austin is also enjoying the Christmas parade.

She says, “Christmas should be the time of year for everybody to celebrate Jesus Christ’s birth.”

Live Nativity scenes across the country, even in downtown Chattanooga, have been questioned.

And… as some public organizations try to call last years Christmas tree this years holiday tree, Christians are pushing back, saying they want to keep the Christian tradition in the holiday.

Pastor David Bouler of Highland Park Baptist Church says, “Christmas is about Jesus.”

The church sponsors a sign along Interstate 24 that proudly declares “Jesus is the reason for CHRISTmas.”

Pastor Bouler says he’s not fighting Happy Holidays, but he wants to celebrate a Merry Christmas too…

Bouler says, “Don’t take away our freedom to lift up Christ, don’t take away our freedom to enjoy Christmas.”

UTC Religious Studies Professor Charles Lippy says a diversity of cultures and religious beliefs is part of what makes America great.

But he says a push to be politically correct, in many cases, may have gone to far…

Lippy says, “We’ve become overly concerned with not wanting to offend anybody and I sometimes think we anticipate what folks will find offensive whether anybody actually does or not.”

Ninety-six percent of Americans celebrate Christmas and many of them are non-Christian.

Lippy says most people like to be given well wishes and whether or not you say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” really isn’t that big a deal.

Instead, he says, people should simply be comfortable with the greeting they give.

Back at the parade a group of children call “Merry Christmas!!!!” as their float passes by…

Pastor Bouler says everytime someone wishes him “Happy Holiday” he smiles and wishes them a “Merry Christmas” right back.

Candy tossing seen as parade danger

Organizers say they may have to crack down on people being “naughty” in the Rutherford County Christmas Parade.

Despite rules designed to stop it, children running into the street to grab candy tossed from floats was a problem again this year, said Angie Walker, who organizes the parade every year with her mother-in-law.

“Children were just a few feet from the floats,” she said. “It’s so scary.”

Sunday’s parade was a success, with a great crowd and no injuries, but safety is still a real concern, Walker said.

Parade rules already state that candy cannot be thrown from floats and must be distributed by people walking alongside the floats. Unfortunately, about 80 percent of the participants ignored that rule, Walker said.

“There are reasons why we have the rules that we have,” she said.

Ideally, Walker said parents should keep their children from running into the street, but that isn’t what has happened in the past.

“We just really want to get the word to spectators to please keep your children out of the street,” Walker said.

The discussion hasn’t been made, but Walker said she would like to modify parade rules so if a participant disobeys the rules they would be prohibited from participating the following year.

Kelli Adams, a Murfreesboro mother who attended the parade with her 6-year-old daughter, said she didn’t see much of a problem, “but I kept a hold on my girl’s hand.”

She said tossing candy from floats was an old tradition that she enjoys.

“I remember catching candy when I was a kid,” she said. “It was fun then, and still is now.”

Adams said allowing people to hand candy out seemed like a reasonable compromise.

To Scott Perkins, owner of City Cafe in downtown Murfreesboro and a parade participant with a float from his business showing a small diner scene, said people on his float didn’t throw candy because of the rules, but other floats around his did.

“I can see both sides of the issue,” he said. “To me it comes down more on the parents — to be aware of their children.”

Perkins said that while throwing candy is a tradition, safety should be a priority.

“It’s supposed to be a fun thing, and nobody wants to see any kids get hurt,” he said.

Putting the Christ in Christmas shopping

Shopping for Christmas cards used to be a source of frustration for Sandra King.

Over the years, King found that fewer and fewer stores carried cards with a real Christian flavour. There were lots of cards offering “seasons greetings” and the like, but few that mentioned or even hinted at Christ’s birth.

“I want my cards to say that because that’s what I’m celebrating – the birth of Christ,” says King.

On Tuesday, King drove several kilometres to Universal Church Supplies at 11105 102nd Ave, Edmonton. While there, she stocked up on Christmas cards with an unambiguous Christian message, and also bought a special Bible as a Christmas gift for her grown-up daughter.

Since discovering the store many years ago, King has become a regular visitor. She likes Universal’s broad selection of inspirational books, music, and other merchandise.

King, who works as a pastoral assistant at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Sherwood Park, enjoys the oasis of calm she finds at Christian bookstores like Universal.

The store is one of at least a dozen in the Edmonton area where Christians aren’t greeted with blank stares if they ask about books, music or other goods connected to their faith.

In his office, store manager Roger Lamoureux says that whatever the customer flow, the environment is always relaxed compared with the “frantic desperation” at many places.

And unlike some stores, his staff aren’t out to squeeze every last dollar out of customers. In fact, Curtis Stang, the owner of Universal, is giving staff the day off on Dec. 24, traditionally one of the busiest shopping days of the year.

Another store that’s popular with many Christians, but also those with a strong social conscience, is Ten Thousand Villages at 10432 82nd Ave. The store is one of six in the province operated by the Mennonite Central Committee.

A non-profit organization, Ten Thousand Villages specializes in fair-trade gifts and decor items – including lots of Christmassy fare like Nativity displays.

“Essentially everything is from Third World Countries,” says Diane Reddekopp, a co-manager.

A Sunday School teacher at a local Mennonite church, Reddekopp was a volunteer for five years before the manager’s job became available.

“I liked the fit; I liked what the store stood for,” says Reddekopp, who points out that Third World artisans are paid 25 per cent of the retail cost of their items as opposed to one per cent at most retail stores.

For shoppers who aren’t already aware, volunteers explain to those needing help what the store stands for.

On a recent Saturday, there were smiles even on the faces of people queuing at the counter with about a dozen other customers. If anybody minds, it doesn’t show.

Reddekopp isn’t surprised. In the short time she has been a manager, a few customers have told her they do all their Christmas shopping at Ten Thousand Villages because “they know that marginalized people are being helped.”

Toddler-proof Christmas tree has a soft touch

There won’t be any broken glass ornaments at Barbara Lacy-Whalen’s house this year. Nor will her 3-year-old son, Jack, get into trouble for playing with the Christmas tree. Not since Ms. Lacy-Whalen’s gone bananas, so to speak, with her holiday tree trimmings.

