Residents of Sandy Hook, Conn., gather every year under an enormous tree in the middle of town to sing carols and light the tree. The tree is lit this year, too, but the scene beneath it is starkly different.
The tree looms over hundreds of teddy bears and toys, but they are for children who will never receive them. The ornaments are adorned with names and jarringly recent birth dates.
Wreaths with pine cones and white ribbons hang near the tree, one each for a life lost. A small statue of an angel child sleeps among a sea of candles.
A steady flow of well-wishers, young and old, tearfully comes to cry, pray, light candles, leave gifts and share hugs and stories.
The Christmas season is a normally joyful time for this tight-knit village, but in the wake of a shooting rampage, holiday decorations have given way this year to memorial signs. And instead of cars with Christmas trees on top, there are media vans with satellites.
Connie Koch has lived in Newtown for nine years. She lives directly behind Sandy Hook Elementary School, where Adam Lanza, 20, killed 20 children and six adults before turning the gun on himself. Earlier that Friday morning, he had also killed his mother at home.
Koch said the shocked town, which includes the Village of Sandy Hook, is experiencing a notably different Christmas this year.
"It's more somber, much more time spent in prayer for our victims' families and our friends that have lost loved ones," she said as she stood near the base of the tree.
Her family has been touched by the tragedy is multiple ways.
"My daughter, she lost her child that she babysat for for six years," she said, holding back tears. "And for her friend who lost her mother. And for my dear friend who lost one of her friends in the school, one of the aides.
"It's hard. And there will be much prayer on Christmas morning for these people, for our community."
Koch said her community always rallies in the face of tragedy, but the term "hits close to home" resonates this time more than ever before. She says the only way to make it through is one day at a time.
"It's all you can do, one hour at a time," Koch said. "For me, I don't even want to wake up in the morning because I don't want to have to face it again. You feel like it's still just a dream and with the funerals starting, it's becoming more real. It's becoming more final."
Another Newtown parent, Adam Zuckerman, stood by the makeshift memorial with a roll of red heart stickers with the words, "In Our" above a drawing of the Sandy Hook Elementary School welcome sign. He was selling the stickers to collect money for a Sandy Hook victims' fund.
"It's a lot," he said of the events of the past few days. "We don't know how it's going to affect our community, but I feel very strongly that I needed to do something to keep it positive, to keep this community positive."
Zuckerman's 20-year-old stepdaughter came home from college for winter break the night before the shooting. As a high school student, she worked in one of the town's popular toy stores.
"She knew a lot of the kids," he said of his daughter. "Their parents brought them in over the years. We have other friends who have lost family here and good friends who are dear friends with the principal of the school. … It's pretty rough."
As far as the holidays, Zuckerman said, "Everybody I know is spending time with friends, spending time with family and just staying connected and staying positive."
Well-wishers have come from all across the country and the world to visit this town and to visit the memorial that has grown beneath the tree.
A choir group from Alabama -- part of the National Association for the Prevention of Starvation -- stood beside the tree singing a mixture of Christmas carols and songs of comfort like, "Lean on Me."
Group members were at their annual fundraising event in Florida when they heard about the shooting.
"When we heard the news on Friday, our hearts sunk, of course, and we decided to come up on Saturday night," Adrian Roll, spokesman for the choir, said. "We drove all night. It took us about 20 plus hours to get here."
"When we got here, it was just an eerie type feeling," he said. "It hurt a whole lot to see that so many young children had lost their lives. But one thing that was comforting was to see how many people came together for the sake of the families and the people that were affected by it."
There is one Christmas gift the choir wishes to give: hope.
"The hope is to instill hope into everyone who's affected, not just here in Sandy Hook, but people across the country, across the world," Roll said. "I've seen people from Canada, France and other places coming here for this same reason."
For Koch, the nine-year Newtown resident, the prayers and well wishes from around the world are helping her get out of bed in the morning. And she has one particular request for others in the days and weeks ahead.
"Keep praying. God is good," she said. "There are times when we can't pray and we need others praying for us."
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