NEWTOWN, Conn. – Newtown celebrated Christmas amid piles of snow-covered teddy bears, long lines of stockings and heaps of flowers as volunteers manned a 24-hour candlelight vigil in memory of the 20 children and six educators gunned down at an elementary school just 11 days before the holiday.
Well-wishers from around the country showed up Christmas morning to hang ornaments on a series of memorial Christmas trees while police officers from around the state took extra shifts to direct traffic, patrol the town and give police here a break.
“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.
The expansive memorials throughout town have become a gathering point for town residents and visitors alike. A steady stream of residents, some in pajamas, relit candles that had been extinguished in an overnight snow storm. Others took pictures, dropped off toys and fought back tears at a huge sidewalk memorial in the center of Newtown’s Sandy Hook section that is filled with stuffed animals, poems, flowers, posters and cards.
In the morning, Newtown resident Joanne Brunetti watched over 26 candles that had been lit at midnight in honor of those slain at Sandy Hook Elementary School. She and her husband, Bill, signed up for a three-hour shift and erected a tent to ensure that the candle flames never went out throughout the day.
“You have to do something and you don’t know what to do, you know? You really feel very helpless in this situation,” she said. “People have been wonderful to everybody in Newtown whether you were part of what happened or not. My thought is if we were all this nice to each other all the time maybe things like this wouldn’t happen.”
At a town hall memorial, Faith Leonard waved to people driving by and handed out Christmas cookies, children’s gifts and hugs to anyone who needed it.
“I guess my thought was if I could be here helping out, maybe one person would be able to spend more time with their family or grieve in the way they needed to,” said Leonard, who drove to Newtown from Gilbert, Ariz., to volunteer on Christmas morning alone. “I know they’ve been inundated with support and that’s great, but it’s always nice to have a present to open on Christmas day.”
Julian Revie played “Silent Night” on a piano on the sidewalk at the downtown memorial. Revie, from Ottawa, Canada, was in the area visiting at the time of the shootings. He canceled his plans to go to Australia, found a piano online and chose to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day playing for the people of Newtown.
“It was such a mood of respectful silence,” said Revie, who planned to leave the piano behind. “But yesterday being Christmas Eve and today being Christmas Day, I thought now it’s time for some Christmas carols for the children.”
Many town residents attended Christmas Eve services Monday evening and spent the morning at home with their families. Others attended church services in search of a new beginning.
At St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, which eight of the child victims of the massacre attended, the pastor told parishioners that “today is the day we begin everything all over again.”
Recalling the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, the Rev. Robert Weiss said: “The moment the first responder broke through the doors we knew good always overcomes evil.”
“We know Christmas in a way we never ever thought we would know it,” he said. “We need a little Christmas and we’ve been given it.”
Police have yet to offer a theory about a possible motive for gunman Adam Lanza’s rampage on Dec. 14. The 20-year-old Newtown man, who lived at home, killed his mother in her bed before carrying out the massacre at the elementary school, then killing himself.
Most businesses were closed for the holiday and the heavy traffic near memorials that has been ever present since the shootings largely disappeared for the day. Still, a steady stream of out-of-state vehicles passed by, with many passengers taking pictures of the memorials from their cars. Some stopped to get out and contribute to them.
Philadelphia resident Ed Sison brought his wife and 9-year-old son to Newtown on Tuesday while they were on their way to see family in Massachusetts. They decorated memorial trees with ornaments and beads, among other things.
“It’s an event that just touches us all. We have a young son and you know we all feel the pain,” he said.
Associated Press writer Debbi Morello contributed to this report.