She decorates the entire tree with sock monkeys in all shapes and sizes. This is her second year with this theme, and she says trading in her traditional blue and silver ornaments has made the tree more fun for her son.

“The best part of it is I’ll walk by it, and my son will have taken one of the monkeys down, and he’ll be playing with it,” Ms. Lacy-Whalen says. “I want him to enjoy it.”

There are quite a few monkeys for him to choose from: a cheerleader, a frog, a cowboy, a sock monkey Santa, a sock monkey wearing sock-monkey socks and even an angel monkey topping off the Fraser fir, not that he could reach it.

Ms. Lacy-Whalen’s inspiration was not Curious George, but rather a whimsical black-and-white art book of sock-monkey photos. With the help of her mother-in-law, Judy Whalen, she has amassed enough monkeys to cover the tree. She’s also got a couple peeking out from the family stockings, which are made from red-heeled wool socks found at an antique store.

Interspersed among the monkeys on the tree are red yarn pom-poms that Ms. Lacy-Whalen made, and a soft rope garland with colors to match the sock monkeys. The overall effect is surprisingly festive, with all the big red monkey smiles standing out against the green tree.

Ms. Lacy-Whalen says that eventually she’ll change to another theme, perhaps when Jack starts making his own homemade ornaments, but until then, this approach works well, start to finish.

“It’s so easy to put it all away at the end of the season. It only takes an hour,” Ms. Lacy-Whalen says. “You just throw them in a box and you’re done.”

Building a better Christmas tree

A research project at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro, N.S., hopes to reverse the move to artificial trees with balsam firs that hold their needles.

The balsam fir is lush, full and fragrant, which makes it a popular choice for Christmas and a mainstay of Nova Scotia’s $30-million-a-year Christmas tree industry.

Industry officials say one of the main reasons cited by customers for their switch to artificial trees is needle loss.

Mason MacDonald hopes to turn that around with a doctoral research project he is conducting with the Atlantic Canada Christmas Tree Research Initiative to understand why Christmas trees lose their needles.

Mr. MacDonald said most people just assume that a Christmas tree sheds its needles because it is dry, but that is not the case.

He said they are studying the way the trees age and the way they shed in hopes of creating a Christmas tree that holds on to its needles.

Viewers dismayed at Christmas TV

Christmas television in the UK is a disappointment, a survey of 2,000 viewers has suggested.

More than half (57%) said Christmas TV, which includes several high-profile soap storylines and the Queen’s speech, was “not as good as it used to be”.

Only 9% deemed the schedules “excellent festive entertainment”, while 24% branded them “completely over-rated”.

In a separate poll, viewers said they would prefer to watch blockbuster films than soaps or dramas over Christmas.

The YouGov survey of 2,111 adults revealed that recent big-budget films like Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean were the most desirable viewing on Christmas Day.

Only Fools And Horses was the second most popular choice, with viewers opting to spend their afternoon in the company of Del Boy and Rodney.

Classic films like Mary Poppins or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang rounded out the top three.

Dawn French’s The Vicar of Dibley took fourth place with ITV soap Coronation Street just beating the BBC’s EastEnders for a place in the top five.

The Queen’s speech came ninth in the survey.

The younger generation, aged between 18 and 24, said their top Christmas Day show would be The Simpsons.

The research into favourite programmes was carried out for media company ANT Software, while the survey of attitudes into viewing habits was commissioned by media website Utalk.

“The chocolate box image of families crowded around their TV sets next to a roaring log fire simply doesn’t exist in today’s Britain,” said Utalk founder Niall McKinney.

“The internet has transformed the way we spend our time and, Christmas Day or not, many of us still like to feel connected by going online to check in with distant friends.”

Santa putting children’s information at risk, warn experts

Santa Claus could be breaking privacy laws in his collection and use of data about British children, experts have warned. Yuletide cheer-bringer Claus could be putting the personal data of millions of children at risk.

Data protection laws lay down strict conditions for the use of personal data and there is no evidence that Claus has an adequate compliance programme in place.

Children across Britain who write letters to Claus with a list of gift requests are not told for how long that data is kept, or if it will be used for other purposes such as marketing by third parties.

The Data Protection Act stipulates that data should not be kept for longer than necessary, which would mean 25 December, though Claus may argue that he needs to keep the letters for six years to use in any gift-related lawsuits.

“There is a stream of questions Santa has yet to answer,” said William Malcolm, a data protection specialist at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM. “Is this information used for anything other than present giving? Information passes out of the EU, so does Santa check the letters for unambiguous, specific and informed consent to this overseas transfer?”

OUT-LAW’s attempts to put the questions to Claus were hindered by the lack of an office chimney. Eventually, the questions were put up a domestic chimney but no response was received by time of publication.

The Data Protection Act says that you must inform someone when you are collecting data about them, and tell them what the purpose of collection is.

“What about the naughty/nice database?” said Malcolm. “Are children given notice that behavioural data is being collected about them throughout the year? And does it qualify as covert monitoring, which would breach Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights?”

People can make a subject access request of databases holding their personal information, but the database operator has 40 days in which to respond. Children are now too late, therefore, to find out before Christmas if they are on the naughty or nice section of the system.

Man delights in ‘fanatic’ lights

The 500 extension cords, the 100,000 lights, the 57 flying metal reindeer, the neon nativity scene, the bubble machine, his very own FM transmitter so he can synchronize all this to “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus,” it’s tempting to conclude that Marty Slack is a fanatic. But as he told a reporter for CBS News last December: “I think I’m beyond fanatic. I was fanatic a few years ago.”

Slack has become a Christmas icon in the Salt Lake Valley, where on a typical weekend night in mid-December a thousand cars snake through his neighborhood to get a look at his house at 5631 Whispering Pine Circle. And then last year his fame went global when he won grand prize in the PlanetChristmas Worldwide Decorating Contest. That was in the “over the top” category, in a contest where nearly everyone had multiple inflatable snowmen and programmable lights.

There were thousands of entries from all over the world, says PlanetChristmas founder Chuck Smith of Franklin, Tenn., who decided not to run a 2007 contest because “the people who lost took it very seriously.”

