Americans and others have made Christmas a time of joy. But Friday's school shooting adds a new chapter of pain to the holiday time.
A Christmas horror adds to America's litany of sorrows
From this day forward, Christmas in Newtown, Connecticut will always mean something very different. It is difficult to imagine the raw pain and the horror being felt in that community that has been ravaged by unspeakable violence. But imagine it we must, because Newtown is all of the United States, and all Americans have something to learn from this tragedy.
For families in Newtown, gone forever is the innocence of the season, after at least 28 people were killed - including 20 children - at an elementary school on Friday. And changed forever is the expectant joy of its children and families as they await the blessings of the day that commemorates the birth of Jesus. Instead of celebrations, this day will now become one of remembrance and profound sorrow. In time, the rawness of the hurt will fade, as it always does, but the sadness and sense of loss will always be there.
If anything, this horror in Newtown should remind us that this season of joy has always been mixed with pain and fear. As the Bible tells the story, Mary and Joseph coming to Bethlehem found no place to rest and so Mary, a frightened, young expectant mother, gave birth in a cave, which doubled as a stable. And lest we forget, the act of birth itself can be painful.
The Quran tells how Mary in the throes of labour cried out in pain to God wishing that she had died before this, whereupon the angel appeared reminding her that God never gives us a test that he does not give us the strength to endure.
Shortly after the birth of Jesus, the Bible story tells us, Herod, then the ruler in Palestine, became concerned upon hearing of the birth of one who would become king. He sent his troops to slaughter all the first-born children in that region, hoping to rid himself of this threat. One can only imagine their fear, as Mary and Joseph took flight to Egypt with their newborn seeking safety in a strange new land.
The Bible story prepares us for more sorrow; the fear felt by Mary and Joseph at the loss of their child in the crowded Temple in Jerusalem, and then the pain that Mary was forced to endure as she watched her only son taken captive, tortured and then cruelly put to death.
Over the centuries, we have cleansed the Christmas story of its pain and fear and made it a more antiseptic season of joy. There is, to be sure, a beauty and simplicity in the Christmas that we have made. It has become a time of giving and receiving; a time of beauty, with lights and decorated trees, and visions of Santa Claus.
Some would condemn all of this as overly commercial and lament the transformation of a religious celebration into an increasingly secular event. But critics be damned, there is something quite wonderful about the Christmas we made for our children. You can see its wonder in their expectant eyes.
Then, in one horrific act, we are reminded of the fragility of our joy, and transformative power of evil to shatter the world we have created. And so it is for the people of Newtown, Connecticut, and for the rest of us - who although far from that wounded town can only try to understand the horror of parents whose children have been taken so abruptly from them, and the trauma of their neighbours and friends who are living now in the aftermath of such senseless suffering. All that we can do is remember them, praying that they find the strength to endure.
Americans also can and should act to remove the curse of gun violence from the country. And everyone must examine the roots of the sickness that continues with disturbing frequency to take such a terrible toll in the United States. The country has seen too many senseless deaths - five mass killings have taken 60 lives in the last five months alone. This madness must end.
But when all is said and done, there is Newtown, its lost children and its grieving families. With one act, on one day, that community has unwillingly entered the American national lexicon. Once described by a resident as "a quiet little town", it will from this day on be remembered in the same thoughts as Columbine, Virginia Tech and Aurora.
The lights will, for a time, go out in Newtown. And in the Christmases to come there will always be an emptiness and a sense of loss. Washington can pass legislation, and it must, but it will always be too late for the lost children and grieving families of that wounded community - and this, we should never forget.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
On Twitter: @aaiusa