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The economy hits home: This Christmas, cheap is good, free is better

POSTED: December 26, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Scott's on the Square hostess Deanna Nelson prepares the restaurant's street billboard Thursday evening during the last night of the annual Downtown by Candlelight celebration around the Gainesville square.

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As he listened to the Christmas wishes of children who joined him for a carriage ride around Gainesville’s downtown square Thursday evening, Santa Claus did not seem fazed by the troubles of the economy.

Even during dark financial times, the fat man in the red suit has a job to do.

"Continue to be good," he told 6-year-old Megan Hayes at the end of a ride.

Hayes, doll in tow, had asked Old St. Nick for a sun catcher to put on her window.

Hayes and the other kids who came to see Santa Claus at Main Street Gainesville’s Downtown by Candlelight likely did not know anything about failing stock markets or industry bailouts. But some of their parents said that because of the recession, Christmas spending might be downsized this year.

The economy has forced Oakwood resident Donna Watkins to shift the focus of Christmas this year.

She said her family, attending Downtown by Candlelight for the third time, would be celebrating Christmas with all the same traditions, but that family time will take precedence over gifts this year.

"We’re just celebrating more being together than the materialistic things," Watkins said.

Attending the annual Downtown by Candlelight was a recession-proof tradition for local families. The event was free — families were not forced to dig in their pockets to pay for a cup of hot chocolate from Scott Dixon, owner of Scott’s on the Square, or hear the songs of carolers — and Santa Claus drew his own crowd.

But maintaining attendance to a Christmas attraction that charges admission required a little ingenuity at Lake Lanier Islands this year.

Grier Todd, chief operating officer at Lake Lanier Islands, said that this year’s attendance to the resort’s annual Nights of Lights attraction has not grown over last year’s, but it is not suffering, either.

Todd attributes the steady attendance to Nights of Lights to the resort’s proactive approach to this year’s especially fragile holiday season.

The resort has been offering specials that allow visitors to come see the attraction for $10 less on weekdays. And Todd says there are a lot of coupons available that offer discounts.

"The show’s kind of a tradition with people, and we wanted to do our part to make sure people could continue the tradition," Todd said.

It probably does not hurt that Lake Lanier Islands charges its visitors by vehicle, and other area attractions charge per person, Todd said.

Tickets to Callaway Gardens’ Fantasy in Lights range from $8 to $22 per person. Admission to Stone Mountain’s Christmas event can range from $17 to $20, according to each park’s Web site.

Lake Lanier Islands charges $30 per vehicle, Todd said.

"As many as you can stuff in a car you can bring into ours," Todd said. "It’s a real deal compared to the other shows."


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