There is no succinct term for people whose hobby is decorating their houses with Christmas lights. Smith has settled, instead, on the word “addict.” In the chat room on his Web site, he says, 6,000 people talk about Christmas 12 months a year.

If there is a typical Christmas lights addict, Smith says, it’s a middle-aged man with extra money to spend and a vivid childhood memory of the one house in his neighborhood that went overboard with decorations.

Marty Slack can still remember the thrill of looking at Christmas lights from the back seat of his parents’ car, and 40 years later he wants to re-create that feeling of enchantment, for himself and everybody else. He is fond of saying that he has often observed tired, ornery people drive up to his house, he imagines them, just minutes before, grumpily trudging through the mall and then they see his display and suddenly they’re smiling.

Slack’s journey began in the early 1990s, the Christmas after he and his wife, Micalle, moved to their split-level. Micalle wanted some Christmas lights, so Marty hung a few strands along the rain gutter which he left until the next Christmas. By then the sun had bleached the reds and greens to white.

And then one thing led to another, he says. One year he built a 40-foot tower of lights, and another year a giant star. He was starting to get his Christmas excitement back. Pretty soon people were stopping to admire his work, which made him want to try even harder. So he added live music in his garage, and in 2003 he figured out how to do a synchronized light show.

Because Slack’s creations can be viewed on his Web site,, he gets letters and e-mail from all over the world. Some want tips for their own decorating. The ones who have seen the house in person thank him for cheering them up. One woman, who had lost both her husband and a son that year, credited Slack’s extravagant, playful display with making her want to keep on living.

But, to tell you the truth, “it’s a lot of work and a lot of money,” says Slack, who is operations battalion chief with the Unified Fire Authority. What most people don’t realize, he says, is that it takes 30 hours just to lay out the extension cords right. And then there are the months he spends figuring out how to program the lights and to line up each blink with a beat of music. One minute of music takes 20 hours of thinking and fiddling. Plus, the lights fade and parts wear out, and before you know it the cost of replacing and expanding adds up to $5,000 a year.

“I look at it this way,” he says. “All my friends have boats and trailers and jet skis. And I have Christmas.”

“Marty can never do anything in moderation,” says his wife. She and their two daughters and son have come into the kitchen on this weekend morning, the day after the official lights-on ceremony, and they all begin to gently rib Slack. He smiles but also looks a little bit hurt.

In the early years of Christmas Utah, before Slack fine-tuned the display, the family had to sit inside the house with the indoor lights out, and if they tried to use the clothes dryer it would overload the circuits. Micalle felt like a hostage in those days. Now the only problem is getting back into the neighborhood if she goes out on an errand. The line of cars waiting to get into Whispering Pine Circle can back up past Vine Street onto 5600 South on the weekends right before Christmas.

The light display is synchronized to music broadcast by Slack on 99.9 FM. The lights are on from 5:15 to 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, and until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, through the first week of January. That’s more than 200 hours of viewing and even then there have been people who have knocked on the Slacks’ door at midnight, rousing the family from sleep, asking him to turn the lights back on.

Paris Hilton dresses pet pooch up in Santa outfit

Paris Hilton has been getting into the festive spirit – by dressing her dog in Christmas clobber.

The heiress, 26, was snapped last week at the Kitson store in Beverly Hills with her pet done up in a Father Christmas outfit.

This weekend the Simple Life star was spotted again in Miami Beach, Florida, with another of her puppies in a Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer costume.

Pairs Hilton christmas pooch

She’ll be putting one of her mutts in a fairy dress next and popping him on top of her Xmas tree.

Green Gifts

So you got a goat for Christmas.

Well, not you specifically, but a family in an African village got a goat, thanks to a donation made in your name by your do-gooder sister as a holiday gift to you. You, however, would have been happier with a luxury goatskin handbag.

Still, you feel guilty about being disappointed, and what about those hapless African villagers? So you smile and trill, “Wonderful!” Inside, you’re peeved, on the way to seething.

Is this your family at Christmas?

Fact: The holidays can be brutal on your near and dear. The usual reasons for bickering and bad feelings — airline nightmares, frantic busyness, rampant consumerism, sky-high prices, general excess — are still there, but now there’s a potential new source of tension: agenda-driven gift-giving tied to moral, political, charitable or environmental passions.

“It’s a growing issue, but I would put it more in the category of one to stay aware of. It’s not yet a widespread problem, but it has the potential to add new complications” to already fraught relationships during the holidays, says Anna Post, great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post and etiquette expert at the Emily Post Institute.

Of course, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong (nor new) about charity donations in lieu of loot as a holiday gift; some of these charities, such as livestock-donating Heifer International and Christian-oriented World Vision, have been around for decades and have helped millions.

This year, the increasingly popular new twist in gifting is “green” giving: donations to environmental groups, eco-friendly apparel and house wares made of recycled materials and the like.

The choices and quality of green gifts have grown in the past few years. Thus more consumers are buying. An October survey for Conservation International, for instance, found that more Americans than ever want to give or receive green gifts this year.

“Social responsibility is hot this year as well, so everyone is trying to be less consumption-oriented and more cause-oriented,” says Amanda Freeman, a founder of, a health-and-wellness website.

Well, not everybody, she concedes; some, especially kids, “want what they want. They tell you specifically, ‘get me these sneakers,’ so they’d rather get something tangible than a donation.”

Picture a teen who really, really wants an iPhone. Instead, Aunt Sadie gets him a carbon offset from Is he happy and grateful?

He is not. He doesn’t even know what it is. (You donate in his name to fund clean energy projects to “offset” his carbon footprint, thus reducing greenhouse gases.) It’s not something you can wrap and put under the tree.

Besides, colorful Christmas wrapping paper and ribbon is wasteful and just fills up landfills, according to current green thinking. Better to use old newspapers or brown paper as wrapping paper.

You can see where a dedicated, heedless eco-warrior in the family might get on nerves.

“Not every gift has to be on a mission to change that person or to save the world,” says Peter Imburg, creator and chief “elf” at, an online secret-Santa gift exchange that promotes reduced holiday excess and consumption. “If you give someone something they don’t want, that’s not a very good example of giving. You should get to know them and understand them, not try to change them.”

