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Holidays

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By Leah Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

The conversation in a New Jersey classroom of first-graders got around to the subject of Christmas, and the substitute teacher unleashed a bombshell. She told them that Santa isn’t real, that parents just buy presents and put them under a tree. On a roll, she didn’t stop there. Reindeer can’t fly, she advised the students, elves are not real, the elf on the shelf is just a doll that parents move around, there is no tooth fairy and no Easter bunny, either. She summed up with the news that there is no magic anything and that magic doesn’t exist. Whoa!

This made the top of the news earlier this week for CBS, NBC, Fox, USA Today and other major news outlets. No one, as far as I know, has interviewed the children to get their reactions, but the school superintendent and the principal were moved to speak, as the district apologized to the parents.

Montville superintendent of schools, Rene Rovtar, was “troubled and disheartened by the incident.” Cedar Hill Elementary School principal, Michael Raj, sent home a message to the parents in which he mentioned the “poor judgment” of the teacher and asked parents to “take appropriate steps to maintain the childhood innocence of the holiday season.” At least one parent, Lisa Simek, took to Facebook, expressing dismay. She urged that Christmas magic is real and expressed through acts of kindness, love, positivity and grace — from and for loved ones and strangers. The superintendent added, “The childhood wonder associated with all holidays and traditions is something I personally hold near and dear in my own heart.”

We don’t know how the children reacted, but we certainly know how upset the adults are. And we have not been told if the teacher will be allowed to substitute again. How should we react to this?

On the one hand, we know that the idea of Santa Claus brings joy and excitement to children and therefore to the adults around them. This is hardly innocence exploited by adults but rather an opportunity for adults each to be Santa, to be their best, most generous, most loving selves. While the person of Santa is a fiction, the embodiment of all that Santa stands for most surely is not. Fictional characters can provide inspiration for the lifetime of a child as he or she grows up. Intergenerational mythmaking exists in many contexts, not only to entertain but also to inspire.

Children sooner or later catch on, especially when they see 20 Santas walking down the street together on their return from their Salvation Army posts. But on the other hand, how do children feel when they realize the adults around them have told them untruths? If they go to school expecting to believe what they are taught there, should the teacher acquiesce in mythmaking? For sure, this teacher handled the situation with poor judgment. It would have been far better for her and the children had she told them to ask their parents about the magic of Santa. For whatever reason, she did not do that.

How did you feel when, as a child, you learned that Santa was a story made up by the adults closest to you? Did you understand the greater good embodied in the concept or were you left to distrust on some level whatever those adults might subsequently tell you? Does misleading a child bring psychological questions into play?

It did not negatively affect Virginia O’Hanlon, who asked that question of her father when she was 8 years old in 1897. She said the answer inspired her for the rest of her long life. Her dad told her to write to The Sun, a prominent New York City newspaper, and added, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” The Sun’s hard-bitten, cynical editor, Francis Pharcellus Church, wrote the answer that turned into the most reprinted editorial over the next century in the English-speaking world: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

The Heritage Center Trust hosted its 11th annual tree lighting Dec. 2 at Heritage Park in Mount Sinai, drawing a crowd of several hundred who were ready to celebrate the breakout of the Christmas season.

The Mount Sinai Middle School Jazz Choir led the crowd in classic Christmas carols before fire trucks of the Mount Sinai Fire Department drove in with lights flashing, delivering Santa himself to the expectant crowd.

After the tree lighting, attendees were able to eat fresh baked cookies and kids had the opportunity to sit on Santa’s lap and take pictures.

The annual tree lighting at Heritage Park has been a part of the Mount Sinai community since 2007, but Jaime Baldassare, who volunteers for the center trust, said the lighting was a staple in the community before the Heritage Center Trust was established, first being hosted at the post office and later at the Mount Sinai Fire Department building.

The threat of rain may have dampened activities, but hundreds bundled up to watch the 9th annual Huntington Holiday Parade Nov. 24.

Huntington Town officials called off the afternoon festivities as weather forecasters predicted a freezing rain would start sometime in the afternoon. Supervisor Chad Lupinacci (R) decreed the parade would happen, rain or shine.

Luckily umbrellas were not needed as highly decorated floats and parade marchers proceeded from the Big H Shopping Center on New York Avenue to Main Street, winding its way along West Neck Road, east on Gerard Street before ending on Wall Street for the annual tree lighting.  The most anticipate, at least by children, were Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus who arrived in Huntington Village at the end of the parade.

Click through the photos above to see the photos from the festive performance and parade. 

