Parishioners at a church that lost eight children and two adults in the shootings in Newtown are being told to embrace the Christmas holiday.
The message came at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, where a standing room crowd attended Mass on Sunday morning. The priest told those gathered to be like the character Natalie Wood played in the film “Miracle on 34th Street,” who said, “It’s silly, but I believe.”
He said in the wake of the tragedy it is important to believe in Christmas and that God, like Santa Claus in the movie, will ultimately provide what he has promised — a life without death.
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…
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…
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.”
Shannon Doherty, who owns the Wishing Well Gift Shop blocks away from Sandy Hook school, said he usually sells a lot of ornaments this time of year, but now people are buying teddy bears for the shrine. After every sale, “I have to pick my wife up off the floor from crying,” Doherty said.
His children attended Sandy Hook elementary. His 12-year-old son Eamon’s best friend lost a brother, Jack Pinto, in the shooting. His landlord’s wife was a teacher there who survived. He and his wife have cried so much, that Dec. 14 “feels like a century ago,” he said.
He thought traffic to the shrine would slow down by the weekend, but instead it’s picked up with visitors from across Connecticut and nearby states.
“I think they’re starting to bring their Christmas presents,” Doherty said. “Someone put stockings on the bridge and people are filling them up.”
“We can’t lose Christmas too,” said Lisa Terifay, who has two children at Sandy Hook Elementary who survived. Her son is in first grade. “The class he sat next to at lunch,” she said through tears, “they’re all gone.”…
Others saw an immeasurable gift to the surviving schoolchildren and their families in the painstaking recreation of the Sandy Hook school at a previously mothballed school in the neighboring town of Monroe.
Hundreds of people were involved in the replication effort. Photographs of the old classrooms were used to determine wall paint colors, placement of bookshelves and cubby holes, and the configuration of desks for reassembly as exactly as possible to how they were before. If a box of crayons was left on a desk, it should be there when the students enter the new classrooms after the holiday break, Monroe First Selectman Stephen Vavrek said.
“A miracle,” he called the effort.
The holidays have been rough for the Newtown Police Department, which is why officers from across Connecticut joining forces, so that not a single Newtown officer has to work on Christmas Day. The plan has been kept on the down low for the past few days, since the various police departments are making the effort not for the press but as a gesture of solidarity with their fellow officers. After whispers of the touching gesture from local law enforcement emerged on Twitter over the weekend, however, the Newtown Police Department confirmed the news in an interview with The Atlantic Wire on Monday. “They’ve been actually non-stop with their aid. It’s pretty amazing,” said Newtown police spokesperson Sergeant Steve Santucci said of his fellow Connecticut officers. “And tomorrow, they’ll be at our assistance so that Newtown [officers] can be home with their families.”
But wait there’s more. One of the only perks about working on Christmas Day is overtime and holiday pay. Just as they’re not doing it for the press, though, many of the officers filling in at Newtown aren’t interested in the money, so they’re reportedly donating their paychecks to Newtown and Sandy Hill Elementary School charities.
Dennis Stratford, who works for the school district, happened to be making a delivery to Sandy Hook Elementary when the gunman attacked. He saw dead children. He saw the remains of dead children on those who survived. He waited agonizing minutes for his own child to emerge unharmed from the school. Two of his neighbors’ children did not.
“I go home and cry every night, and I cry every morning,” Stratford said.
He went to one counseling session, but the horrific images remain. What helps more is work: sorting through the warehouses full of gifts, delivering them where they need to go or doing whatever else needs to be done for his town.
“There were nine minutes of evil, and an infinity of goodness after that,” Stratford said, sitting on a forklift loaded with gifts. “This is therapy for me.”
Millions of dollars have poured into Newton in the aftermath of the tragedy. The United Way of Western Connecticut said the official fund for donations had $2.8 million in it on Saturday. Others sent envelopes stuffed with cash to pay for coffee at the general store, and a shipment of cupcakes arrived from a gourmet bakery in Beverly Hills, California.
The Postal Service reported a six-fold increase in mail in the town and set up a unique post office box to handle it. Some letters were addressed to the “First Responders” or just “The People of Newtown.” One card arrived from Georgia addressed to “The families of 6 amazing women and 20 beloved angels.” Many contained checks.
“This is just the proof of the love that’s in this country,” Postmaster Cathy Zieff said…
The basement of the town hall building resembled a toy store, with piles of stuffed animals, dolls, games, and other gifts. They all were inspected and examined by bomb-sniffing dogs. The children could choose whatever they wanted.
The town has been so inundated with donations for children that Pierce said she has redistributed some to other children dropping off their own notes and donations, saying that with their acts of kindness they too have qualified to be children of Newtown.
On Monday, she gave each of the children dropping off cards a golden stuffed monkey. She chose gold, she said, because it symbolizes a new dawn that everyone needs.
“At the same time we have this outpouring and we want to make sure we give respect for every phone call, every card, every gift, every flower, every kind word,” she said. “And so that’s one of the things that everyone in the community is trying to do is make sure while people are honoring us, that’s the big question, how do you say to the world ‘Thank you?'”