Tempers can really start to rumble if gift-givers in a family seem to be more interested in promoting their causes than in the needs of the recipient, who might not even approve of those causes.

“I am definitely in favor of charitable gifts at the holidays, but it should be one that the recipient would support and approve of, not the one you think they should support,” says Rebecca Ligtenberg, 32, a marketing executive in Fallbrook, Calif. “A gift that shamelessly plugs your agenda is not a gift at all.”

The line between being passionate about a cause and distasteful pushiness is not always clear, which helps exacerbate the kinds of misunderstandings that can arise during holiday madness.

“It’s the thought that counts, but not everyone agrees with the specific thought,” Freeman says.

Stephanie Preble, 37, a Seattle teacher, caterer and mother of three, says her family can live without Christmas wrapping paper. They also plan to donate to, the online loan-giving charity, but will still keep the traditional stocking-stuffers and gifts from Santa for the kids. Balance is good; extremism is bad, she says.

“A little push is good. A gentle reminder, a bit of education, some inspiration — all good,” she says. “Foisting, on the other hand, is annoying. Anything in the extreme is annoying. There has to be a happy medium.”

When Mark Spellun, editor of Plenty, a green lifestyle and culture magazine, spent his first Thanksgiving with his in-laws-to-be last year, he offered to get an organic turkey. No thanks, he was told. At Christmas, he replaced their Christmas lights with energy-saving LED lights — surreptitiously.

This year, now that’s he’s officially part of the family, he ordered an organic turkey from a local dealer, and it was a big success. He gave his mother an organic bouquet-a-month as a Christmas gift last year; she said it was her favorite gift ever, he says.

“The holidays are about tradition. People want to do the same thing every year, so there can be conflict in even trying to make modest changes, whether it’s a recipe or a gift,” he says. “You have to be patient, and understand you may not get it all done in the first year. After all, global warming is a long-term problem.”

It should be obvious how a donation to a political cause or organization could be occasion for a real donnybrook in a family. If Junior donates to, say, the National Rifle Association in his mother’s name, and Mom is strongly anti-guns … well, that’s not going to be a merry Christmas.

But non-partisan, non-political charitable giving at Christmas is practically a tradition in the USA, and Americans are famously generous. Donations to the nation’s 400 largest charities grew by 4.3% last year, to $67.5 billion, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual Philanthropy 400 survey.

Since 1944, Heifer International, a favorite charity of such celebrities as Susan Sarandon and Bradley Whitford, has donated livestock and training to nearly 10 million families — and nearly 700,000 families in 2006 alone.

Such donations are popular, especially among people who say, “I already have too much stuff!”

“At 57 years old, I have enough stuff to last a lifetime,” says Jeanne Liston Barnes, a graphic designer in Chesterfield, Mo., who was delighted when her brother adopted a wolf for her for Christmas last year.

“I am trying to minimalize my life by giving junk away and trying not to purchase new junk. I also try to give gifts that are perishable —cookies, cakes, candy. Americans have entirely too much.”

But even the most charitably oriented person might be put off by a gift that seems to be unsuitable to the recipient. Or worse: Remember that old Seinfeld episode when cheapskate George, in lieu of gifts, said he donated to the fictitious “Human Fund” (slogan: “Money For People”). Eventually, he was found out; hilarity ensued.

“People can smell a rat,” Post says. “Even though it’s a good thing to send money to charities, (it’s not) if they only did it to save time and not because they really care about the charity.

“Giving to charity should be my choice, and giving me a charity gift card takes that choice away,” says Parissa Sai, 33, a computer programmer in Millersville, Md.

Contributing to a charity is such a personal thing, adds Jennifer Williams, 36, a yoga teacher in Chesapeake, Va. “It’s between me and the organization, not the rest of the world.”

Nickole Ketterer, 27, of Cincinnati, a Kentucky government worker, says she suspects people say they like charitably oriented gifts because “they don’t want to seem like jerks,” but they may in fact be largely unmoved by them.

“If I specifically asked for something and got a charitable donation in my name to an organization I never heard of, I would probably be a little irritated,” Ketterer says.

On the other hand, if she hadn’t made a specific request, a charity donation would be far better than “some junk I would never use and that would just collect dust.”

But there are pitfalls to this kind of giving: How to avoid family tension? Plenty magazine and the Sierra Club’s website provide little tongue-in-cheek scripts that eco-warriors can follow to slip hints into holiday dinner-table conversation with their less eco-obsessed families.

But really, all you need to do is to remember some of the things you learned in kindergarten: Use common sense, watch your manners, communicate and above all, think about the recipient first.

Hap LeCrone, 67, a clinical psychologist in Waco, Texas, who writes a newspaper column, grumbles that people today are more self-centered. He says they suffer from a form of “cultural narcissism.”

“A gift is supposed to be something that the receiver would like to have. It’s not supposed to be about the giver making a point,” he says. “But people today don’t seem to mind doing in-your-face things with pure lack of consideration of other persons’ feelings.”

The Center for the New American Dream, a 10-year-old non-profit dedicated to educating people on how to “live consciously, buy wisely, make a difference,” has sterling do-gooder credentials. Executive director Lisa Wise says there should be no conflict between “giving with our values and at recognizing the person we’re giving to.”

“When you’re giving something, make sure it’s a meaningful exchange, a gesture that will be recognized.”

“I believe in Santa Claus again”

When Danette Meola’s parents died three weeks apart in 2006, she lost some of her holiday spirit.

But after a visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus Thursday night, her faith and Christmas cheer have been restored.

“Honestly, I believe in Santa Claus again,” the 44-year-old mother of two said.
Santa, who bears a strong resemblance to Ed View Jr. of Mohawk, travels around the area visiting homes and children during the Christmas season.

Today, Santa will be going to eight homes with Diane O’Donnell, director of communications for the American Red Cross Mohawk Valley Chapter. At each stop, parents will make a donation to the Red Cross, and Santa will spend time with the children.

“It’s a fun thing to do, and it’s his way of giving back to the Red Cross,” O’Donnell said.

