Romans decry "mangy", city's threadbare Christmas tree, as symbol of decline

By Philip Pullella

ROME (Reuters) - Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree. How mangy are your branches! That could be Rome's version of the classic Christmas carol, which speaks instead of branches, lovely and steadfast.

Romans are up in arms over the tree that has been dubbed "Spelacchio". Roughly translated as mangy or baldy, the name given to the tree in the capital's Piazza Venezia has become a symbol of what many see as the eternal city's eternal decay.

"It's a disgrace. It hurts even to look at this Christmas tree," one Roman resident told Reuters Television, using an Italian term suggesting that it looked like a plucked chicken.

"How can they have put it in Rome, a capital city like Rome," said the woman, who declined to give her name.

Some have even likened "Spelacchio" to a toilet brush.

Many Romans on social media have pointed a finger at Mayor Virginia Raggi, a leading light in the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, who has been getting negative seasons greetings because of the dire state of the city.

Raggi has tried to shrug off the uproar, saying the tree had been decorated in a "simple and refined" fashion.

Rome has fallen into disrepair and degradation in recent years, with streets full of pot holes, piles of garbage and unkempt public gardens where weeds grow as tall as a person.

Even Pope Francis has decried the decay.

Any hope that this year's 20-metre (65-ft)-high tree could bring some Christmas cheer faded quickly.

"It is clearly dead and it represents a shameful spectacle for citizens and tourists," said the consumers' group Codacons.

Codacons called for investigation into why nearly 50,000 euros ($60,000) was spent to transport the sickly tree to Rome from a forest near the Austrian border 700 km (430 miles) away.

"The one at the Vatican is much better. They should swap them," said Francois Mallet, a tourist from France.

Romans pointedly enviously to the fine Christmas tree put up in the heart of the northern city of Milan, seeing it as another sign of how the Italian financial capital has overtaken the nation's official capital in terms of wealth and prestige.

The saga of "Spelacchio" has taken off on social media, with its own hashtag and handle on Twitter.

"Farewell @spelacchio," tweeted Duccio Zanaboni. "It was nice while it lasted. It's a shame it didn't last long. RIP"

($1 = 0.8460 euros)

(Additional reporting by Antonio Denti; Writing by Philip Pullella; Editing by Crispian Balmer)