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The days leading up to Christmas are typically bustling in Newtown, Conn. But given the depth of grief in this community since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, preparations for the holiday began very late.
Local shopkeepers say Saturday was the first day many people came out for holiday shopping since the tragedy. Tamara Doherty, owner of the Wishing Well — a shop filled with local crafts, Christmas ornaments, pottery and potpourri — says her business is finally picking up.
She's offering shoppers free cookies in the shape of angels, which have become a symbol of the Newtown tragedy. All the people who wander in seem warm and open.
'Everything Is Magnified Now'
"It's been a friendlier atmosphere," Doherty says. "People ... just reaching out and hugging. It's not something that you would normally do."
Doherty says the shooting has brought people closer — but that it's still very difficult. "Everything is magnified now, because everybody is just so devastated still," she says.
Doherty's daughter, 13, and son, 10, are helping out in the shop, but the tragedy has been hard on them too. Their emotions — like those of so many others — are right on the surface. Doherty has to take a short break to comfort her daughter in the crowded shop, but soon the family is back to ringing up purchases and wrapping presents.
Down the road at the Newtown Youth Academy, it's a day just for kids. There are candy canes, teddy bears, hot dogs and a visit from Mr. and Mrs. Claus to help brighten spirits.
Volunteer Dan Puza heard about the Newtown shooting while he was in Singapore. He's come home this Christmas to be with relatives and to lend a hand.
"It's a tragedy," he says, "but it makes it kind of sweet to see everybody pull together and kind of act as a community during the holiday season."
A Flood Of Holiday Wishes
One need only visit the Newtown post office to grasp how the attack at Sandy Hook has affected people across the country and the world. The postal service has established a special P.O. box specifically for the greetings of support that have been flooding in since the shooting.
"People need to send something," says postmaster Cathy Zieff. "They need to know that they did something [and] the simplest way to do something is to send a card."
Zieff says four of the post office's wire containers, holding about 260 packages each, are filled in a single day. Letters and cards have poured in by the thousands. "It's tremendous, and it's from all over the country, all over the world," she says. "[From] Sicily, Italy. From England. From Hawaii [and] from every state in between."
Zieff says the callers who phone in to ask where they can send things are often crying. She has to comfort them, she says, and then she begins crying, too.
And then there's the toll on her colleagues, she notes.
"My employees, my staff, have watched these kids grow up," Zieff says. "They have pictures of them that the parents have given them. They're part of this community."
Of course, there's always more mail during this season, she says, and the packages are heavier. But that word, "heavier," reverberates with a very different meaning here this year.
Outside a local deli in Sandy Hook, Tim Byrn, originally from Dublin, says he plans to celebrate the holiday, despite the sadness.
"We have a fifth-grader, so yeah, we're going to celebrate it as best we can," Byrn says, wiping a tear from his eye. "Just hold our family close. We just go on."