Santa said he tries to spread holiday cheer and explain what the true meaning of “ho, ho, ho” is.

“The ‘H’ stands for help and ‘O’ stands for others,” he said.

Santa said he loves making the holidays a little better for other people.

“I love it,” he said. “I’m a 62-year-old kid.”

Meola said Santa’s visit meant so much to her family.

Santa sat in an oversized maroon recliner in the Meola living room, next to the fireplace. Meola’s children, Kayla Maxam, 7, and Joseph Maxam, 1, and some of Kayla’s friends sat around Santa on the floor while he told stories.

“Every once in a while he just broke out into a Christmas carol,” she said. “It was magical.”

Meola said she can’t remember the point when she stopped believing in Santa, but she will certainly always remember the night she rediscovered her faith in him.

“He just brightened up the holidays for us more than he can imagine,” she said.

Trans-Siberian strives to outdo itself

Last year, the guitarist and singer Greg Lake – of the pioneering prog-rock act Emerson Lake & Palmer – came out to see the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s visually spectacular Christmas show.

Afterward, Lake had one simple question for TSO founder Paul O’Neill: “How are you going to beat this next year?”

O’Neill, in a late October interview, recalled his not-quite-Christmasy response: “Greg, I have no (expletive) idea.”

O’Neill is beginning to find out whether the 2007 edition of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra has topped last year’s model.

As in years past, two full touring companies of the combination rock band and orchestra have hit the road, bringing one of the world’s biggest collections of special effects, lighting and pyrotechnics along for the ride. (The tour stops in Milwaukee on Sunday at the Bradley Center.)

“We just keep building the band every year,’ O’Neill said, noting that several new musicians have been added to both of the touring ensembles. “More special effects, more lighting, more pyro – every year we try to do something no band has done before.”

But he also knows that each year, it gets harder to live up to his own standard.

“It’s getting harder and harder as time goes on to impress not just adults, but even kids,” O’Neill said.

“When I grew up, you had comic books and you had movies and you had black-and-white TV. Kids these days have ‘Halo’ and all these video games, digital TV. Not only kids, but adults demand so much more input per 60 seconds.”

The good news is that technology works in favor of TSO’s stage production, which now spans both a massive main stage and another at the back of the house. Last year, the rear stage rose up high off the arena floor for a pyrotechnics battle with the main stage, a spectacle that had never been done in any rock show before.

“A lot of the things we do now . . . in 1997 we could not have done,” O’Neill said.

“Technology is moving ahead so fast, it’s hard to keep up. And what was mind-blowing two or three years ago is now commonplace. But you’ve just got to keep thinking above and beyond.”

To help achieve that goal, O’Neill has launched a research and development division dedicated to dreaming up new visual effects for TSO.

“We hire these engineering kids right out of college and we say, ‘Look, see these offices? These are your offices and your computers. Your only job is to come up with something, a special effect for the stage show – the flight deck – and we’ll pay the money to develop it, design it, etc.’ And if only one in 20 or one in 10 make it to the stage, I still think we win.

“And they’re told, ‘Don’t think what would be cool a year from now or what would be cool two years from now,’ ” O’Neill said. ” ‘Think what would be cool 20 years from now, and then put it on the fast track so we can have it on the flight deck a year or two from now.’ ”

One thing that won’t be radically different this year is the musical program.

As in 2005 and ’06, the first half of the show will feature the music from the 1996 CD “Christmas Eve & Other Stories,” the first part of a holiday trilogy that also includes 1998’s “The Christmas Attic” and 2004’s “The Lost Christmas Eve.”

As in past years, TSO’s second set will be a full-on rock concert, featuring songs from those two holiday releases, as well as music from its non-holiday rock opera, 2003’s “Beethoven’s Last Night” and a long-delayed new CD, “The Nightcastle,” which O’Neill said he hopes to release this summer.

The programs aim to blend the new (the set, the pyrotechnics) with the band’s familiar Christmas music.

“They get the comfort of the familiar as they’re settling in,” O’Neill said. “Then for the second half of the rock opera, we go into the catalog and mix and match, and do different songs from the other albums.”

The TSO road show employs a crew of more than 150 and a traveling caravan that includes 32 trucks and 16 buses – not to mention the development cost of a set and special effects that have a two-month shelf life.

Still, the popularity of the TSO holiday tours, which date back to 1999, makes the numbers work.

Last year was the most successful tour yet, with more than a million tickets sold and gross earnings of more than $40 million for less than 80 dates.

Indeed, TSO was the top draw in tickets sold for the final six months of 2006 and had the highest number of sold-out shows, according to Billboard magazine.

Even though the group hadn’t had a new CD release since 2004’s “The Lost Christmas Eve,’ TSO still managed to sell nearly 900,000 copies of its four CDs.

“This year our guarantees are substantially large,” O’Neill said. “But the bottom line – and this is driving my accountant crazy – is that with the cost of building the set before we play show No. 1, our budget is millions higher than our guarantees.”

TSO grew out of O’Neill’s work as the longtime producer of the now-defunct progressive metal band Savatage. Since forming the act in 1996, he hasn’t skimped on anything related to TSO.

The recorded music – which many critics have ragged as grandiose and bombastic – can employ upward of 100 musicians.

The production is impeccable and aimed at achieving note-perfect performances throughout the CDs. And in a move that recalls the packaging of vinyl albums, TSO’s CDs have come with elaborate artwork, lyrics and background information to help listeners follow the story lines of each CD.

Whether live in an arena or coming out of your living-room speakers, the goal is to give the audience much more than their money’s worth.

Meet someone who has all her Christmas shopping done

Lindale Mall hums with activity. A brown-haired boy excitedly drags a frazzled parent from store to store. A couple, their hands entwined, stroll.

Days until Christmas: 15 and counting. Prime shopping time.

Everyone seems to be taking part in the holiday’s ultimate tradition. Except one. She’s done.

With the exception of her husband’s stocking material — but those items can wait, can’t they? — Becky Esker of Cedar Rapids completed all of her Christmas shopping by Halloween.

It’s all about organization.

