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October 18, 2017

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Despite tragedy, Christmas spirit lives on in Newtown


Julio Cortez / AP

A Christmas tree, right, is surrounded by makeshift memorials that are multiplying by the day in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Conn., the site of a shooting massacre last week, Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012.

Christmas for Newtown

Christmas stockings with the names of shooting victims hang from railing near a makeshift memorial near the town Christmas tree in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Conn., Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012. Launch slideshow »

NEWTOWN, Conn. — Christmas is everywhere here, yet Christmas is nowhere.

The official town Christmas tree sparkles with lights as it stands stoic and beautiful in a pasture, facing a cemetery dotted with new graves. Wreaths with festive red ribbons seem to grace every door, even of the churches that have held so many funerals. Candles glow in the windows of warmly lighted homes, including those whose occupants are in mourning.

The question is obvious: How can a town celebrate a holiday so linked to children and joy when both are missing?

“Enjoy it with family,” town historian Daniel Cruson said.

“Keep up the traditions from the past,” said Phil Keane, a Newtown dad who planned to do just that: bake a gingerbread house from scratch with his wife and three children.

“Remind people they’re not alone,” said Heather Gunn-Rivera, who grew up here. Her mother teaches at the shattered Sandy Hook Elementary School, and Gunn-Rivera has opened a “healing center” for people to be together through the holiday.

“We need Christmas now more than ever,” said Carrie Swan, standing in her Christmas store surrounded by ornaments, stocking-stuffers, and glowing baubles destined for small gift boxes. “The parents need it more than ever. The children need it more than ever.”

Indeed, say locals, who note that Newtown — particularly its youngest citizens — have been robbed of too many holidays lately.

Last year, a blizzard derailed the annual Halloween festivities that bring hundreds of trick-or-treaters onto Main Street. This year, Superstorm Sandy also ruined Halloween. And then came the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre Dec. 14, when a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six employees. The tragedy seemed sure to steal Christmas from a town that for generations has embraced it with caroling, tree-lighting ceremonies, pageants and a pancake breakfast.

But as the holiday approaches, small miracles have begun appearing, lending credence to the idea that Christmas will go on, even as the town copes with unprecedented heartbreak.

On a cold, windy afternoon, women set up tables laden with freshly baked pies in front of the Edmond Town Hall and passed out free slices. Passersby stopped, smiled and chatted with strangers as they dug into the unexpected treats. Therapy dogs — 180-pound Great Danes, glossy golden retrievers and tiny dachshunds — strolled the sidewalks with their owners, stopping patiently to be petted and hugged by adults and children.

The Edmond Town Hall theater, a monument to the days of richly upholstered seats, brocade curtains and balconies, opened its doors for evening showings of holiday movies. First up: “Arthur Christmas,” an animated film about a scramble to deliver a missing gift.

It’s a comedy, proof that laughter still exists in Newtown.

“Even grieving people don’t want the world changed for them,” said Russell Friedman of the Grief Recovery Institute, a Los Angeles nonprofit organization that studies grief and advises individuals and communities how to deal with loss.

Friedman said the timing of the shooting so close to Christmas would make the holiday harder to endure. His mother died the night before Thanksgiving 19 years ago, and the memory still pains him. That year, as he saw other people scurrying to holiday feasts and celebrating the day, Friedman was dumbfounded. “Didn’t these people know my mother had just died?!” he remembers thinking.

No doubt, many in Newtown will feel the same way. “It won’t have the same tone it would have had last year,” Friedman said of Christmas. “But to stop and cancel the world because of this would be a big error. It wouldn’t help the grievers. It wouldn’t help the people around them.”

With that in mind, people from near and far have come forward to make sure Christmas lives on here. Friends and family of one of the Sandy Hook victims, school psychologist Mary Sherlach, sponsored a gingerbread-house-making session at the library; the Christmas Village in Torrington, about 35 miles away, invited Newtown families for a special visit with Santa Claus; the Greenwich Fire Department said it would treat people to free ice cream and yogurt at a Newtown ice cream shop.

“We want the town of Newtown to remember this Christmas season for the thousands of acts of kindness, not the singular act of madness,” one of the Greenwich volunteers, Stanley Thal, told the Newtown Bee, which has been tweeting a running list of such gestures - including toy giveaways, magic shows and free visits to local attractions.

Everyone agreed that it wouldn’t be easy, not this year and not for many years to come, and reminders of the tragedy are everywhere. As people ate their free pie outside Town Hall, another funeral procession passed, bringing the happy moment to a temporary halt. A huge Christmas tree in the heart of Sandy Hook is covered with decorations, but many carry the names of victims. Small children gaze in wonder at the toys, cards and candles heaped beneath the tree, too young to realize they are gazing at a memorial, as the adults holding their hands fight back tears.

And then there’s the official town Christmas tree, which nobody can visit without passing the Village Cemetery, where so many victims have been laid to rest.

Cruson is waiting for the day he can write or talk about Dec. 14 without getting tears in his eyes. Tom Mahoney, a lifelong Newtowner who manages the Town Hall theater, and who made the decision to reopen it a week after the shooting, admitted that he didn’t feel much like decorating his house with lights and ornaments.

“It doesn’t really feel much like Christmas anymore,” Mahoney said.

But on the Friday night before Christmas, hours after the town observed a moment of silence and the church bells rang 26 times to remember the victims, the smell of popcorn filled the Town Hall lobby, and children settled into the theater’s seats to watch a movie.

“They’ve been robbed of Halloween. They’ve lost their friends,” said Joe Tarshis, a Newtown resident. “They’re not going to miss Christmas.”

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