Ugly tree helps Pennsylvania city find "true meaning" of Christmas

READING, Pa. -- In the heart of one of the poorest cities in America was one of the saddest Christmas trees of all time. Looming 50 feet above downtown Reading, Pennsylvania - the tree seemed, to most observers, to be more suited for mulch than merriment. In fact, to call it a Charlie Brown tree would be an insult to Charlie Brown.

"I think Charlie Brown has a better tree than we do," one resident said. "Everybody that took part in bringing this tree here should get fired."

For what it's worth, this wasn't the city's first choice. Crews were supposed to get a nice one from a farm, but when they went to cut it down, the ground was too wet to get a truck near. Instead of just waiting for a drier day, they drove to a local ballpark -- took a pine from behind home plate, and struck out big-time.

"If it was a squirrel right now looking for a place to live in the winter, it won't even go into this tree," said another disappointed resident.

The tree is so ugly, the city decided to take it down -- just so people wouldn't have to look at it anymore. Workers removed the lights and the pretzel of Bethlehem, or whatever that was atop the tree, and made arrangements to bring in a new, spruced-up spruce.

Most were glad to see it coming down, but not everyone.

"It sends the wrong message to take down this tree," Reading city council vice president Jeff Waltman said. "None of us in our city are perfect. If we took out everything that is imperfect in our city it would be empty."

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The "ugly" Christmas tree in Reading, Pennsylvania
CBS News

The guy had a point - but it was a point that failed to resonate with fellow council member Francis Acosta.

"A Christmas tree is a matter of celebration," Acosta said.

Acosta told me this really is just like that tree in the Charlie Brown story. He said it has become a laughing stock, and therefore must go.

"But I'm worried you're not seeing the forest through the tree, so to speak," I said. "What was the moral of that story?"

"Well, the importance of Christmas of being together."

"And what did they do with the tree at the end?"

"Save it. Embrace it."

"But this is not about Charlie brown or a Charlie Brown tree, it's about a beautiful Christmas tree for the city," he said.

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Reading City Council President Francis G. Acosta
CBS News

As city crews continued dismantling the tree, even as the new one arrived, the councilmen kept debating on the sidewalk. And that's when a little Christmas miracle happened. It came in the form of a phone call from the mayor, who decided to pardon the tree - a stay of execution, if you will.

In the end, it was the national publicity that allowed city leaders to see the true meaning of Christmas --marketing.

"We will have people here from Jersey, New York -- spending their money in our beautiful city," said Acosta.

Oh, Christmas tree.

  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.