“My innate nature is to plan and prepare,” she says, in repose among the hordes of shoppers near Lindale’s center. “And it drives me crazy, all this chaos. The lines, the people. You can’t even get down the aisles.”

Throughout the year, Esker keeps a keen eye out for presents for her family and friends, refusing to let Christmas sneak up on her.

“I actually get a lot of my shopping done the day after Christmas” for next year, she says.

With every gift idea and purchase, Esker marks it down in her “gifts” folder — under “G,” she says — before she tucks it away in storage.

For most people who push back their shopping until the next day, the next week, Esker’s approach is alien.

Lisa Williams of Coggon and her daughter, Stacey, weave throughout Lindale searching for just the right gift, the whole hurried experience a joy.

“It would take the fun out of it to be that organized,” Williams opines. “And even if we don’t find what we want, part of the fun is thinking of something at the last minute.”

Not for Esker, who snakes around Lindale’s parking lot, glad the December excursion is a rarity. She’d rather be at home watching the temperatures drop, sitting in front of a fire with a cup of cocoa in hand.

“This is why I did all my shopping months ago,” she says. “To avoid this.”

That’s why, she says, she shops so early. To take away the stress. And to cut the cost of the holiday.

Her Christmas ideology is spreading like Christmas pudding among her family members, Esker says. Her 13-year-old daughter, Madison, who’s labeled Esker as the “organization lady,” will probably begin shopping incredibly early as well when she’s a bit older.

“It feels so nice” to be done, she says. “Just today someone asked me, ‘Are you ready for Christmas?’

“And I said, ‘You know what? I think I am.'”

Wal-Mart is bringing Santas back to its stores

Two years ago, Wal-Mart Stores substituted the word “holiday” for Christmas references and encouraged store greeters to do the same, in line with other retailers’ removal of “Christmas” from advertising and stores.

Now, after criticism from religious groups, Wal-Mart is getting back in the Christmas spirit. For the first time, the retailer is bringing Santas into its 3,407 stores. And, following an experiment at a few locations last year, the retailer has set up a “Christmas Shop” in each of its 1,500 outlets with garden centers.

“This is still a nation where the majority of the people consider themselves Christian,” said Patricia Edwards, a portfolio manager in Seattle at Wentworth, Hauser & Violich.

Last month, Lowe’s, a home improvement chain based in Mooresville, North Carolina, apologized for referring to “Family Trees” instead of Christmas trees in a catalog.

Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Arkansas, has produced a Christmas concert by the Salvation Army brass band and its own choir that will air in stores along with remarks from Pastor Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Life.”

Retailers are vying to draw shoppers burdened by defaults on mortgages and higher food and fuel costs. Customer visits this year have declined at Wal-Mart compared with 2006.

On Friday, shares of Wal-Mart fell 25 cents to close at $49.02 on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares have gained 6.1 percent this year, compared with an 11 percent decline for the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock retailing index.

Wal-Mart’s shoppers were “loud and clear” that they wanted more references to Christmas, a company spokeswoman, Christi Gallagher, said. “It’s really just a direct response to what our customers have told us” in comments to store managers and on the company’s toll-free phone number, she said.

Wal-Mart resumed using the word “Christmas” in stores and advertising in 2006, a year after the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights started a boycott in response to the retailer’s approach to the holiday. The boycott ended after one day following an apology from the company, according to the group’s Web site.

Bringing live Santas into its stores this year can generate good will that might increase sales, said Burt Flickinger, managing director at Strategic Resource Group in New York.

Wal-Mart on Thursday said that sales at stores open at least 12 months rose 1.4 percent this year through Nov. 30.

“Hopefully Santa can help the situation, because not much else seems to be working for the boys down in Bentonville,” said Flickinger, who added that he owned shares of the company.

Comparable-store sales are considered a key gauge of retail performance because they track only results from established locations.

Gallagher, the Wal-Mart spokeswoman, said she was not aware of any negative reaction to the changes. “The message that we’re giving to spread Christmas in the stores is one that really resonates with all our shoppers, regardless of religious affiliation,” she said.

The American Family Association was among conservative groups that last year threatened a boycott of Wal-Mart following Thanksgiving and after the retailer joined the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.

The association, based in Tupelo, Mississippi, canceled the boycott after Wal-Mart said it would not make contributions to “highly controversial” groups or issues. The group has also assailed retailers, including Wal-Mart, for omitting the mention of Christmas in stores and marketing.

This year the group turned its attention to Lowe’s, the second-largest home improvement chain after Home Depot.

Lowe’s received 119,000 e-mail messages last month after the association posted a message to members urging them to protest the retailer’s use of the phrase “Family Trees” in a catalog, said Karen Cobb, a Lowe’s spokeswoman.

Lowe’s has always used Christmas in its marketing and was not trying to depart from that policy, Cobb said. Lowe’s issued an apology. “It was not our intention to try and be politically correct or to try to take the significance of Christ out of Christmas,” she said.

Bugs in Christmas Trees

Marsha Williams’ Christmas tree is decorated and she’s in the Spirit of the Season.

Williams says, “I’ve never had a problem until this Christmas.”

But a few days ago, a six legged grinch showed up…lots of them

“I woke up and saw bugs everywhere and wanted to know what’s going on,” says Williams.

christmas tree bugWhat was going on is her Christmas tree was infested with bugs.

“I don’t do bugs so I called my Pest Control company,” she says.

The Duval County Extension service says the problem is Aphids.

“They’re not ticks, some people think they’re ticks but they’re Aphids and they feed on plants,” says Terry Del Valle.

Agent Del Valle says the mild weather is to blame, not the grower.

She says, “we’ve had more complaints about the problem in the last two years.”

Del Valle says the Aphids will not harm humans or pets, but will leave a mess if you smash them.

“They do stain,” she says.

Williams replaced her old tree with a new Fraser fir. But before placing the first ornament had it sprayed by her pest control company.

After years of live Christmas trees, Williams is having second thoughts.

“I think I am going to get an artificial tree next year,” says Williams.

I wish you a very Christian Christmas

I stumbled across it one December evening, a Christmas haven with not a strand of lametta, plastic holly leaf or red velvet reindeer with glitter antlers in sight.

