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Abruptly, Christmas joy feels unthinkable — and essential

Molly Delaney (left) comforted her 11-year-old daughter, Milly, during a service in honor of the victims.

JULIO CORTEZ/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Molly Delaney (left) comforted her 11-year-old daughter, Milly, during a service in honor of the victims.

The phone rang just after 10 Saturday morning in an old farmhouse along Walnut Tree Hill Road in Newtown, Conn. Julia Wasserman had been undecided about even going to the farm, which she and her late husband bought decades ago, and where people still come to cut their own Christmas trees. She answered.

Yes, she said, the farm was open.

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After she was finished, Wasserman shrugged her shoulder. ‘‘I wasn’t even going to come today,’’ she said. ‘‘I didn’t know what the right thing to do was. I still don’t know. But the man said he wanted to come, to bring his kids out. That they needed it.’’

People everywhere in Newtown — a classic New ­England small town — struggled with whether, and how, to go on with something that seemed like normal life. Even as ­Wasserman tended to the tree farm, State Police gathered at a park across town to brief reporters from around the world on the latest grim details of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary.

As much as anyplace, Newtown digs into its public rituals, celebrating Fourth of July and Labor Day and Halloween with gatherings in the tiny downtown. Earlier this month, the lighting of the grand Christmas tree seemed to bring out nearly every person under the age of 12 for miles around. The roads were lined with lit candles in paper bags.

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‘’With Christmas tree shapes cut into the bags,’’ Lenie Urbina, 9, noted.

On Saturday, on a pole beside the village Christmas tree, were messages from before and after the horror. A season of celebration had halted, almost instantly, and there was no instruction book on how to handle that moment. Everyone and everything was raw to the touch, even the glance.

‘‘Our hearts are with you,’’ read one sign, cut in the shape of a heart and pasted at the structure’s base.

Birgitta Cole, in a white ski jacket, walked her Yorkie.

‘‘Christmas is so big here and now people don’t know what to do,’’ Cole said. ‘‘Everyone decorates their house and puts up lights. Last night we were thinking, should we turn on the lights? Is that the right thing to do? Finally we decided to do it. Life is for the living. But it’s so hard to know what to do.’’

It was not simply a question of rescheduling a ritual, party, or a gathering; these celebrations, from all the faiths and from none, push back against the dominance of the long winter night. No one is more essential to them than humans between, say, ages 5 and 9, who are balanced between the world of reason and the world of magic.

‘‘All of these babies,’’ said Jennifer Zulli, mother of a 5-year-old girl. ‘‘We need to find peace for them, for the whole world.’’

Zulli runs a meditation and healing space in Sound Center for Arts, the old Hawleyville Chapel that she and her husband restored. The grand opening, with family songs, had been scheduled for Saturday morning. The signs announcing the opening lay on the floor in the vestibule.

‘‘I canceled, of course, but I can’t not open the doors,’’ she said. ‘‘We want to be a place for healing.’’ A friend arrived, and fell, weeping, into Zulli’s arms. “It’s never going to be the same,’’ the friend said.

The Toy Tree, a shop on Church Hill Road, opened as usual Saturday morning. Pink Santa ornaments were on display, along with a ‘‘Star Wars’’ Lego set, a stuffed penguin, and polyester bootees — ‘‘kids sizes 9-10.’’

Behind the counter, the computer screen carried a live feed of the shooting coverage, with images of cameramen huddled a short distance from the shop’s doors. Around 9:45 a.m., a woman entered, asking if the shop carried snow globes. No, she was told, as the shopkeeper knelt distractedly near a small chalkboard. Sorry.

Moments later, the proprietor etched a message on the board, in neat handwriting and yellow chalk. ‘‘Our love, thoughts and prayers are with our community,’’ she wrote. She nodded, and the sign was placed outside.

Newtown, incorporated in 1711, takes its child-friendly, Norman Rockwell ambience seriously. The all-purpose landmark is the downtown flagpole, which dates to 1876. Fat and packed with small-town ephemera including weekly equestrian news, the Newtown Bee dates to 1877 and has been owned by the same family since 1881. Scrabble was developed in Newtown by a local lawyer, James Brunot, in 1948, who adapted an earlier version and changed its name from ‘‘Criss-Crosswords.’’

Late Friday evening, the Colony Diner, just off Interstate 84, was still busy. Heaped along the ceilings were white Christmas lights, pushback against the dominance of the winter night. A fat Santa figure stood in a stack of bread, holding a chalked sign that read: ‘‘Challah Bread, $3.95.’’

“They’ve already started putting things on the door,’’ the man behind the cash register said to the manager.

The manager stepped out to look at them.

People had turned over place mats and made crayon drawings on the backs: a purple angel, hovering over words written in green, ‘‘RIP Children & Adults of Newtown.’’

The manager came back inside. ‘‘Leave them there,’’ he said.

“Oh yeah,’’ the cashier said.

The manager spoke again, his voice flat: ‘‘We have to leave them.’’

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