Newtown's Christmas: Inspiration amid the grief

Members of the Rutter family of Sandy Hook, Conn., embrace early Christmas morning as they stand near memorials by the Sandy Hook firehouse in Newtown, Conn.,Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012. People continue to visit memorials after gunman Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 14, and opened fire, killing 26, including 20 children, before killing himself. AP Photo/Craig Ruttle

NEWTOWN, Conn. Newtown observed Christmas amid snow-covered teddy bears, stockings, flowers and candles left in memory of the 20 children and six educators gunned down at an elementary school just 11 days before the holiday.

Volunteers were keeping watch over a candlelight vigil scheduled to last all Christmas day in the Connecticut town.

Twenty-six candles, one for each victim, were lit at midnight Monday near a huge sidewalk memorial filled with teddy bears, flowers, candles, posters and other tributes to the dead.

Volunteers were taking three-hour shifts Tuesday to ensure they remain burning.

Police officers from other communities were filling in for Newtown police so they could have the holiday off.

"It's a nice thing that they can use us this way," Ted Latiak, a police detective from Greenwich, Conn., said Christmas morning, as he and a fellow detective, each working a half-day shift, came out of a store with bagels and coffee for other officers.

And well-wishers from around the country continued visiting the town to pay their respects.

At Christmas morning services, congregants were told that good always overcomes evil.

The pastor of a church in Newtown, Conn., that was attended by eight of the child victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting told parishioners that this Christmas Day "is the day we begin everything all over again."

The Rev. Robert Weiss spoke at the second of four Masses at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church.

Recalling the events of eleven days ago, Weiss said, "The moment the first responder broke through the doors, we knew good always overcomes evil."

Today, he says, "We know Christmas in a way we never ever thought we would know it."

The outpouring of support for this community was evident on Christmas Eve, with visitors arriving at town hall with offerings of cards, handmade snowflakes and sympathy.

"We know that they'll feel loved. They'll feel that somebody actually cares," said Treyvon Smalls, a 15-year-old from a few towns away who arrived bearing hundreds of cards and paper snowflakes collected from around the state.

An overflow crowd of several hundred people attended Christmas Eve services at Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown. They were greeted by the sounds of a children's choir, in a sanctuary hall decorated with green wreaths and red bows.

The Trinity Church program said flowers were donated in honor of Sandy Hook shooting victims, identified by name or as the "school angels" and "Sandy Hook families."

The service, which generally took on a celebratory tone, made only a few vague references to the shooting. Pastor Kathie Adams-Shepherd led the congregation in praying "that the joy and consolation of the wonderful counselor might enliven all who are touched by illness, danger, or grief, especially all those families affected by the shootings in Sandy Hook."

Police say the gunman, Adam Lanza, killed his mother in her bed before his Dec. 14 rampage and committed suicide as he heard officers arriving. Authorities have yet to give a theory about his motive.

While the grief is still fresh, some residents are urging political activism. A group called Newtown United has been meeting at the library to talk about issues ranging from gun control, to increasing mental health services to the types of memorials that could be erected for the victims. Some clergy members have said they also intend to push for change.

"We seek not to be the town of tragedy," said Rabbi Shaul Praver of Congregation Adath Israel. "But, we seek to be the town where all the great changes started."

Since the shooting, messages similar to the ones delivered Monday have arrived from around the world. People have donated toys, books, money and more. A United Way fund, one of many, has collected $3 million. People have given nearly $500,000 to a memorial scholarship fund at the University of Connecticut.

In the center of Newtown's Sandy Hook section Monday, a steady stream of residents and out-of-towners snapped pictures, lit candles and dropped off children's gifts at an expansive memorial filled with stuffed animals, poems, flowers, posters and cards.

"All the families who lost those little kids, Christmas will never be the same," said Philippe Poncet, a Newtown resident originally from France. "Everybody across the world is trying to share the tragedy with our community here."

Richard Scinto, a deacon at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, said the church's pastor, Rev. Robert Weiss, used several eulogies this week to tell his congregation to get angry and take action against what some consider is a culture of gun violence in the country.

Praver and Scinto said they are not opposed to hunting or to having police in schools, but both said something must be done to change what has become a culture of violence in the United States.

"These were his mother's guns," Scinto said. "Why would anyone want an assault rifle as part of a private citizen collection?"

A mediator who worked with Lanza's parents during their divorce has said Lanza, 20, was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, an autism-like disorder that is not associated with violence. It is not known whether he had other mental health issues. The guns used in the shooting had been purchased legally by his mother, Nancy Lanza, a gun enthusiast.

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