Tight Budgets Scale Down Holiday Celebrations

Tight budgets are forcing municipalities across the country to make cutbacks in displays and celebrations. In Fresno, Calif., city officials decided to skip the public lighting ceremony for a six-story Christmas tree. Trees in Chicago and Charleston, S.C., are smaller than in past years. And a century-old tradition in Philadelphia is in jeopardy as the Mummers negotiate with the city over who should pay for the annual New Year's Day parade.

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Many communities are not just short on jobs right now. They're also offering a little less civic cheer this holiday season. Tight budgets are forcing cities and towns to scale back their displays and celebrations. From Philadelphia, Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: At a church rec hall deep in South Philadelphia, the Fralinger String Band, halfway through a four-hour rehearsal.

(Soundbite of whistle)

ROSE: With their baseball hats and hooded sweatshirts, these guys look more like a beer league softball team than a finely tuned musical ensemble, until they start playing their instruments.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: These men are Mummers. Every year on New Year's Day they put on elaborate costumes and parade up Broad Street to downtown Philadelphia, where they compete with other clubs to see whose song and dance routine is the best. For the last 110 years, the parade has enjoyed the blessing and most years the financial support of city officials. But with Philadelphia facing a budget crisis, the city wants the Mummers to pay for police and sanitation.

Mr. GEORGE BADEY (Founder, Savethemummers.com): If they force that type of an issue, it would be the end of the Mummers Parade.

ROSE: Local attorney George Badey is a member of the Fralinger String Band and the founder of savethemummers.com.

Mr. BADEY: We're different than just a one-day parade. The Mummers is a year long tradition that generates over nine million dollars for the local economy. So, to eradicate that would be not only unfortunate and sad for the city but it will be economically foolish.

ROSE: Badey is optimistic that the Mummers and the city will find a way to share the cost of the parade. City officials didn't want to comment. But Philadelphia isn't the only municipality that's struggling to pay for beloved but expensive holiday traditions. For instance, officials in Fresno, California decided not bring a six-story Christmas tree down from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Spokesman Randy Reed says it didn't seem appropriate since the city just announced a round of layoffs and employee furloughs.

Mr. RANDY REED (Fresno Spokesperson): As we're looking at making reductions in other areas of the city's operation, we thought a more modest approach was appropriate this year.

ROSE: Reed says Fresno decided to skip the big lighting ceremony as well, although it does have a smaller tree inside city hall. The city of Chicago also decided on a more modest approach for the Christmas tree in Daily Plaza.

Ms. MEGAN McDONALD (Executive Director, Office of Special Events): For the past several years, we have taken 113 smaller trees and made one large tree. So, when we went to the one large tree this year, people are kind of like scratching their heads.

ROSE: Megan McDonald directs the mayor's Office of Special Events and yes, she said 113 trees. Last year, Chicago spent roughly $350,000 on the display. This year, the tree itself was donated and the whole thing only cost the city $46,000, though, not everyone loves the results.

Ms. TONY HARPER(ph): It's a little thin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HARPER: But the lights are pretty.

Ms. LAURA STEFAN(ph): I like it, I think its very authentic looking, like straight from nature, looks a little sad. Reminds me of Charlie Brown.

Unidentified Child: Hello.

Ms. EMILY DEFENTHOLER(ph): It just looks a little sparse in the bottom.

ROSE: Tony Harper, Laura Stefan and Emily Defentholer in Chicago's Daily Plaza. Across the country, city officials are hoping their constituents take a hint from the old Charlie Brown TV special and make the most out of modest holiday decorations.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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