It was the early 1990s and I was in Strasbourg to cover a conference of excruciating dullness. So I played hooky, losing myself in the medieval streets between the black-and-white timbered houses until I found myself in a crowded square.

Wooden stalls, strung with fairy lights, lined its perimeter, and braziers glowing fierce orange were scattered across it. The scent of cinnamon and cloves, escaping from wooden vats of mulled wine, kissed the cold air.

Church bells chimed periodically; I am sure carols were being played, and, yes, there were chestnuts roasting too. Every seasonal cliche was present and correct. My love affair with Christmas markets was instantaneous and enduring.

Back then, the markets were one of Europe’s best kept secrets. No-frills flying had yet to open up the Continent and a weekend jaunt was a costly affair. Now, for many of us, a trip to Cologne, Barcelona, Munich, Budapest, Prague or Lille, to buy the sort of decorations and craftwork we’re convinced we can’t buy anywhere else (although most are made in China), is part of the pre-Christmas ritual.

Even The Archers has endorsed it. Kenton and Kathy rejected the charms of Borchester last week to sip glühwein in front of Vienna’s imposing town hall, and potter around the nearby stalls.

Millions of listeners were probably wishing they were there, too. It is a world away from the brash, grasping materialism of the British high street at this time of year, and that is certainly part of the appeal of the markets.

The smaller ones, in Cracow or Salzburg for example, are also a reminder of a more innocent time in our lives. A time when the Christmas School Fayre or church bazaar was the social event of the year; when lopsided mince pies baked by mums were not considered to be a health hazard, and the headmaster with a stick-on cotton wool beard masquerading as Santa was not assumed to be a paedophile. Of course there is a commercial imperative to the Christmas markets but it is low-key and made more palatable by a combination of nostalgia and kitsch.

There is, I think, another reason why we have embraced Europe’s Christmas markets so wholeheartedly, and it is the unashamed display of a joyous Christian festival.

The tackiest of Nativity scenes, garish cribs, angels, Advent candles and calendars – of the religious variety rather than those with a Disney copyright – are piled high, with classier representations in glass, wood and porcelain. There is no expectation that a non-Christian will be offended by these offerings, and none seem to be. Indeed, the fact that so many of the markets take place in the shadow of great churches – the Gothic masterpiece known as the Angel of Strasbourg or the Cathedral of St Nicholas in Ljubljana – enhances the experience for those of all belief systems who are sensitised to the point of madness to “upsetting other faiths”.

In Britain we’re well-rehearsed in the “Winterval v Christmas” debate. We welcome the school Nativity play that has morphed into a hybrid celebration of Diwali, Hannukah, or Russian Orthodoxy. We may balk when we read that children’s choirs are banned from singing traditional carols in shopping malls, and that Santa has been replaced by a “more inclusive pixie” in a school in Brighton. But if the end result is a multicultural society at ease with itself, then so be it.

The galling reality is that the practitioners of other faiths don’t care how we celebrate. They accept the Christmas story as just that, an entertaining story. They consider the bank holidays that mark it to be a bonus, and think we’re mad to neuter our celebrations in the way we do. But we remain consumed by fear of causing offence, and the unthinking, politically correct, “Christianophobic” jobsworths who run our institutions are to blame.

And so we have the ludicrous situation reported this week whereby travellers to Bahrain – an Islamic country – find the airport fulsomely decorated for Christmas, with Santas in abundance, while O Come All Ye Faithful blasts from the duty-free electronics store. At Heathrow, there are minimal decorations and no carols in case Muslim passengers or airport employees are offended.

We like to think we invented Christmas. We didn’t, of course, but we mixed and matched the best bits from other countries with pagan midwinter practices and Christian traditions. Charles Dickens then consolidated the lot in A Christmas Carol, one of the great achievements of British culture, according to the critic D J Taylor. How sad it is that to get our seasonal fix, we now have to look elsewhere.

Australian Primary school chooses Madonna over Christmas carols

A PRIMARY school has scrapped its Christmas carols concert in favour of scaled-back shows featuring nursery rhymes and Madonna’s Papa Don’t Preach.

Disenchanted parents have written to Premier John Brumby – who called on schools to embrace the festive season last month – seeking his intervention.

The latest furore follows attempts to ban some shopping centre Santas from shouting “Ho Ho Ho”, as fears grow that Christmas is under threat.

Ringwood East’s Tinternvale Primary prompted the anger after replacing the long-running concert with individual class productions.

Songs in the new-look mini-performances include a reworked version of Papa Don’t Preach – a song about illegitimate pregnancy.

The parents claim the change was prompted by school bosses’ fears Christmas celebrations would offend a Jehovah’s Witness student.

Principal Lorraine Gamble confirmed the concert had been replaced with smaller performances.

But Ms Gamble categorically denied the format had been changed to appease some parents, saying children could sing carols at the end of their performances.

“The parents have absolutely nothing to worry about,” she said.

The change was driven by a shift in artistic direction, she said.

Parents last week did not accept the reasons, saying the school had taken the focus off Christmas.

Until this year the school had gathered to sing yuletide hymns, they said.

A letter from one grandparent to Ms Gamble, obtained by the Sunday Herald Sun, accused the school of being “culturally fragile”.

“This was a simple good-natured event of goodwill and inclusion that showed Australians at their best,” it said.

“I can think of no other culture that would want, or permit, such flagrant disregard for its traditions on such flimsy reasoning.”

Opposition education spokesman Martin Dixon urged the school to reassess its decision.

“Celebrating Christmas in the traditional way is a long-established practice,” he said.

“To me there is no reason whatsoever that should stop that.”

UK School bans Christmas cards in class

A school has banned children from giving Christmas cards to their friends, claiming they cause ‘tears and tantrums’. Instead, staff at Healey Primary, Rochdale, told parents of pupils aged five to seven they should send one card, addressed to the whole class, to avoid upset. They claimed some children can be left with hurt feelings if they are missed off Christmas card lists.

The school sent out a note after some parents asked teachers for a list of pupils in their children’s class – a request they refused, saying it was against data protection laws.

