By MICHAEL RUBINKAM, Associated Press
READING, Pa. (AP) — Reading's official Christmas tree has brought the city plenty of grief. Good grief.
When the 50-foot Norway spruce went up last month, it drew immediate comparisons to the scraggly sapling in "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Its giant bare spots and asymmetrical branches were no one's idea of Christmas tree perfection — especially in Pennsylvania, one of the nation's largest producers. Some residents and city officials called it an embarrassment and demanded it be replaced with a more suitable specimen.
Instead, Reading decided to embrace the Charlie Brown theme.
Workers wrapped a blue blanket around its base — a la Linus — and adorned it with a single red ball. The city announced a worldwide photo and essay contest, with winners to receive copies of the book version of the beloved TV special. And on Saturday, the public is invited to give the tree a makeover, just like the "Peanuts" gang surprised Charlie Brown by turning his puny pine into a trimmed, twinkling tannenbaum.
Turns out Reading's tree wasn't bad at all, really. It just needed a little love.
"Christmas is so commercialized that we tend to forget what Christmases used to be like," said Mayor Vaughn Spencer, channeling good ol' Charlie Brown himself. "Sometimes we have to keep things in perspective, and I think that's the lesson here."
Amy Johnson, the daughter of the late "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz, said her father would be tickled that "A Charlie Brown Christmas" has made a real-world impact nearly a half-century after its release.
"All he ever wanted to do with his strip was make people happy," she said. "And if he could bring the town together, that would make him very happy."
As generations of fans know, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" has the lovable loser picking a tree for the Christmas play. After he rescues a tiny sapling that's losing its needles, the other kids scold him for his ineptitude and laugh derisively at the tree. Then Linus tells the biblical story of Jesus' birth, and the gang has a change of heart.
In Reading, the story doesn't have such a tidy ending.
Several pedestrians insulted the tree as ugly and unworthy as they walked past on a recent day, the lone red ball swaying in a stiff breeze.
One lifelong resident, Emma Vega, called it an unwelcome reminder of Reading's troubles. Once a mighty manufacturing hub, the city of 88,000 is among the nation's neediest, with nearly 40 percent of its residents living in poverty.
"Do we really need a tree as our mascot?" said Vega, 48, unemployed and looking for work. "Everyone knows Reading's poor. It looks even more poor with that tree."
For others, the tree offers up several timely messages: Nothing and no one are perfect. Be grateful for what you have. Make the most of what you've been given.
Workers had intended to get a Christmas tree from a farm in neighboring Schuylkill County, but the ground was sopping wet when they went to pick it up, and the owner turned them away. So they went to a city ballpark and, behind home plate, found the tree that would soon garner international media attention.
City Councilman Jeff Waltman said the conifer symbolizes Reading itself — full of potential and ready for transformation.
"This tree carries its own little spirit," he said. "It has its own little voice now."
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