CLAYTON, Ga. — Business leaders and civic officials in this bustling northeastern Georgia mountain community didn't know what they were letting themselves in for when they decided to give downtown a new, "natural" look for Christmas.
They cast aside the flashy plastic decorations that had long emblazoned the utility poles in the central business district during the Christmas season. Instead, they put up garlands of live evergreen boughs topped with bright red velvet bows.
But no sooner did the greenery go up just after Thanksgiving, than a lot of the townspeople began seeing red--and not just in the new bows.
The natural look left them cold. It just didn't seem, well, Christmasy enough. Like kids who prefer Tang to fresh-squeezed orange juice, they wanted the "real thing"--the giant plastic lanterns, the plastic holly and candy-cane stripes, the 15-foot plastic candle that traditionally had been strung over the main downtown intersection.
"The phones at City Hall were ringing off the hook with complaints," said Mayor Thomas H. Ramey. "I never thought this would create such a controversy. You try your best to satisfy almost everybody, but it's hard to do."
Penny Bethel, an accountant who is running for one of the three City Council seats this month, says the subject of the new greenery almost invariably comes up when she is out campaigning door-to-door.
"When I ask if there is anything in the city that needs improvement, the answer most often given is the Christmas decorations," she said.
Make no mistake. Claytonians take their symbols seriously. Several years ago, this town of 2,000 residents fought to the bitter end in a losing battle with the American Civil Liberties Union over a giant lighted cross that once graced the face of nearby Black Rock Mountain.
The cross, which was placed there by the Rabun County Chamber of Commerce and could be seen for miles around, had become a local landmark and the town's unofficial symbol. But the ACLU said that its location--in a state park--violated the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.
"The Chamber of Commerce went bankrupt fighting that case," Mayor Ramey recalled.
The controversy over the new Christmas decorations is not nearly as ferocious. Since there are no "outsiders" like the ACLU involved, it is more like a big family quarrel. But few words are minced in protest of the natural greenery.
"It's so chintzy looking," said Wanda Million, 31, an employee at a downtown drugstore. "They look like big leaves with bows on them. They could put some Christmas balls on them or spray some snow on them. Anything would look better than the way it is now."
So outraged are some residents that they have decided against taking their children for the traditional family tour of downtown to see the Christmas trimmings.
At Best, Tepid Backing
Even defenders of the new decorations--made of hemlock, a short-needled evergreen of the pine family--concede that, unfortunately, they leave a lot to be desired.
"It's a great idea," a local florist said. "But they should have mixed the hemlock with something like white pine to give it more body and more of a green color. Hemlock by itself just doesn't do the trick."
The idea for the new Christmas look was hatched by members of the local downtown merchants' association.
They felt that the old decorations, which had seen more than two decades of service, had become too ratty and worn to be put up another year. Replacing them with similar artificial adornments, however, would be too costly--as much as $400 per pole.
The city could not afford the bill either. "We were looking at something like $10,000 for new decorations, and we had made no provision for it in this year's budget," the mayor said.
Besides, he added, there were more pressing financial concerns--like the proposed $1.2-million sewer plant the town needs to get out from under a 4-year-old moratorium on new sewer hookups.
Seemed Like Ideal Solution
Natural decorations seemed a perfect solution. The surrounding mountains are blanketed with evergreens that could be had for the taking. Moreover, native greenery would be fitting for a community prospering as a tourist and retirement center because of its scenic location. It also would be more evocative of the spirit of the season.
"Natural greenery is what people had to use years ago because that's all they had," said Carol Reeves, a businesswoman whose family owns the town's biggest hardware store.
It was she who first proposed the idea of natural trimmings, having been impressed by the use of live greenery for yuletide decorations during a visit to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.
Mayor Ramey went along with the scheme. City workers, under the guidance of U.S. Forest Service rangers, were pressed into service to cut the hemlock boughs in the neighboring woods. As they traditionally had with the old decorations, they also affixed the new ones to the utility poles.