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I may be conflating two holidays, but this year, I’m thankful for love. Yes, I recognize that Valentine’s Day is a few months away.

I’m not just talking about romantic love between two people who laugh, plan and enjoy building a life together while dealing with the inevitable chaos and curveballs.

No, I’m talking about the kind of love that makes a cold, wet day manageable. We recently added a puppy to our home. We brought this new furry creature into our lives because we were moving and it seemed liked a way to add something to our house that would be ours in a new setting.

It also seemed to be a way to enhance our ability to socialize with our neighbors. Who, after all, can resist a cute puppy bounding down the street? Well, as it turns out, almost everyone, particularly on unexpectedly cooler days in a city that was supposed to be much warmer. Sure, people wave through their gloves and smile behind the wheel, but no one has stopped to ask if he or she can pet the little fella. No one has asked his age, his name or where we got him.

But, hey, this isn’t about love for our neighbors, although I suspect over time we may come to love the distance we have from everyone or, on the bright side, a friendship that may seem inevitable after we meet other people eager to connect with those living nearby.

No, this is about that moment when I open the door to the puppy’s room and he greets me with a tail moving so quickly that it could generate enough electricity to power the house for the day.

As we and our kids get older, the excitement at greeting each other after absences, even for a few hours or a day, left the arena of unbridled joy. Sure, we’re delighted to see each other, but the squeal with delight moments have morphed into understated greetings and subtle head nods that don’t displace carefully coiffed hair.

We can also love the moments our senses pick up a familiar signal. That could be the scent of a pumpkin pie wafting across the living room, sending us back to our childhood when we visited with extended family that has long ago moved away. It could be the sound of our children practicing an instrument with such dexterity that the end of the composition brings both pride and sadness as the intricate sound has given way to silence.

It could also be an appreciation for a warm, crackling fire late on a cold day as the winter sunset turns the light outside a deep orange, contrasting with the yellow hue near the sizzling logs.

This is also the incredible season of anticipation, as we love the prospect of seeing people we haven’t seen in person in weeks, months or years. We can love the expectation of seeing their faces, sharing stories, taking long walks on quiet roads or windy beaches, as we tell tales about everything from the miraculous to the mundane in intersecting lives interrupted by time and distance.

As well, we can love the gift of time with each other, on our own or without particular commitment.

Then again, we can love a positive result at work, if we’ve sold the unsellable property, finally checked something off a to-do list that seemed to be festering forever, or found some unexpected result in a lab that may one day lead to a treatment for an insidious or life-depriving disease.

We are a thinking species, which ruminates over the past, contemplates the present and ponders the future. We are also blessed with the power of love, as Huey Lewis and the News sang in 1985. It’s still a powerful thing, even 33 years later.

The holidays are just about here again, and before panicking about buying gifts, consider a unique, first time event slated for Setauket called.

TBR News Media is hosting Retail Lives, a private shopping experience Tuesday, Nov. 13, at The Bates House, located at 1 Bates Road in Setauket, at which local retailers and service-based businesses will set up booths to offer attendees a chance to knock out some holiday shopping early, and all in one place. The event will feature discounts on certain products and services as well as prewrapped items ideal for gift giving.

“We are going to have a wonderful, select group of local retailers who have decided to join us,” said Evelyn Costello, TBR News Media event planner and organizer of the first incarnation of the event, which will also be live streamed on tbrnewsmedia.com. “It’s a real community feel event.”

Publisher Leah Dunaief shed light on the thinking behind putting together the experience.

“We very much want to support the retail businesses in our communities,” she said. “They are the backbones of our villages in the sense of places to go when we need support for the Little League, or the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the musical groups. They are, physically, the center of our towns. It’s the stores that make the physical presence. We want to help them to stay in business against the mammoth Amazon and other businesses that are threatening their existence.”

The event is sponsored by The Bates House, Simple Party Designs, Empire Tent Rental & Event Planning and Elegant Eating. It will feature retailers and businesses Ecolin Jewelers, Hardts and Flowers, DazzleBar, Blue Salon & Spa, East Wind, North Fork Fire, The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, Chocolate Works, Three Village Historical Society, East End Shirt Co., Signs by All Seasons, Nicole Eliopoulos of State Farm and The Rinx.

For more information contact Costello by phone 516-909-5171 or by email at ec@tbrnewsmedia.com.

Words are the symphony that warms the skin and colors the silence.

Words can be like the sound of reinforcements coming over the horizon when we feel penned down by an adversary. They rescue us just as we use them to swaddle others in their warmth.

As we make the transition from Halloween to Thanksgiving, Black Friday and, eventually, the December holidays and the new year, we can take solace in the anticipation of words that provide warmth through the darker days of winter.

We might take a trip to Central Park, where the sound of sleigh bells from carriages around a corner alerts us to the appearance of an approaching horse, even as the animal might remind us of a city that predated internal combustion engines.

Just the words “sleigh ride” might inspire our minds to play a song we performed in high school.

Words can also convey the remarkable scents of the coming seasons, with the air carrying the mouthwatering Pavlovian cue from gingerbread houses or holiday cookies.

I recently attended a wedding where a few well-chosen words triggered an almost immediate and reflexive “awww” from an audience delighted to hear how much a younger brother was inspired by his older brother, the groom.

Reading about how important our coat donations are can inspire us to rummage through our closets to help a child or an adult become more comfortable in the frigid air.

Well-chosen words can provide the kind of environment that empowers people to see and appreciate everything from the inspirational image of a person overcoming physical limitations to the intricate beauty of a well-woven spiderweb shimmering in the low light of winter.

Sometimes, as when a friend or family member is going through a significant medical procedure or crisis, words or prayer or encouragement are all we have to offer, giving us something to do or say as we hope the words provide even a scintilla of comfort.

Words can feel insufficient to express how we feel or what we hope happens when someone who has been in the foreground of our lives for years seems suddenly vulnerable.

Simple tools which we all take for granted, words can take us to a peaceful beach with the sound of water lapping on the coarse sand under our feet, transporting our minds and bodies away from the cacophony of busy lives.

In big moments, athletes often suggest that they are at a loss for words. In reality, their words and emotions are undergoing so much competition that their brain experiences a word bottleneck, with a flow of ideas and words awaiting the chance to dive from the tip of their tongues to the eager ears of their friends, family and fans.

The coming holiday season is filled with diametrically opposed experiences, as the joy of opening presents and reconnecting with friends and family for the first time in months or even a year is counterbalanced by the stress and strain of those people who feel overwhelmed or alone.

People who work at suicide hotlines or as 911 operators can and do use critical words to save people’s lives, bringing their minds back from the brink, restoring hope and offering a comforting verbal lifeline.

We take words for granted because we see and hear them so often, but the right word at the right time can transcend the routine.

Finding words that resonate is akin to strolling into a restaurant and discovering a combination of familiar and exotic flavors, all mixed together with a palate-pleasing texture that energizes us.

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When we have visitors, we like to show off our neighborhoods. We take our guests to the beaches to admire the beautiful shoreline and we bring them to our villages to enjoy restaurants and shops. But some stores have been forced to close largely because so much shopping now takes place on the internet.

The owners and managers of stores that remain have learned that they must do more than in the past to attract customers. That is true of malls, department stores and especially smaller retail shops. To compete with the convenient internet, they have to offer an appealing experience for the consumer to visit them.

We are proud of our downtowns and want to publicize their efforts to attract business, especially for their best season before the holidays. To provide a local shopping event and a fun experience, we have arranged a private holiday treat at the Bates House opposite the Emma Clark Library in Setauket. Hometown stores and services from Huntington, Cold Spring Harbor, Northport, Smithtown, St. James, Stony Brook, Setauket-East Setauket, Port Jefferson, Port Jefferson Station, Mount Sinai, Miller Place, Rocky Point, Sound Beach, Shoreham, Wading River, Centereach, Selden and Lake Grove will feature their offerings at this charming venue for our local residents. Those who come out to enjoy this showcase will find a discount of 20 percent for some products and services.

Shoppers will be exposed to neighbors and friends as they sample community gatherings. Business owners will look to demonstrate what’s new for the holidays, from products or services to gift certificates and one-time discounts.

To make the occasion more delightful, there will be dessert bites from Elegant Eating and prosecco wine provided by TBR News Media/Times Beacon Record as a treat for shoppers, who will attend free.

Those businesses who are participating will enjoy a discounted rate at the gala in addition to their advertising in our holiday book, “Time for Giving.” They will also have advertising on our internet website and social media, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Furthermore, we will have spot interviews with each exhibitor and streaming live video throughout the event on Facebook on Tuesday, Nov. 13, from 5:30-8:30 pm. For further information, please turn to the large ad in our Arts & Lifestyles section in the center of the newspapers. also see our website and social media.

We will be proud to feature our private holiday shopping experience and hope you will, too. Please join us.

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Santa visits Stony Brook via helicopter in the 1950s.

Santa Claus will make his annual journey from the North Pole to drop off gifts to kids around the world this weekend, but before he does that, take a look back at a visit he paid to Stony Brook in the 1950s.

Ditching his sleigh for a helicopter, Santa landed on the Stony Brook Village Green and proceeded to the Stony Brook Fire Department to greet children.

Uniqua holds her two new teddy bears tightly. She received the gifts from members of Mount Sinai's Students Against Destructive Decisions club. Photo by Kevin Redding

Just one night at Mount Sinai High School helped to make the season bright for local families in need.

For Christmas, all 6-year-old Uniqua really wanted was an Elf on the Shelf toy, a gift her mom struggled to afford. But Moniqua McGee, who lives with her daughter at Concern for Independent Living in Medford, knew she had nothing to worry about. She had Mount Sinai high schoolers to rely on.

A family from Concern for Independent Living receive gifts from Mount Sinai children through Hauppuage-based nonprofit Christmas Magic. Photo by Kevin Redding

On Dec. 6, during the Students Against Destructive Decisions club’s Christmas Magic dinner in the high school’s cafeteria, a beaming Uniqua not only got her wish, but two new teddy bears and holiday-themed face paint, too. She even met Santa Claus and Rudolph.

“I’m grateful they’re doing this for the families and putting smiles on the kid’s faces,” said Moniqua McGee, who has been coming to the event the past five years. “It works every time.”

The McGees were just one of dozens of families from the Medford nonprofit enjoying the holiday spirit in the room. An 18-year partnership between the Hauppauge-based organization Christmas Magic and the SADD club, the Christmas soiree served as the ultimate payoff of a shopping spree by the students Dec. 1. Under the supervision of SADD club advisors John Wilson and John McHugh, they spent that day rushing around Smith Haven Mall and Walmart to buy gifts for more than 60 boys and girls from Concern for Independent Living, which provides housing and employment help for struggling families, based on wish lists they wrote to Santa. The school district also raised $8,000 for Christmas Magic.

Members of Mount Sinai’s Students Against Destructive Decisions club watch children open up presents. Photo by Kevin Redding

“I’m happy and proud to be part of a program and district that not only encourages, but fosters this type of activity,” McHugh said. “The students involved display the best we have to offer … we have grown our program every year and that makes me feel great.”

With all the gifts wrapped and labeled, every kid left the dinner with at least three presents given to them by Santa, played by rosy red cheeked wrestling icon Mick Foley, who also posed for pictures. Christmas tunes blared through the cafeteria’s speakers as families ate chicken, pasta and desserts, and SADD club members — some dressed up in costume — went around the room with little gift bags of extra toys for attendees. SADD club members also played games and watched “Elf” with the kids.

“It’s so nice to be able to see all the kids here and see them get the gifts we got for them,” said Allie Garrant, an 11th grader and SADD club member, who picked up a lacrosse stick and Rubik’s Cube for a 13-year-old boy. “Just seeing their faces — it’s a whole different thing. It’s like, ‘Wow, these are real people I’m helping’ and you get to see firsthand the difference you’re making.”

Renato Lugo, whose four children were ecstatic over their gifts, expressed his gratitude to those involved in the event.

Students dressed up to entertain children during a Christmas Magic dinner at Mount Sinai High School. Photo by Kevin Redding

“It’s a beautiful thing to have organizations like these that help out and take care of people in need,” said Lugo, who has been aided by Concern for Independent Living for six years. “The students bring joy and cheer and they make my kids very happy.”

His 12-year-old daughter, Elena, was ecstatic receiving a long-sleeve Unicorn pajama shirt from Santa.

“I think it’s really amazing I got the present I wanted,” Elena said. “And the food is amazing and everyone’s so happy. I love SADD. They’re really like another Santa.”

Kim Dellamura, who’s been at the nonprofit agency for six months, said the event allowed her 4-year-old daughter MacKenzie to have a Christmas.

“It feels good because I don’t know how much I would’ve been able to give her this year,” Dellamura said. “So this really helps out a lot. She loves it.”

For Lawrence Aurigemma, the event is a perfect reflection of what this time of year means.

“This season is all about peace and generosity,” said Aurigemma, a military veteran whose 14-year-old son received Pokemon cards. “These students are just fantastic. They go out of their way to help out the less fortunate people here. It’s a wonderful thing. They knew exactly what to get my son … he’s so happy.”

Smithtown resident and former WWE wrestler Mick Foley dishes out gifts to children. Photo by Kevin Redding

Also at the event was Christmas Magic founder Charlie Russo and representatives of Concern for Independent Living, including case managers Ella Cantave and Julio Villarman, who were excited to see their clients enjoying the holidays.

“It’s a very special day for them,” Cantave said. “It took a lot of effort to make it happen and to make it nice for them.”

As everybody in the room sang “Jingle Bells,” Santa arrived and joined in. Each kid’s name was called out to sit down with the big man in the red suit.

Foley, who has been a volunteer with Christmas Magic since 2000 and officially assumed the role of Santa for the organization in 2014, said he looks forward to the event all year round.

“It’s a great organization — they spread joy and happiness to so many of the less fortunate in the community, and it’s an honor to wear the red suit and represent Christmas Magic,” Foley said before turning his attention to the SADD club. “I make it a point to thank all of them because I think it’s wonderful that they get involved in volunteer work at a young age. They do a great job and it’s really easy for me to show up and get a lot of the credit from children, but the truth is, without them, absolutely none of this is possible.”

Centereach Fire Department teamed up with Operation Christmas Child to collect shoeboxes filled with gifts to be donated to needy children. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Kyle Barr

It wasn’t quite Santa’s sleigh, but it was large, red and carried presents, so an ambulance was good enough for the Selden Fire Department, which took over Santa’s duties last week and stuffed 100 shoeboxes with gifts for poor young children all over the world.

Volunteers help fill a Selden Fire Department
ambulance with shoeboxes for Operation Christmas
Child. Photo by Kyle Barr

“Most of these boxes are going to go to kids who never even get a gift,” Selden Fire Department Treasurer Vincent Ammirati said. “This is something that will put a smile on a face, and this is the fire department — everything we do here is for other people. All we do is try put a smile on people’s faces.”

The shoeboxes were collected as part of Operation Christmas Child, a function of the evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organization Samaritan’s Purse. The organization takes the shoeboxes from drop-off points in local churches before sending them to distribution centers that will ship them to poor communities in Africa, South America, Asia and others. The shoeboxes are labeled by age and gender, and usually contain toys like inflatable soccer balls or stuffed animals, but mostly they contain hygiene products like soap and toothbrushes along with school supplies like books and pencils.

All seven companies within the Selden Fire Department helped contribute to the stack, with some companies acting as a group and other members of the fire department contributing indipendently.

Children in Uganda receive shoeboxes of gifts from
Operation Christmas Child last year. Photo from
Danielle McCarthy

Volunteer firefighter and Operation Christmas Child Long Island Coordinator Danielle McCarthy headed the fire department’s collection drive. She said she got the idea of filling an ambulance full of shoeboxes from watching the Los Angeles Police Department and how a funeral home had pulled in with a hearse full of shoe boxes.

McCarthy has been involved with Operation Christmas Child for more than a decade, first packing boxes before becoming a local packing leader, and then area coordinator. In 2012 McCarthy travelled to Uganda to help hand out shoeboxes.

“As we put shoe boxes into their hands and they opened up those boxes I saw their delight,” she said. “To look at them having physical needs met, to be able to see the joy that came to them from these simple things like school supplies and toys and that sort of thing, that impacted me. But what really impacted me even more, and what keeps me packing shoeboxes, were all the kids standing outside the place who didn’t get shoeboxes because there wasn’t enough to give to everybody.”

Shoeboxes for Operation Christmas
Child were collected with gifts to be
donated to needy children.
Photo by Kyle Barr

Every box also comes with a picture book called “The Greatest Gift,” put inside after each is packed. The book depicts a number of biblical stories told in that country’s native language. There was a $9 fee for every package, which pays for both the book and shipping costs. The fire department pulled together $900 to go toward this cost.

“Every one of these shoeboxes to us is not just a gift that we’re giving to a child, but around Christmas time Jesus is a gift we try to give, too,” said Victor Rossomano, an Operation Christmas Child Suffolk County-area coordinator. “It’s in their language and their culture. We try to keep it within their culture; we try not to send America to them, we want them to be who they are.”

Ammirati helped McCarthy drive the shoeboxes to the drop-off point at the Grace Gospel Church in Patchogue. He said he plans on using his officer status with the Suffolk County Volunteer Fireman’s Association to try and spread the idea out to all the different fire departments in the county.

“It’s a great way to show our community presence with the fire department and also for Operation Christmas Child,” McCarthy said. “It’s taken a few years to get this rolling, but when we challenged the fire department to fill the ambulance, as you can see, the guys stepped up.”

The 100 boxes kicked off national collection week, which ran from Nov. 13 to 20. In 2009, Suffolk County gathered 7,100 boxes, but the number has grown. The group is hoping to have 20,000 boxes packed this year

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