In Newtown, tragedy tinges holiday tradition

The Washington PostDecember 24, 2012 

US NEWS SCHOOLSHOOTING 1 HC

Erik Johannsen of Dover, Maryland, places stuffed animals at a memorial Monday, December 24, 2012, to honor the 26 people killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Johannsen, a member of the Air Force in Dover and a volunteer firefighter, stopped to pay his respects on his way to be with family in New Hampshire. (John Woike/Hartford Courant/MCT)

JOHN WOIKE — MCT

NEWTOWN, Conn. -- The night Andrei Nikitchyuk came home after 20 young students had been killed at his son's school, he pulled out the family's Christmas tree.

Nikitchyuk and his wife, Erin, needed to create a distraction. Their youngest child, known as Bear, a third-grader at Sandy Hook Elementary School, had been carrying an attendance sheet down a hallway as the gunman opened fire. A teacher pulled Bear into a classroom and saved his life. Three of his friends had died.

If there was ever a time for a little Christmas, his parents resolved, it was now.

The second thoughts came immediately. How could they celebrate the holidays when so many of their friends were suffering? Andrei became preoccupied with researching gun laws. Erin couldn't imagine shopping for presents when Main Street was log-jammed with funeral processions. For days, the tree stood barren in their living room.

Marking the birth of Jesus has tangled uncomfortably with the sorrow of a community that lost 20 small children and six staff members. There are wreaths of joy, wreaths for mourning. Red ribbons hang on street lamps and a "No Media" sign is posted in front of the Methodist church. The large Christmas tree down the hill from the school is obscured by an ever-swelling cascade of stuffed animals and sympathy cards, coming from places ranging from P.S. 253 in Brooklyn to School No. 46 in Kyrgyzstan.

Andrei felt pushed toward activism. He joined the Brady campaign for stricter gun control and visited Washington to lobby on the issue. When the National Rifle Association called last week for armed security guards in schools, Andrei tweeted that the idea was a "fail."

"I needed to speak out but I hope I'm just the beginning," he explained. "There will be more passionate, powerful voices, but right now, our community is still grieving."

As the holiday drew nearer, the Nikitchyuks finally strung tinsel on their tree. On Sunday, Erin put on sleigh-bell earrings, then draped a red-and-white scarf around her neck.

"I'm taking the kids to see Santa," she told her husband. "Bear still needs to believe in magic."

His sisters went to the door. Bear, blond-haired and energetic, took his green elf's hat. They jumped into their SUV and their mother began the half-hour drive to the mall. "Let's hurry," she told them. "Santa closes at 7 p.m."

She drove past the elementary school for the first time since the killings. Bear and his sisters watched through the windows as crowds walked past 26 Christmas trees planted to honor the fallen students and staff members. At the cemetery across the street, someone had hung 26 Christmas stockings. And in the front yard of a nearby house were 26 figures in the shape of angels.

Erin, she later explained, felt she was racing to preserve Bear's childhood. He is 8 years old and went to three funerals last week. Even when his class met to sing Christmas carols and play in Newtown's old town hall, it could not simply be a gathering of kids being kids. Their teacher came to deliver the jackets and backpacks her students left behind the morning of the shooting.

Bear had overheard conversations about gun buy-back programs, an idea he told his parents he liked. They have hugged him tighter and tighter.

As she drove, Erin steered the conversation back to the holidays.

"What are you going to ask Santa for?" she asked Bear.

He said he wanted a Nerf gun.

She talked to him about how that might not be the best gift in such times. But she also knew he just saw a toy that shot fuzzy darts. It would be used by his friends, not his enemies.

"I think he was struggling with this, because he's wanted a Nerf gun for such a long time," Erin said later. "And I realized, a lot of adults who own actual guns might be having the same struggles right now. It's a new way of thinking."

She reminded herself that her son is only 8.

"Why don't you give Santa some options?" she told him.

Erin and her children arrived 13 minutes before the closing of Santa's booth at Danbury Fair Mall. They stood in a line stretching around his workshop, while teenagers clustered around and "Jingle Bell Rock" played over the loudspeakers.

Santa asked Bear what he wanted for Christmas. "I have a few options, but one is inappropriate," he replied. As Erin watched, Bear told Santa the most appropriate option: "A really large Lego set."

Erin exhaled. Earlier this week, she and Andrei had decided their kids deserved big Christmas gifts. They had already splurged on a Lego set based on the "Star Wars" movies. It has nearly 4,000 blocks.

Bear will spend his vacation putting it all together, piece by piece.

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