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Newtown is 'not going to miss Christmas'

Locals in mourning after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School won't let the holiday be hijacked. But some are finding it hard to get into the spirit.

December 22, 2012|By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times
  • A woman spends a moment in front of several Christmas trees that have been turned into a makeshift memorial for the Sandy Hook shooting victims.
A woman spends a moment in front of several Christmas trees that have been… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

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," said the town historian, Daniel Cruson.

"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 Sherman Oaks 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.

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