Laura Gama

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil— A mighty wind has felled the world’s largest floating Christmas tree, putting a damper on Rio de Janeiro's yuletide cheer just when Brazilians were hoping for a holiday pick-me-up amid the country's worst economic recession in nearly a century.

A week before the 280-foot metallic tree was scheduled to be lit on a barge in Rio’s lagoon, an 85-mph gust snapped the 542-ton structure in half and delayed the annual lighting ceremony by nearly a month.

The world's tallest (formerly) Christmas tree is now a twist of metal wreckage
Laura Gama

While hundreds of workers are now toiling 'round-the-clock to rebuild the Guinness World Record-setting floating Christmas tree, thousands of Cariocas (as Rio’s residents are known) have joined a sarcastic Facebook campaign suggesting that the twisted tree is perhaps a better symbol of Brazil's mood during a slumping economy that's expected to contract by 3% this year and another 2% in 2016.

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“The economy fell, and then the tree fell,” quipped Jorge Taveres, manager of a Zona Sul supermarket in the neighborhood of Ipanema, just a few miles from the slumped tree.

From Rio’s giant floating tree to the fake evergreens and oversized bulb ornaments hanging in stores throughout Brazil, Christmas decorations are considered essential for sparking the holiday shopping season, explained Tavares. “We start to incentivize the Christmas sales in November,” he said, holding up a Christmas-themed poinsettia. “You start selling the Christmas experience.”

Olympic, Christmas bears symbolize…well, the Olympics and Christmas
Laura Gama

But Tavares didn’t need to point any further than his own store aisles for evidence of how the recession in pinching pocketbooks, with higher-priced foods such as prime beef and bacalhau lingering on shelves while shoppers turn to cheaper meat substitutes like chicken. He said Brazilians are saving up their year-end bonuses to brace against inflation, which is already running above 10%. Many fear inflation could again run rampant in the New Year, like it did in the 1990s, when it topped 5,000%.

That’s certainly the case for Marcia Derani, 46, a married mother with two kids. “I’m choosing more what to buy and what not to buy,” she said, adding that her family has decided to exchange a single Christmas gift this year as a Secret Santa party. “It’s cheaper to just buy one gift."

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The economic forecast is dramatically less optimistic than it was several years ago, when GDP was growing around 4% annually and more than 50 million Brazilians were lifted out of poverty. As the economy grew, so too did Rio’s famed Christmas tree—to more than twice its original height to claim the world title. This year’s tree included 3.3 million bulbs (up 200,000 from last year), 140 kilometers of illuminated hoses (120 kilometers longer than last year), and a bright red star meant to signify the Olympic Games that Rio will host in August.

Now it all sits in an impressive heap of junk.

Crews scramble to restore felled Christmas tree to its former glory before the holiday season ends
Laura Gama

During a recent visit to wreckage, three huge cranes hauled away huge pieces of metal as some 400 workers scrambled to disentangle the twisted mess to get get the tree rebuilt in time for the new Dec. 19 lighting ceremony. Manager of operations Ricardo Faria says the wreck was due to a freak cyclone that ripped the tree away from its dock. He says the problem won't repeat once the barge was floating in the middle of the lagoon and the structure can sway in the wind.

All the activity served to underscore one of the only sectors of Brazil's economy that's faring well in today’s economy: crisis managers. That includes bankruptcy lawyers like Sergio Savi, who Fusion found a few blocks away at the upscale mall Shopping Leblon, where he’d brought his two children to see Santa Claus—a rare sighting this year as stores cutback on Santas, even as a surge in unemployment means more bearded Brazilians have sought to moonlight as Saint Nick.

Merchants fear that a slumping economy will mean less Christmas sales this holiday season
Laura Gama

Business is so good for Savi that he says he plans to take his family to South Africa for a post-Christmas safari vacation, a trip that's essentially being funded by the record-high number of bankruptcy requests filed in Brazil this year.

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“When things go bad in the economy, people tend to litigate more,” Savi explained outside Santa’s cottage as Christmas music played over the mall’s loudspeakers. “For me, the crisis is good.”

Stephen Kurczy, a Brazil correspondent, has reported from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the jungles of the Amazon. Somewhere along the way he became addicted to açaí, a purple slushy made from the powerfruit.