A week or so ago, a friend and I spent a few hours bell-ringing for the Salvation Army in our little burg-in-the-woods. It’s one of the annual activities of our Rotary club – one I look forward to each year. Not so much now.

My friend and I have stood in the cold outside several local “big box” stores through the years. We have time for good conversation and, for the most part, enjoy interacting with others during the holidays. My favorite moment is when a young parent puts a few coins in a small child’s hand and shows them how to put the money in the red kettle. Then quietly instructs, “Say ‘Merry Christmas’.” Touches my old heart.

What doesn’t touch my heart is watching what too many shoppers have put in their carts as they roll out past us to the parking lot. Oh, there’s the usual supply of small appliances, toys, clothes, lots of electronic stuff and a bit of groceries here and there. Just like the carts in your town, I’d guess.

But we keep seeing more. Cases of beer. Many per cart. Boxes and bottles of wine. Many per cart. And guns. And boxes of ammunition.

Now, I’m a tippler. And a gun owner. So my reaction to this annual scene is not one of moral judgement by the uninitiated. My own shopping could mean buying a firearm of some sort, maybe some ammunition and – more often – some spirits.

No, what I have trouble with each December is reconciling the armament and bulk alcohol with the real spirit of Christmas. Thinking of the birth of Christ as reported in the gospels – remembering tenderness, wonderment, joy and surprise we experience – filling our thoughts with Christmas.

And especially this Christmas – 2012 – when we mark the murder of 20 elementary school children who went to school one morning – looking forward to pageants, plays, singing carols, exchanging gifts and learning more each year about the true “reason for the season.” Doing all the “kid things” we did. They were anxious with fun and hope – doing projects they’d spent hours and hours practicing. Until bullets ended all that.

And the ones that didn’t die. There were more than 600 kids in that school. The ones who heard the shots and the screams. The ones who saw the blood and the bodies of friends they had ridden with on the bus or walked to school with an hour or two before. The little survivors who watched. The child survivors suddenly flooded with emotions and experiences far beyond their youthful abilities to cope. Christmas 2012.

And the parents. The young parents who will stand before small coffins and open holes in the earth. The ones who will go home to silent houses and empty bedrooms littered with all the things left lying around that Friday morning after the kids were gone. To school. To the safety of our public education system. In a small, usually quiet Connecticut community. What of them? What of their lives long after the Christmas of 2012?

And the parents who took their children home that day. The parents who came terrified onto the school grounds. The parents crying and screaming names of kids – not knowing if they would answer – if they were alive. Or dead. The parents who suddenly weren’t dealing with the same suburban realities they’d experienced just the day before. The ones now swimming in a sea of red lights, blue uniforms, ambulances coming and going at a dizzying pace. The noise. The sounds of vehicle engines and sirens mixed with the crying of parents who’d already received their tragic news.

And those kids who went home. The ones we’d call “the lucky.” The ones with heads filled with experiences and emotions they could not come close to understanding. The ones faced with trying to cope with things most adults can’t fully understand. The ones whose lives are invisibly scarred and who face lifetimes that will always be divided into “before Christmas 2012″ and “after Christmas 2012.

And the teachers. Mourning the ones – the friends – who died. The children they taught. The ones who died. Maybe they can cope. Maybe they can’t. What will their lives be like? Will they forever listen for noises they used to ignore? How will they react to someone walking or running past the classroom door? How will they view the next adult – unknown to them – as he or she walks down a hall? What will that first hour back in the classroom really be like? For the teacher.

I can’t help mixing those pictures – those questions – with several years of experiences ringing Christmas bells and watching rifles, shotguns and ammunition rolling out of our “big box” stores at Christmas time. The events of Connecticut, Christmas 2012 – with the cacophony of bells and seasonal songs – all that joy – and joy ended – keeps coming back to me in the form of questions.

When are we going to admit we’ve talked this gun business to death and make stopping the unabated slaughter a national commitment?

When are we going to stop declaring “wars-of-choice” and divert some of those billions of dollars into mental health research so we can identify and deal with potential assassins before they kill more of us?

When are we Americans going to tell the National Rifle Association to GO TO HELL and instruct our ever-cowering members of Congress to find the guts to create laws dealing with this armed insanity?

Christmas this year – in Newtown – will not be the same. Just as it was in past Christmases in Portland, Aurora, Tucson, Detroit, Durham and so many, many other places for so many, many other years.

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