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Newtown celebrates Christmas amid grief

5:18 AM, Dec 24, 2012   |    comments
(Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images)
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NEWTOWN, Conn. -- Twenty-six candles and 26 paper angels with names of murdered children and school workers adorn the bay window at Sotheby's International Realty here, adding a tragic note to common Christmas decorations.

All around Newtown, residents coping with grief over the Dec. 14 slayings at Sandy Hook Elementary School are struggling to celebrate a holiday of joy and rebirth while honoring the slain victims and their families.

Along the hilly streets of this New England town, wreaths are visible here and there, hanging on doors, fences and window shutters. The eaves of some homes are draped with white lights that hang like icicles, but residents say that since the shooting, many Christmas lights have remained unlit.

Jose Marin, 45, a waiter who immigrated from Ecuador, said he shut off his lights and almost took down the display of candy canes, wire reindeer and Santa on a rocking chair spread across his front lawn "because it's not right to be happy with what happened."

At Sunday noon Mass, though, he recalls the priest saying that Christmas should be celebrated for the children who live -- and those who died.

"The priest said the kids who died -- if they were alive -- they would want to see the lights, and the kids who are alive want to see them too," Marin said.

So Marin changed his bulbs to purple, the color of grief in his native Ecuador.

Signs of Christmas among the old Victorian homes that line Main Street in downtown Newtown are muted, several residents said.

"The whole downtown is usually lit up," said Norman Lajoie, 52, who lived in Newtown from birth until eight years ago and still considers himself a Newtown native. He stood in front of Edmond Town Hall smoking cigars with his friend since kindergarten, Buddy Holland. "It's really down now."

Holland said many of his friends in town don't know how to enjoy Christmas in the midst of such tragedy. "They're afraid of celebrating while other people are grieving and mourning," Holland said.

Closer to the site of the killing, on a hillside approaching Sandy Hook school, a man and woman holding hands approach a makeshift memorial. Balloons adorn 27 cardboard angels, one for each person killed at the school and the shooter's mother. The balloon colors -- red, blue, green, orange, pink -- were each a favorite of the children who died.

Candles arranged in the shape of hearts surround two EMT patches from the New Jersey Department of Health and the Ironclad Ambulance Squad from Newark, N.J. Nearby, a Bible and a teddy bear nestle among flowers. The woman places a bouquet of flowers near the candles. The couple stand for a while and leave without having said a word.

Down the hill, in the borough of Sandy Hook, the village Christmas tree shines with the usual colorful lights and ornaments, except the ornaments are named for murdered children. The ground around it is covered with hundreds of teddy bears and more candles.

Sprinkled with notes and angels, the shrine spreads around the corner, along the bridge where someone hung Christmas stockings for the children, and across the street, where messages of love and hope from across a grieving nation have been attached to every vertical surface.

Even after dark, tractor trailers occasionally rumble up Church Hill Road, delivering furnishings and school supplies from the site of the slaughter to Sandy Hook's temporary new school, which will open after the holiday in the nearby town of Monroe.

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."

By Thursday, Doherty still hadn't gotten a tree for his home, so his son Eamon went out with a battery powered saw and cut one down himself and put it in his room.

"Now I'll have to get one," Doherty said.

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