A spokesman for the school said that giving out cards wasted valuable teaching time and they have plenty of other Christmas activities planned.

The note said: ‘Please could parents send just one Christmas card to the whole class rather than asking school for a whole class name list. This is to avoid tears and tantrums which often occur when Christmas cards are distributed.’

One parent said: ‘For small children, sending cards is a big part of Christmas. It should be a lovely time for them, but this makes me think the spirit of Christmas has gone.’

A school spokesman said: ‘The cost of so many cards is prohibitive for some families and we feel that children are often pressurised to act in the same way as their peers.

‘Some children are missed out and feel very upset when this happens.’

Mount Snow hopes to set Santa record

Mount Snow will be jolly this weekend when as many as 500 men and women deck out in snowy white beards, black boots and red suits lined with white fuzz with the goal of breaking the Guinness Book of World Records for most Santa Claus impersonators in one place.

This will be the area’s second attempt to break the record currently held by Liverpool, England, with reportedly 3,400 Santas.

Last year, despite poor weather, 107 Santas showed up to be counted.

This won’t be the only group this weekend trying to break the record. A group in Ireland will try to gather 10,001 Santas on the Walls of Derry on Sunday.

Liverpool attempted to sustain its record, collecting a reported 6,000 Santas last weekend for the Liverpool Santa Dash.

The tough one to beat, though will be Las Vegas, which also held an event last weekend, the Las Vegas Great Santa Run, which reported 7,269 Santas.

Organizer Melissa Husby said the group would do it again next year, hopefully with even more Santas. While this number seems to be the highest yet, Husby said it could take at least six months to hear from Guinness.

Celebrate the Valley, Inc., the event organizers, aren’t expecting to meet these numbers quite yet, but plan to develop a solid base of Santas that come every year to build up to the numbers necessary to win the record.

“Liverpool took five years to get where they are,” marketing coordinator Celeste Dwyer said. “Can you imagine if we beat Liverpool? Little old Vermont? That’s our goal.”

The Santas who do participate will be responsible for putting presents under the trees of local needy families. The money raised from the event benefits the Holiday Giving Tree, which asks local churches and schools to nominate a family in need. More than 65 families this year will be gifted food, clothing and other gifts for the holiday. “The concept is to have something under the tree,” Dwyer said.

Last year the Santas event donated $1,000 to the cause. This year they are aiming to double that.

Another part of the strategy to win the record is by offering perks to participants, including a long list of events on the mountain and in the area all weekend.

Visitors can spend Saturday after the walk participating in a cookie tour, a scavenger hunt or an activity challenge.

As it goes without saying that Santas must feed their cookie craving, 10 local inns will host a cookie tour, where the Santas can go from inn to inn, sampling the homemade delicacies and admiring the holiday decorations.

For Santas looking to slim their figures, the Claus Cup Challenge lets them go to different real estate companies and choose a physical or mental challenge.

Local schoolchildren will also display their gingerbread house handiwork at an exhibit at Memorial Hall, asking visitors to vote for their favorite. The winning house will win the children a pizza party.

Anyone dressed as Santa (they stress that this means full garb) will get a $25 discount on a ski lift ticket and a voucher for $25 off at another time from the ski resort. Many local inns, restaurants and businesses in the Deerfield Valley will be giving discounts to registered Santas as well.

If you’re thinking of having lots of Christmas lights this season…think again

CHRISTMAS carols are now being played more often, hotels and other establishments have begun adorning their facades with glittering lights and soon every household will follow suit in the spirit of the holidays.

But the high cost of electricity on the islands may be like the Grinch who stole Christmas.

This month, the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. is charging residential customers 30.2 cents per kilowatt hour.

Commercial establishments will be charged 34.4 cents per kwh while the government will be billed 34.9 cents per kwh — the highest power rates ever imposed in CNMI history.

CUC spokeswoman Pamela Mathis said, depending on volts and watt-demand, Christmas lights typically cost 1 cent to 4.8 cents per kwh.

The Icicle “100” lights will cost you 1 cent per kwh while a regular string of mini tree lights would cost 4.8 cents per kwh.

Lighted Christmas trees should not cost that much if you use the fiber optic type.

Mathis said a 7-ft-tall fiber optic Christmas tree would cost consumers just 1.4 cents per kwh.

A frosty ornament lighted tree would cost 1.8 cents per kwh.

A regular lighted twinkle-tree constant would cost more at 5.9 cents per kwh.

“Costs will decrease a bit if the resident uses 1,000 kwh or less per month,” said Mathis.

70,000 Christmas Lights at Senske

70,000 lights dance to music at the Senske showcase of lights at the corner of Deschutes and Quay in Kennewick.

Senske specializes in landscaping, pest control, but in the winter they specialize in home décor and lighting.

The lights are synchronized to five classic christmas songs playing in a continuous loop. The music is broadcast over the radio on 101.7 fm and there are also some speakers here. The lights are programmed with the same computer software used in major theme parks.

Apart from the lights, Senske is going “green” featuring all energy-saving “LED” lights.

LED lights use about 90 percent less power and are supposed to last longer. The down side however is they cost 6 to 8 times more than regular light bulbs.

The animated light show costs about 40,000 dollars.

It starts at 5 pm and goes until midnight every day.

Wii tops online Christmas shopping lists

Nintendo’s video game console Wii was the most searched-for product in November, according to a survey of British online shoppers released yesterday.

With less than three weeks to go before Christmas, online search analyst Hitwise said the Wii was well ahead of rivals such as Microsoft’s Xbox 360.

The Wii, which features a motion-sensitive controller that players use like a tennis racket, golf club or baseball bat, has enjoyed strong sales since its launch last year.

Nintendo’s handheld games device the DS came second in the top 10 list of searches.

In third place were Ugg boots, the chunky sheepskin boots worn by a host of celebrities, including Kate Moss, Sienna Miller and Kylie Minogue.

The highest traditional Christmas toy was Lego at number four, while Bratz dolls were at five.

Apple’s much-hyped iPhone came in sixth and its iPod ranked seventh.

Another doll, Barbie, was the eighth most searched product, followed by the iPod Nano and the Xbox 360.