Timely arrival of snow cannot lift America's gloom

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The Independent US

Even Mother Nature seemed to be conspiring against the United States this year, with temperatures in the balmy teens across even the upper midwest until the weekend. But yesterday she relented and cities from Detroit to Buffalo had a white Christmas after all.

Even Mother Nature seemed to be conspiring against the United States this year, with temperatures in the balmy teens across even the upper midwest until the weekend. But yesterday she relented and cities from Detroit to Buffalo had a white Christmas after all.

Snowflakes were not enough to lift the spirits of a nation feeling more disoriented than joyful. In New York, which bore the brunt of the 11 September attacks, the mood was especially melancholy. The good news, a television commentator noted, was that New York was having Christmas – never mind the merry.

President George Bush acknowledged the lingering sadness in his radio address yesterday. "This Christmas finds many facing hurt and loss, especially the families of terror victims and of our young men killed in battle. America grieves with you, and we hope you'll especially find the comfort and hope of Christmas."

The suburbs of New York City – in New Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut – were where the most gut-wrenching stories could be found, in the homes of those who lost husbands, wives or children in the twin towers. Their families were struggling to get through the holiday without them.

Ginny Bauer, 45, of Rumson, New Jersey, would normally have served turkey for 25 people yesterday, but this year couldn't face it without her husband of 21 years, David. He was among the victims in the World Trade Centre. Instead Mrs Bauer and her three children spent the day with a cousin.

"My kids understand that we are just going to be very quiet this year," she said, acknowledging that she hadn't been able to bring herself to buy presents. "It's hard. You can't pretend to feel a certain way. I don't feel too thankful today."

Alan Wolfelt, a psychologist who has written more than 20 books on grief, said: "This is like yesterday. They're still in shock." He said victims' families could not relate to the festive mood because they were still deep in mourning.

Rudolph Giuliani, who will surrender his post as New York Mayor to Michael Bloomberg on New Year's Day, tried to make the most of the Olympic Torch arriving in the city to lift the atmosphere. In a ceremony on Sunday, the torch was used to light a cauldron at the Rockefeller ice rink.

Holding the torch before a crowd of thousands, the Mayor honoured America's new heroes – the firemen and police officers who rescued thousands on 11 September. "I carry this flame as the representative of all those wonderful people." The cauldron will burn until today, when the torch will head for Connecticut and Rhode Island on its 65-day, 13,500-mile journey to the February Olympics in Salt Lake City.

The pavement around the Rockefeller Centre had seethed in the final days before Christmas as shoppers and tourists flocked to see the giant Christmas tree there. And it was a similar story at Radio City Music Hall and the windows at Saks Fifth Avenue.

A sales assistant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Store said: "It has been overwhelming. We didn't hire enough people because we weren't expecting this."

But early data from across the country suggests the last-minute burst of Christmas shopping that retailers were praying for – and which the faltering American economy desperately needed – did not materialise. Despite huge discounts and other inducements, many shoppers apparently kept their wallets closed.

Jeffrey Feiner, a retail analyst with Lehman Brothers, said it was the worst Christmas in a decade. Mr Feiner said profit margins, already thin, could be down by as much as 10 per cent. The shopping slump can be traced, of course, to the terrorist attacks and the suddenly dismal economic conditions blanketing America. But Mother Nature bears some blame, too. Sales of everything that is vaguely seasonal – from snow shovels to jumpers – have been barely visible.

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