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December 25, 2014

Town’s Charlie Brown Christmas Tree ‘Has Its Own Voice Now’

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.

The tree before, above, and after!

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.’’

Letters To Santa Claus Are A Top Priority For His Elves

By LAURA LANE

The Herald-Times

Santa Claus, IN (AP) The letters were piling up. Christmas, just days away. Nine volunteers—they call themselves elves—sat around a table, red-ink pens in hand, writing personal notes in response to letters from around the world.

Signing, at the end, ``Santa Claus.’’

Patricia Koch, who with her husband established Holiday World amusement park decades ago, is chief elf. She has spent her life keeping the jolly deliverer of gifts alive in the hearts and imaginations of children everywhere.

Indiana’s Santa Claus letter project is in its 100th year.

Fueled by flavored coffee and delivered food, the volunteers carry on as the countdown to Christmas Day continues. They had already responded to about 8,000 letters to Santa. There was no panic, except for concern about the box labeled ``China,’’ full of unanswered letters written to Santa in Chinese.

No one at the table reads or writes the language; they hoped to find someone before Santa’s reindeer take off to the Far East.

``We get letters from all around the world, Germany, Taiwan, Lithuania, you name it,’’ 74-year-old elf/volunteer Ed Rinehart told The Herald-Times (http://bit.ly/1CjJMDN). For the past several years, he was a letter-writer in the back room at the old Santa Claus post office, but got promoted this year to letter transporter and post marker.

Rinehart transports bundles of response letters from Santa from the old post office to the new one, where he hand-stamps each with a special Santa Claus post office postmark, in assembly-line fashion. Pull out a letter, push the hand-held stamp into a well-inked pad, carefully stamp the envelope, making sure the postage stamp gets inked. Then hand the letters over to a postal worker for delivery.

By early afternoon, his elbow is tired, ``and I’ve got a little ache right here that sets in every morning,’’ he said, massaging his shoulder. Still, he spends long days making sure every child who writes to Santa gets a personal response postmarked from Santa Claus, Indiana.

He is wearing a poinsettia-red sweatshirt with a big embroidered Santa on the front with the words ``I believe in Santa Claus.’’

And he does. ``It’s universal, the belief in Santa,’’ he said. ``You’ve got to believe, to have hope that Santa might bring something special.’’

He is an old man who smiles remembering the Christmas that Santa left an electric train from the town’s old Toyland store under the tree more than 70 years ago. Today, it’s an antique on display in the museum.

Koch grew up in the 1930s and ‘40s with a father who believed in the spirit of Santa. Stationed aboard a ship in a New York harbor at Christmas in 1914, Jim Yellig and his shipmates went ashore to deliver presents to poor children.

Since Yellig grew up near the southern Indiana town of Santa Claus, he was selected to wear the furry red suit. And he kept on wearing it, often 300 days a year, after in 1946 becoming the resident Santa at Santa Claus Land, the beginnings of today’s Holiday World, which attracts close to a million visitors every year.

In 1935, he offered to help a postmaster friend answer the many ``Dear Santa’’ letters that found their way to the town of Santa Claus’ post office. He distributed them to fellow American Legion members, and took some home.

``When I was a little girl, maybe 12 years old, he would bring the letters home in the car and the two of us would sit down at the dining room table, and I remember my mom would warn us not to get ink on the crocheted tablecloth.’’ She and her dad made sure every child received an answer from Santa.

Koch’s goal today is the same: to make sure no letters to Santa go unanswered. ``It has to be carried on, the tradition,’’ she said from a town that features all things Santa.

Because in a world of poverty and violence and broken dreams, the promise of hope might make a difference. ``The children who write these letters hope to get a response,’’ she said. ``Kids don’t believe in a lot these days, and I think if they believe in Santa Claus, in the spirit of Christmas, then we can do this to sustain the magic of giving.’’

