Quietly and Respectfully, Americans Celebrate

Christmas took on new meaning this year as an America at war celebrated the birth of the Prince of Peace.

In midtown New York City, not far from the ruins of the World Trade Center, shoppers and holidaygoers crowded to see the towering Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, just as they have for decades past — only this time, the sparkling lights were red, white and blue.

A stone’s throw away, families who traveled by plane from Savannah, Ga., or by bus from Queens, N.Y., crowded into Radio City Music Hall to watch the annual Christmas show.

In Washington, D.C., where Defense Department workers still must detour around a shattered wing of the Pentagon, the National Cathedral was alive with music and prayer. There the cathedral dean reminded a building packed with parishioners at morning services that America must never forget the Sept. 11 tragedies.

"Keep the victims in mind" and in prayers, the Rev. Nathan Baxter said.

He singled out New York City as the focal point of the nation’s anguish, saying "the pain and tragedies have continued" there.

Among those victims Baxter’s prayers went out to was Nikki Stern, whose husband, James Potorti, died in the World Trade Center. The Plainsboro, N.J., woman, like many other relatives of Sept. 11 terror victims, decided she wasn’t ready to celebrate Christmas yet.

"If I went down by myself, they'd really notice if he wasn't there," said Stern, of Plainsboro, N.J.

But in Glen Rock, N.J., Christmas was a tender solace for Courtney Acquaviva, who also lost her husband, Paul, in the Twin Towers. She put up a Christmas tree, bought gifts for the whole family and decorated her house for the holidays, all while getting ready to give birth to her second child.

"It's for the kids," said Courtney's mother, Nancy Seitz. "She wants it to be the way Paul would have wanted it."

In New York, about half of the National Guard members on domestic duty who have young children got a surprise Christmas order: Go home.

"The kids were overwhelmed," said Specialist Anthony Yonnoni, a father of three from New Windsor, N.Y., who has been busy securing U.S. tunnels and bridges for the past three months.

He'd been on the job almost constantly since Sept. 11, and expected to work Christmas rather than spend it with his wife, Arlene, and children Anthony, 10, Angelo, 7, and Ashley, 5.

Of course, there's a little bit of of the United States overseas, as well.

In Kandahar, Afghanistan, the middle of an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, soldiers arranged for a visit from Santa. In Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, troops created their own Christmas celebration, holding a Christmas Eve candlelight service by singing carols and flying in an Army chaplain from a base in Uzbekistan.

"To put the country at peace, I think I can sacrifice Christmas," said a soldier named Kurt — the army allowed those attending the service to be identified only by their first names.

On board the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea, Lt. Cmdr. Pat, a E-2C Hawkeye surveillance plane pilot, was thinking of his children back in Florida.

"While I'll be preparing for my next flight over Afghanistan, my kids will be just waking up and opening their presents back home," he said.

The Christmas spirit spread like a balm across America, whether directly or indirectly affected by the terrorist attacks that changed the world.

There were wounds other than those from the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, and people invoked the Christmas Day fraternity to help heal them all.

In April, Cincinnati was racked with race riots after the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man. On Monday, hundreds of people gathered in a local church to pray for improved race relations. They hugged and sang hymns and rejoiced as part of a one-hour session at Christ Emmanuel Christian Fellowship, and Senior Pastor Michael Dantley said Cincinnati is going to be a different place.

In places like Buffalo, N.Y., and parts of Ohio, the spirit came in a form Bing Crosby would have crooned over: a white Christmas. While the Buckeye State got a relative dusting with chilly temperatures, Buffalo got their traditional lake-effect: a hefty two feet of snow.

In Santa Fe, N.M., residents continued the tradition of the annual Christmas Eve Farolito Walk along Canyon Road, strolling along its rows and rows of farolitos — candles in bags — hot apple cider and tiny white Christmas lights. It’s a show of unity that had special resonance this year. Santa Fe resident Peter Vanderlaan said that what makes the walk so special is that everybody is pulling together and that it's not just one person and their lights.

Stray animals in Little Rock, Ark., even got their share of holiday cheer, in the form of a $400,000 gift from a local family. The Christmas gift meant the struggling Humane Society of Pulaski County could remain open and care for more than 200 dogs and cats, who otherwise might have been put to sleep.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.