In Newtown, tragedy tinges holiday tradition

 

Newtown

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.

Christmas lights on an office building were strung into the shape of three words common in the Bible: "Faith," "Hope" and "Love."

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk / Trainee Application Support Analyst - Hampshire

£25000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor