Christmas has helped the grieving Connecticut town of Newtown cope a little better with the shooting tragedy earlier this month, and allowed some people to finally smile.
Though more somber than a typical Christmas, the holiday has given Newtown a respite from the mourning. All the funerals for the victims have concluded.
"We're getting through this with our faith and our prayer. People are smiling a little more now,'' said John Barry, owner of an information technology staffing company. "The week was so horrible. Now it's time to celebrate Christmas.''
This largely Christian town was shaken on the morning of December 14, when a 20-year-old gunman armed with a military-style assault rifle shot dead 20 children aged six and seven and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.
Little is known about the shooter, Adam Lanza, who also killed his mother before the rampage and later himself to create a death toll of 28 in a tragedy that has revitalized the debate over U.S. gun control laws.
The sadness has moved some to act. Makeshift monuments to the dead have popped up all over town, funds have been raised, and many visitors have made a pilgrimage to Newtown, offering support.
Husband and wife Dan and Michelle McAloon of Newtown decided to go Christmas caroling this year for the first time, gathering other families and children to roam a neighborhood where the families of three victims live.
"We were just spreading some cheer, trying to make the situation a little better,'' Michelle McAloon said. "They all smiled, and they all cried a little,'' she said of the victims' families.
"Everybody said we are doing it again next year,'' Dan McAloon said of the carolers. "It's going to become a tradition.'' The McAloons and Barry were among those in an overflow crowd who attended Christmas Eve Mass on Monday night at Saint Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, which held its biggest service at the high school auditorium.
Nine families from the parish lost someone in the shooting and at least four of those families came to the big Christmas Eve Mass, Monsignor Robert Weiss said.
"Everything is just a lot more somber. Some people are just going through the motions because it's Christmas. Others are trying to make it special,'' Weiss said after the service. "There is reason to celebrate. Hopefully when people start to see their extended families, or people from outside of Newtown, or even go out of town, they will be able to. You can't get away from it in this town,'' he said.
Christmas Eve Mass featured a pageant that told the Christian story of Jesus' birth. One of the more poignant moments came when people applauded a group of two dozen little girls dressed as angels. They all knew shooting victim Olivia Engel, 6, was supposed to be among them.
"I highly recommend that before you rip open those gifts, say a prayer for those children,'' Weiss told parishioners. "Then give your own children a hug.''
Members of the Rutter family embrace early Christmas morning as they stand near memorials by the Sandy Hook firehouse in Newtown, Connecticut, December 25, 2012.
A man touches the snow covered grave of six-year-old Ana Grace Marquez-Greene, one of 20 schoolchildren killed in the December 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, at the Newtown Village Cemetery, Connecticut, December 25, 2012.
Officials including Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy observe a moment of silence on the steps of Edmond Town Hall while bells ring 26 times in Newtown, Connecticut, December 21, 2012.
Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy, center, stands with other officials to observe a moment of silence in Newtown, December 21, 2012.
Ben Toby of Sandy Hook visits a memorial to the Newtown shooting victims during a heavy rain in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Connecticut, December 21, 2012.
Jeanne Walker walks through an overflowing memorial to the shooting victims, Newtown, Connecticut, December 20, 2012.
A portrait of Benjamin Andrew Wheeler, one of the students killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, stands outside of Trinity Episcopal Church before his funeral service, Newton, Connecticut, December 20, 2012.
Boy Scouts of America carry flags as they walk toward Trinity Episcopal Church before funeral services for Benjamin Andrew Wheeler, Newton, Connecticut, December 20, 2012.
A long line stretches down the block in front of the First Congregational Church before a memorial service for Lauren Rousseau in Danbury, Connecticut, December 20, 2012.
A police officer stands outside as a service begins for teacher Anne Marie Murphy at the St. Mary Of The Assumption Church in Katonah, New York, December 20, 2012.
Firefighters salute as a hearse passes for the funeral procession to the burial of 7-year-old Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victim Daniel Gerard Barden, Newtown, Connecticut, December 19, 2012.