Christmas Day In Newtown

At a Sandy Hook memorial in front of St. Rose of Lima Church, Scoop Carlile kisses his son Cooper Carlile, 10, after Cooper placed dozens of cards from his fellow students at Pope John Paul II school in Houston. (MARK MIRKO, Hartford Courant / November 19, 2012)

For there are these three things that endure: faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13:13

In Newtown on Christmas Day, love and grief were mingled. At St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, hundreds of families filed into Mass, white-haired couples, a little girl with sparkly pink shoes holding her father's hand, teens with their heads bowed as they texted the last few lines before entering unter the banner that read:

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5

"We have not only witnessed one of the greatest tragedies in the world, but we as a community are called to do what we can to move forward," Monsignor Bob Weiss wrote in his Christmas message. "I have been asked so often how do we celebrate Christmas this year."

Frank Skrelja, who attended Mass at St. Rose, found the holy day both painful and a balm to his spirit.

"We celebrate the birth of a baby," Skrelja said, and that reminds him of the 20 first-graders murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School just 11 days earlier. "They were babies." He thinks of how their parents struggled on this first Christmas without them. "There's really no words."

Skrelja has twin 13-year-old sons, and he moved to Newtown five years ago from Yonkers, N.Y. He also said: "It was comforting because we gathered together, the community, and you feel like you're not alone."

Many people chatted with fellow parishioners after the service, giving warm hugs, and heartfelt partings of "God Bless You."

God is with you all the time. I hope you feel better, Love, Daniella (age 8)

Cooper Carlile, 10, set down Daniella's card, with a smiling angel on its cover, at the memorial in front of the Catholic church. Cooper comes to Connecticut most years at Christmas to visit his uncle Bill Gasdaska. Gasdaska wiped away tears as Cooper tucked dozens of homemade cards under stuffed animals, so they wouldn't blow away.

Cooper, who attends a Catholic school in Houston, suggested to his school's principal that the children make cards for the grieving town.

His mother, Jane Gasdaska, said that usually when you think of 10-year-old boys, you think of "how many times they can say the word poop," and she was a little surprised that her son wanted to make this gesture, and so proud that he followed through.

His own card urged everyone to keep love, and guard against hatred. He explained that it's a mistake to drown in self-hatred, or to be angry at the man who did the killing. "You just have to pray," he said.

Christmas felt different this year, his mother said, more patient, more grateful.

She said that the family brought the cards from Texas because "we just wanted people here to know everywhere, we ache for them."

You are loved. Megan, Aberdeen, NJ — one of the 50,000 texts from teens, displayed on a "Stay Strong Newtown" banner posted on the bridge over the Pootatuck River in Sandy Hook

Hundreds of people slowly wandered by the stuffed animals, signs, Christmas trees, candles and homemade art in the heart of Sandy Hook all morning and afternoon. A handful were locals. More were from New York, other towns in Connecticut, and points beyond. They took pictures with cellphones, iPads and SLR cameras. Some wept. Some spoke to each other in Spanish — pointing out that all the teachers were represented with ornaments on one tree. Others reflected on what they'd seen in Hebrew.

Joyce Bondos of Ansonia said she came to Newtown on Christmas because it was the first day she felt mentally ready to face the loss so directly.

But she said the timing was meaningful.