Volunteers deck the towns for the holidays

Residents, nonprofits and shop owners take the reins on holiday decorations as officials cut spending on Christmas decor.

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"Welcome Elves" said the sign in the Crafton Community Center as more than 30 volunteers dutifully signed in to decorate the borough building, the circle in the middle of the traffic roundabout, Crafton Park and the miniature golf course.

It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving and the start of the busy holiday season. If wintry temperatures in the 20s chilled fingers and toes, moods were sunny as in just 2½ well-organized hours the "elves" decked their town for Christmas.

This marked the second year that volunteers in Crafton did virtually all of the holiday decorating. The borough donated a small amount of money to buy lights, garland and other supplies, and public works employees set up the electrical system and timers that illuminate the Christmas lights from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. every day until Jan. 11.

Perhaps the most stunning display was seven live Fraser firs in the circle in front of the beige stone art deco-style borough building on Stotz Avenue.

Christmas decorations in many towns are not what they used to be. As elected officials figuratively tighten their town belts, there may be less money for "extras" like Christmas decorations, and fewer public employees to install them. It may be a growing trend that citizens, shop owners and nonprofits are increasingly stepping up to provide holiday cheer and decor.

Decorations in many municipalities are staying up through New Year's Day, and in some towns a bit longer.

Not so long ago, "Crafton was doing nothing" at Christmas time, said Betsy Martin, an architect and longtime resident of Crafton, until she recently moved to Pittsburgh. In 2011, Ms. Martin enlisted a neighbor, Mary Luxbacher, to join her in some last-minute decorating "using whatever we could find" in borough storage boxes. Last year, she persuaded A. J. Pescuric to head up last-minute volunteer recruitment to put on a better display, which led to more decorations and more volunteers this year.

The "second in command elf," Chris Hahn, was in charge of the circle this year. Decorations on Steuben Street were led by Ms. Luxbacher at the municipal golf course and Diane Biehler, sister of Ms. Pescuric, at the park.

Volunteers were too numerous to mention, including five high school students earning community service points. Carlynton school board member Jim Schriver brought his wife, Megan, and four of their five children, ranging in age from 4 to 12 years old.

The Fraser firs are a suitable Christmas centerpiece in a town that is proud to be an official Tree City USA -- a designation from the Arbor Day Foundation. The Christmas trees are 6 to 8 feet tall and 8 to 10 years old. Doug Rossman, a professional landscaper, drove 75 miles to cut them down at his family tree farm in Cambria County. He installed and decorated them, with the help of six volunteers, including Crafton Mayor Jim Bloom and fire company volunteers Tom Daley, 22, and Tyler Albert, 16.

Mr. Rossman "planted" the fresh-cut trees in the dirt. Though the firs have no roots, they will thrive through March, he said. Six of the trees have white lights with red or white garlands. The biggest tree has blue lights and a blue garland.

Robin Anthony, noting she "was on the tree commission for 10 years," fussed over the placement of garlands, adding, "I know more about planting trees than decorating. I volunteered for the first time this year because the decorations looked so nice last year. When I go by at night and see them lit up, I'll say 'Yes, I helped with that.' "

Holiday decorating is popular in towns throughout southwestern Pennsylvania. Here's a sampling of how other boroughs and townships decorate their towns for the holidays:


When the Ligonier Valley Chamber of Commerce put out a call for volunteers to decorate the town's signature Diamond district, at least 35 people -- 15 of them high school students -- showed up on Nov. 16 and 23.

Holiday decorating and event planning is done by the chamber, with all plans approved by borough officials, said Holly Mowrey, executive director of the Ligonier Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Decorations, horse and buggy rides, Christmas caroling and other holiday activities are not just for the enjoyment of residents. Officials and shop owners work hard to make Ligonier a destination for shoppers and visitors.

"We encourage people to come to our restaurants and shops" that include apparel, antiques and a bookstore, Ms. Mowrey said.

Perhaps the decorative centerpiece is The Bandstand -- a covered structure with a roof, much like a gazebo. At this time of year, it's festooned with white lights, as are trees in the Diamond district.

When the chamber asked for the donation of a live, 11-foot tree, that call was answered, too. Decorations and lights displayed by shop owners add to the Christmas spirit. Lights and decorations are staying up through Jan. 25 and 26, for the Ice Fest, which features more than 50 ice sculptures.

Information: visitligonier.com and ligonier.com


Yuletide In Sewickley is a long-standing holiday tradition, and a lot of time and effort goes into attracting visitors to the borough on the north shore of the Ohio River. Sewickley council and the business community -- 140 businesses and 14 restaurants -- work with Village Green Partners, a nonprofit organization that handles marketing and event planning throughout the year.

Beaver and Broad streets are festooned with red holiday banners and white lights in the street trees and storefronts are decorated in the borough's Village shopping district.

A Yuletide window-decorating contest attracted 20 contestants, and the winner was the House 15143, which featured a display with falling snow powered by an electric motor.

The snow "made from a kind of plastic has attracted a lot of positive comments from the public if not from our workers," said Danielle Franks, who co-owns the store with Kristin Bordeau. The snow doesn't fall full time, because after the fake flakes fall, employees have to return them to the snow-blowing machine.

The snow machine highlights glittery gold letters that spell "Peace" with gold trees and, of course, a display of gifts that can be purchased in the shop.

The numbers in the shop name are the ZIP code of Sewickley. The shop specializes in home decor and accents, including candles, custom art and "vintage finds," Ms. Franks said.

Information: sewickleyyuletide.com and vgpsewickley.com.

Mt. Lebanon

Christmas decorations aren't what they used to be in the Washington Road and Beverly Road business districts in Mt. Lebanon.

"We don't do a whole lot," said Susan Fleming Morgans, Mt. Lebanon's public information officer. Decorations and lights "are fairly expensive."

As a child growing up in Mt. Lebanon, she said she remembers looking forward to seeing decorations, including lights and banners stretched across Washington Road.

"There seems to be a safety factor" that prohibits towns from doing that now, Ms. Morgans said. "We do have a tree at Clearview Commons."

And what a tree it is -- a live blue spruce that is more than 20 feet tall. The tree, which stands along Washington Road near the municipal building, was donated by a resident.

Years ago, the family bought a live tree with roots and brought it into their house as a Christmas tree. After the holiday season they planted it in their front yard, where it grew to a massive height, obscuring any view of the house, with branches growing around power lines.

The family offered to donate it as the municipal Christmas tree this year, Ms. Morgans said. The offer would have been hollow without the donated services of two men to cut it down and a crane and a truck to move it.

Mt. Lebanon resident Tom Borza, owner of Dean Thomas Tree Service, donated the muscle and the equipment. The services he donated would have cost the family -- or Mt. Lebanon -- about $1,000, he estimated.

The tree is decorated with large ball-shaped ornaments and handmade ornaments from the elementary schools. The lights burn blue when turned on at night.

Some of the streetlight poles are wrapped in red and white, making them resemble candy canes. White snowflakes on the tops of poles light up at night. Three big wreaths decorate the front of the art deco-style municipal building.

Storefronts and windows decorated by Washington Road merchants add to the Christmas spirit, including the prancing white carousel horse in the window of Rossi e Rossi.


The city and merchants work together to give everyone a holly, jolly Christmas, along with some activities by private groups and nonprofits.

The kickoff to the season was the Downtown Holiday Parade on Nov. 23 -- a tradition since the 1980s. Steven Gifford, executive director of the Greensburg Community Development Corporation, said the nonprofit "promotes experiences that people can have in town."

The city installed "Happy Holiday" banners on 40-50 Victorian-style street lamps on Pennsylvania Avenue and Second Street. Merchants sponsored a cookie walk, open houses, horse and buggy rides and carolers. On Dec. 5 they decorated with luminaries -- bags filled with sand and candles.

The Academy Hill Historic District had a tour of homes, Laurel Ballet and Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra had a performance of "The Nutcracker" and volunteers staged a Nativity scene near the courthouse.


Residents like Christmas lights and decorations in the Beaver County town, said Monaca manager Mario Leone.

Lights on trees and utility poles can be seen on three blocks of Ninth Street and on the main street, Pennsylvania Avenue, from Ninth Street to 17th Street. There's even been talk of extending decorations to a wider area, Mr. Leone said. A 25-foot-tall artificial Christmas tree is at Washington Plaza.

The Christmas season has included horse and buggy rides, visits from Santa, a Dec. 7 Christmas parade and other holiday activities "that are very well attended," Mr. Leone said.

About three years ago Monaca switched to energy-saving and cost-saving LED lights, including green lights for Christmas on street poles.

A $15,000 grant from Duquesne Light Co. was used to install LED lights, including some that will be installed as "accent lighting" at the pump house, which he describes as a building that looks like a castle. Those lights can change colors to reflect holidays, including Christmas, July 4 and Halloween.

Linda Wilson Fuoco: lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-722-0087.

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