The town of Santa Claus has just 2,500 residents, and without the Holiday World crowds, it’s quiet during winter. Except on weekends in December, when children and their parents flock to town to the Santa Claus Museum and the old post office to pen a letter to Santa.

The correspondence to the North Pole has evolved over the century, but a similar thread prevails: They want gifts for themselves, but for others, too. The museum has a display of letters through the years that reflects how children perceive Santa as a figure who can bring joy at Christmas.

Anyone can buy stamps, put them on envelopes and use the special Santa Claus postmark stampers available at the post office. Sisters Pat Newby, from Charlestown, and Peggy Gwinn, who lives 100 miles away in Kentucky, met up recently at the Santa Claus post office to postmark their holiday cards. Both are retired, and this was their first road trip to Santa Claus. Then, it was off to Jasper for a meal at Schnitzelbank restaurant.

The Santa Claus Post Office expects to postmark about 400,000 cards and letters this holiday season. At 49 cents per stamp, that’s $196,000 in revenue for the post office.

Letters to Santa Claus arrive in the southern Indiana town from around the world, even if addressed as simply as: Santa Claus, North Pole. The actual address is: Santa Claus, P.O. Box 1, Santa Claus, IN 47579. Every letter received before Dec. 20 gets a response. So save the address for next year.

The Film Behind The Sony Hack: The Interview Should Be Seen

By JAKE COYLE

AP Film Writer

That I was one of the relative few to see ``The Interview’’ is not a boast I take any pleasure in.

It’s with heavy sadness, not pride, that I review Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s North Korean farce. As of Thursday morning (December 18), the film has been shelved just a week ahead of its planned release due to terrorist threats by hackers said to be connected to North Korea. The movie’s prospects of ever seeing the light of day are very much in doubt.

Yet ``The Interview’’ is already assured of cinematic infamy. Whatever its future, it will go down as the satire that provoked an authoritarian dictatorship, roiled Sony Pictures in a massive hacking attack and prompted new questions of cyber warfare, corporate risk-tasking and comedic audacity.

The movie’s fate is a travesty, regardless of its merits. But what of its merits?

Though ``The Interview,’’ directed by Rogen and Goldberg, never quite manages the duo’s calibrated blend of sincerity and over-the-top crudeness, it nevertheless usually pulses with an unpredictable absurdity and can-you-believe-we’re-doing-this glee. Its greatest charm is that it so happily brings the silliest, most ludicrous of knives (a preening James Franco, lots of butt jokes) to North Korea’s militarized gunfight.

Rogen plays Aaron Rapoport, a journalism-school grad who has found himself, ignobly, producing an ``Extra!’’-like entertainment news show, ``Skylark Tonight,’’ hosted by his friend Dave Skylark (Franco). The show traffics in the fluff of celebrity with occasional scoops. (Eminem makes a funny cameo as himself with the out-of-the-blue confession that he’s gay.)

When it’s learned that North Korea leader Kim Jong Un is a fan of the show, they maneuver to land an interview for a kind of modern ``Frost/Nixon’’ televised tete-a-tete, though one with the same penchant for ascots. (Franco’s Skylark is an extreme dandy who speaks largely in over-used slang and has a strange obsession with ``Lord of the Rings.’’)

James Franco & Seth Rogen in The Interview

Before their trip to Pyongyang, a CIA agent (Lizzy Caplan) recruits the pair with the mission to turn their big interview into an assassination. ``Take him out,’’ she instructs before putting them through training.

Like another comedy about the wrong Americans sent overseas, Bill Murray’s ``Stripes,’’ ``The Interview’’ is better on American soil and on less sure footing once it lands in North Korea. This is partly logistical. Though ``The Interview’’ obviously couldn’t have shot on location and had limited images to draw on for its sets, the movie fails to create even a half-plausible North Korean atmosphere and is left claustrophobically meandering almost entirely in palace interiors.

