By Gina Cherelus
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The cash-strapped Pennsylvania city that was ridiculed and then praised in 2014 for its scrawny "Charlie Brown Christmas" tree has decided to go artificial this year, gracing its town square with a brightly lit, factory-made model that will last for years.
Reading Mayor Wally Scott agreed to erect a donated 34-foot synthetic tree rather than take another chance on the imperfections of nature. With luck, it will last up to 20 years.
"I like the idea and I saw the tree and I fell in love with the artificial tree," said Scott, who presides over one of the poorest cities in the United States. "It will always guarantee that Reading will have a beautiful tree."
In 2014, employees of Reading's public works department had planned to obtain a tree from a local farm. But they instead chopped down a raggedy, 45-foot Norway spruce from a local ball field and erected it in a downtown square.
The humble, lopsided tree immediately attracted unflattering international attention and brought a torrent of derision on social media.
But the city, about 60 miles west of Philadelphia, turned the tables on its detractors. It decorated the tree with a single red bulb, reminiscent of scenes from the animated holiday classic "A Charlie Brown Christmas," and was congratulated for embracing the true spirit of Christmas.
Money is tight in Reading, which has a higher percentage of its population living below the poverty level than any other city in the United States, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data.
The city, which has about 100,000 residents, accepted a donated 25-foot-tall natural tree last year, according to the Reading Eagle newspaper.
The artificial tree will have 1,250 ornaments, more than 1,900 lights and three-dimensional stars draped over its plastic branches. The city is receiving more than $20,000 in donations to help pay the bill.
The newly elected mayor said that as a private citizen he loved the charming 2014 "Charlie Brown" tree and plans on commemorating it this year.
"Somewhere in one of our parks, we've decided we're gonna light up a random tree to represent the 'Charlie Brown' tree," Scott said.
(Reporting by Gina Cherelus; Editing by Andrew Hay)