NEWTOWN, Conn. - Bells and lights and gifts: These have always shown us it's Christmastime. But this year, in this town, the bells toll in mourning. The brightest lights glare from TV satellite trucks. And gifts? Some around town suggest that presents and other rituals really ought to be put off in this joyless season.
Could anyone imagine celebrating Christmas under the pall that has spread here since the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary School?
The answer, somehow, is yes. The spirit of Christmas has pushed through, even here, where people are seeing lights and hearing bells in ways they never had before, and reminding themselves which gifts are truly most precious.
The outpouring of caring that followed the tragedy has been an especially treasured gift. The weekly Newtown Bee's special edition on the shootings gave two full pages to sympathetic, prayerful notes from across the U.S., from Britain, South Africa and many other places, including Norway, which lost 77 innocents in a massacre last year.
From Alberta, Canada, truck driver David Lenzi wrote of pulling off the road, overcome, when he heard of the tragedy. He sent condolences to the town, and added: "I have heard media reports of people taking down Christmas decorations. I request that this stop happening." Instead, he suggested, let Christmas be a celebration of the lives lost and "a beginning of ... healing."
Right after the shootings, many did choose to turn off lighting displays that had glowed with holiday joy in their yards since early December.
The row of light-up candy canes and strings of icicle lights at Jose Marin's house went dark, and the reindeer, snowman and circus train remained unlit for five days after the tragedy, which hit close to home. One of the children who died was on the same swim team as his daughter.
But words he heard at St. Rose of Lima Church helped convince Marin to turn the lights back on. "The priest said it was not fair to the other kids," he said.
And then his niece begged to see the twinkling display. She's just 3, too young, of course, to understand how horror could intrude on the holiday.
The lights became a theme for clergy; they spoke of light in darkness, noting the guiding star at the center of the Christmas story and the candles at the heart of Hanukkah.
Banks of candles glowed in each of the dozens of impromptu shrines around town, their light falling on teddy bears and other toys, symbolic gifts for the lost children, and on uncounted notes.
Yet if the tragedy's intrusion cannot be denied here, neither can Christmas.
Mike Zilinek, a 72-year-old retired deputy fire marshal who has lived in Newtown since 1946, choked up acknowledging the grief that "still comes in waves." Nonetheless, he can't wait for his sons and their families to arrive for Christmas.
"We're not giving up," he said. "We have to continue on."
There'll be 12 around his table, and thoughts about many more: "We'll have a prayer and a moment of silence."
"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."
How to grieve and still carry on?
"You feel so torn because you don't want to move on in your life and leave others behind," Terifay said. "We're not ever going to leave any of those families behind. They're our families forever."
Chrissy Hadgraft is also torn. Her son, who is in the U.S. Air Force in Germany, is coming home for Christmas to mourn and help his town heal. "I'm so happy to be seeing him but I feel so guilty because he gets to come home, and there's 20 houses, their kids aren't coming home, or their mother or the girlfriend or their sister," she said sobbing.
This year, she said, it was an effort just to pick up some stocking stuffers, but "you really need to push forward and go on."
And many say the stocking stuffers or other purchased things are not the real gifts anyway.
Donations, of course, are everywhere: bottled water dropped off at a firehouse ... pies baked with love ... songs sung by a gospel choir that came from Alabama.
At the Newtown General Store, owner Peter Leone acknowledged that "in many people's minds Christmas is not going to happen this year." And yet as gifts of every kind have flowed in -- among them cupcakes sent from Beverly Hills and a jeweler's pendants for victims' families -- people feel hints of the normal Christmas spirit. "It kind of pulls back that feeling of anguish."
Intangible gifts help in even deeper ways.
A group called Pets on Wheels left Maryland at 3 a.m. Friday to reach Newtown in time to bring their therapy dogs for the ringing of church bells exactly one week after the shootings. Standing in a cold rain just after the ceremony at town hall, holding the leash of Hero, a German Shepherd mix who was getting and giving lots of attention, volunteer Jennifer
Devorak said maybe the dogs' presence could offer "one moment of quiet" for those still hurting deeply.
"The gift is unconditional love," she said. "We like to call it `licking loneliness."'
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.
And a gift: Not of toys, but of comfort, surely.
While many holiday events were scaled back or called off, others went forward, if only because Christmas is for children.
Jean Sander, 72, was remembering the Christmas-decorated storefront windows of her father's bakery when she was a girl and an idea struck her about the Sandy Hook survivors. "I was trying to think," she said, "How can I help these children who are still with us, thank God?"
"They need their Christmas, in spite of all," she said.
From her father she developed a love of big, bright Christmas displays. He crafted papier mache mountains through which trains would steam, and children would press their noses against the bakery windows for a look. She, in turn, has collected whole villages of antique miniature houses, figures and tiny trees.
Any other year, it's just a charming display for her children and grandchildren; this year, she put up notices inviting any and all to stop in her house on Saturday for a look and for hot cocoa.
So, Christmas goes on here -- like always and like never before, with gifts, lights and bells.
During a silent night at last along Newtown's Main Street, where police sirens have halted traffic for so many funeral processions, Christmas Eve will turn into Christmas Day as 12 chimes tell the hour. But the familiar bells tolling from the town hall cupola will also say what they've always seemed to say to folks here -- that there can be order, that there can be peace, that this place can go on.
Contributing to this story were AP writers John Christofferson, Eileen Connelly, Pat Eaton-Robb and AP photographer Seth Wenig.