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Modesto city workers spring for Christmas décor

Christmas isn't canceled after all. Some charitable elves — city employee unions — chipped in money to light and decorate Modesto's Christmas tree, saving an annual tradition.

It looked as though a budget grinch had hijacked the holidays at Thursday's official tree-lighting ceremony. Instead of lighting up the 50-foot cedar at Modesto Centre Plaza, the city strung lights only on the plaza's smaller and decidedly non-Christmas-looking Chinese pistache trees.

The move was supposed to save money. But onlookers and officials left the holiday kickoff surprised and disappointed, feeling as though Scrooge had dropped a fly in their eggnog.

On Friday, Modesto got its yuletide mojo back. Two forestry employees appeared at Centre Plaza to decorate the towering evergreen.

Forestry workers Jose Luis Rodriguez and Rob Robinson were out trimming trees — with clippers, not ornaments — in west Modesto on Friday morning when they got a call that downtown needed an emergency infusion of seasonal spirit.

By 9:30 a.m., Rodriguez was hovering above the cedar on an aerial lift, carefully draping boughs with about 20 strands of lights. Robinson was stationed on the ground, handing lights up to Rodriguez. Two boxes of canteloupe-sized ornaments sat waiting nearby. The city's firefighter union and Modesto Confidential and Management Association have offered to cover the costs.

Rodriguez said the decorating scene was similar to what he does at home with his wife and children, with a few twists. "At home, what my wife says is where the lights go," Rodriguez said. "Out here, it's more of a team effort."

As they worked, sleigh bells jingled nearby. An early visit from Santa? No, it was letter carrier Kathi Wagner-Habina, delivering mail in a Santa hat, sleigh-bell belt and snowman necktie.

Between the tree trimming and the jingle bells, it seemed Modesto would have its Christmas after all.

There will be no "do-over" tree-lighting ceremony, but the Centre Plaza tree will be aglow in time for this evening's downtown Christmas parade.

For those watching at home, the score is now Modesto: 1, Grinch: 1.

Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at lalbrecht@modbee.com or 578-2378. Follow her at Twitter.com/BeeReporter.

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