Their first meeting with Kim (Randall Park) isn’t a regal pageant; he just knocks softly on Skylark’s door and eagerly introduces himself as a ``huge fan.’’ One of the real disappointments of the film’s cancellation is that people may never get to see Park’s performance. His Kim is more complex than the broad caricature you’d expect: He’s a jovial young leader haunted by daddy issues, having been called soft by his father for adoring American pop culture. He’s a surprisingly agile basketball player and a lover of Katy Perry songs.

Even in North Korea, Rogen and company are more at home in American pop: Western civilization is more the target of ``The Interview’’ than the DPRK.

As Skylark’s interview nears, their assassination attempts fail and ethical quandaries mount. Skylark and Kim (“a cool guy,’’ pleads Skylark) become fast friends, palling around together and shooting off tanks. If anything, the film, written by Dan Sterling from the story by Goldberg and Rogen (their second time directing after the better ``This Is the End’’), verges on making Kim too likable.

And while the movie leads to a fiery end and a slow reveal of the famine Kim inflicts on his people, most who see ``The Interview’’ will say to themselves: THIS is what prompted an international incident? There’s nothing scandalous about ``The Interview,’’ unless you happen to believe Kim is a god who rides around on unicorns.

Despite the large presence of Park’s dictator, this is really Franco’s movie. Seemingly energized by his more outlandish performances (like his Alien in ``Spring Breakers’’), he’s here in full, grinning Jerry Lewis-mode, a rubber-faced infotainment parody. His chemistry with Rogen is predictably solid.

Charlie Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch and the ``South Park’’ guys have all tried before to find comedy in the shadow of evil and thereby do a little to disarm it. ``The Interview’’ struggles to really illuminate anything about the stranger-than-fiction Orwellian nightmare that is North Korea, but its attempt is admirable. It deserves to be seen.

And, yes, having your film taken down by a totalitarian regime wins you an extra star.

``The Interview,’’ a Sony Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for ``pervasive language, crude and sexual humor, nudity, some drug use and bloody violence.’’ Running time: 112 minutes. Three stars out of four.

This Week In The Civil War: Savannah & Fort Fisher, NC

This Week in the Civil War - This series marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War draws primarily from wartime dispatches credited to The Associated Press or other accounts distributed through the AP and other historical sources.

Editors Note Primary sources for the series are historic newspaper databases and other archival records.

By The Associated Press

This Week in The Civil War for Sunday, Dec. 21: Union occupation of Savannah, Georgia.

Union forces led by Maj. Gen. William Sherman reached Savannah near the Georgia coast in December 1864, and the news spread quickly throughout Northern newspapers this week 150 years ago in the Civil War. ``Savannah Occupied by Gen. Sherman’’ read one headline on a dispatch from The Associated Press dated Dec. 25, 1864.

It said Sherman had recently taken 800 prisoners, guns and ammunition. And in a famous line remembered long after, Sherman wrote President Abraham Lincoln: ``I beg to present to you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousands bales of cotton.’’ AP dispatches said Confederate ironclad vessels were blown up and the navy yard burned at Savannah. The dispatch said the city of some 20,000 was quiet, and one officer called it an ``almost bloodless victory.’’

This Week in The Civil War for Sunday, Dec. 28:  Fighting at Fort Fisher in North Carolina.

On Dec. 24, 1864, a Union amphibious expedition under the command of Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler began shelling Fort Fisher, a Southern fortification defending Wilmington, North Carolina. The Northern objective: to shut down one of the last major seaports of the Confederacy still open in the South. But attempts by an infantry division that disembarked to probe the fort’s stout defenses met with resistance and a Federal attack withered once Confederate reinforcements approached.  Amid deteriorating weather conditions, Butler called off the expedition in late December 1864.  A dispatch by The Associated Press dated Dec. 28, 1864, quoted reports as saying the fort was ``much damaged’’ by the engagement with ``all the barracks and storehouses burned’’ though Union forces failed to seize it. The dispatch noted that Northern infantry troops actually had gotten close enough to capture a rebel flag from the outer defense works before withdrawing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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