Originally published Dec. 15, 2012, for Digital First Media and associated publications.
NEWTOWN, CONN. — Madison Benson giggles with her younger brother Jason, 6, as the family prepares to stuff a Christmas tree — about 6 feet tall — into the back of a gray Acura minivan.
“I don’t want to get prickles in my face,” the 8-year-old shouts, her hot pink coat emerging from the 100-acre Medridge Tree Farm in Newtown, Conn.
She points and squeals at the tiny pinecones still clinging to the tree’s crest. Her parents, John Benson and Tracy Millander, help Medridge worker Frederika Leet bind the branches together with twine.
The farm’s advertisements along Church Hill Road beckoned cars away from a traffic deadlock Saturday.
“We saw the sign,” mother Tracy Millander said. “We wanted to get the kids out. The normal routines have been completely disrupted.”
The scene is a cheerful one — a glimpse of innocence and yuletide joy in a town gripped by the horrors of Friday’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where authorities say 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed 20 children and 6 adults before taking his own life.
Madison and Jason live in Sandy Hook, but don’t attend school there. They go to Catholic elementary school at St. Rose of Lima — one of many churches that serve as pillars in a community that prides itself on family and faith.
On Saturday, media swarmed the place of worship. Many parked at a gas station across the street to catch images of the bereaved.
Relatives of the deceased were assigned police troopers, who stood guard at their homes to ward off media and other threats to privacy.
“You can see the houses with the police cars outside,” Benson said. “You know they lost someone.”
These — and other sad reminders of the tragedy, Leet said — kept many family in their homes during what is typically a busy Saturday at the tree farm on Walnut Tree Hill Road.
The Medridge Tree Farm, filled with mostly white and blue spruce, is owned by former state Rep. Julia Wasserman and her husband, a Jewish couple that enjoys the Christmas tradition.
Leet struggled with how late to remain open.
“If we can make one family feel a little better,” she said, “we’ll stay open for that.”
She wore a gold cross around her neck. Two Jack Russell terriers ran circles the office as she offered weekend salutations.
“Hug your kids,” she reminded one man.
“Getting out and moving is very therapeutic,” she said. “Looking for something happy … Looking for a Christmas tree.”
Leet’s phone rang — to the tone of crickets chirping — as she began describing the traditions that Newtown and “The Hook” thrive upon.
On Memorial Day, there’s the Great Pootatuck Duck Race, which draws crowds to the Pootatuck River to watch thousands of rubber ducks float to a finish line.
The top 20, she said, win a prize.
That’s the kind of thing Newtown is about, she said. Not killing. Not this.
“It’s one of those towns where everybody knows everybody,” said Ron Nicholson, a 42-year-old groundskeeper at Newtown Village Cemetery. “It’s growing up, but as is everything.”
The one-time “small little farming town,” he said, has experienced a surge in recent developments.
He spent Saturday cleaning up at Ram Pasture, an open area adjoining the cemetery. His green pickup truck overflowed with branches and debris — some still remaining after Hurricane Sandy, he said.
Earlier this month, the site hosted another Newtown tradition — the annual Christmas tree lighting.
During the event, the surrounding houses are given white bags with Christmas tree cutouts to illuminate with lit votive candles.
Most were gone by Saturday, except for 20, which stood in a perfect line facing the street. Placed there that morning, they served as a subtle memorial to the lost children, Nicholson assumed.
“It’s near the Christmas tree,” he said. “A lot of those kids probably went to the Christmas tree lighting.”
Deeper into town, Teri Brunelli didn’t know how to handle the sudden popularity of her store, “Everything Newtown.”
Yes, Newtown –a classic New England town of 28,000 — has its very own souvenir store.
“Newtown is a very proud community,” she said. “People in Newtown and Sandy Hook love Newtown and Sandy Hook.”
Since the shooting, she’s received calls from across the country. People want to buy her T-shirts, key chains, magnets, shot glasses and trinkets, all bearing the Newtown or Sandy Hook name.
She even offers a line of Newtown-specific greeting cards.
“The folks here in Newtown wish you a happy birthday,” one reads.
The problem: She doesn’t sell them online.
And she doesn’t plan to.
“It’s commercializing what happened,” Brunelli said.
“There’s a fine line, I feel,” she added. “I could probably make a ton of money, but that’s not what I’m here for today. It’s not the time for that.”