NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) - 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.
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 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."