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For local residents, Christmas spirit shines through the world’s troubles

Is it really Christmas? ¶ It feels as if the only thing hanging by the chimney is the threat of terrorism. ¶ Instead of pleas for peace on earth we have campaign calls for carpet bombs. ¶ “Good will to men?” ¶ Many prefer a good gun: Pistols have been selling faster than fruitcake this holiday season. ¶ And reliably fleecy Buffalo doesn’t have even a whiff of freeze today, let alone a dusting of snow. ¶ All of it makes those idyllic yuletides of yesteryear seem like a Ralphie Parker daydream. Christmas just hasn’t felt all that, well, Christmassy this year. ¶ Blame it on the Internet and cable, smartphones and Apple watches.

We can’t seem to get away from the bad news, whether it’s terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino or a Syrian refugee crisis that’s ignited an incendiary debate in the United States about how open its doors should be to immigrants forced from their homes.

“These are things that just can’t be ignored,” said Jerry Gillis, pastor of The Chapel at CrossPoint, a nondenominational church in Getzville. “When you live in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, everything happening in the world presses up against you at the same time, and it can feel overwhelming.”

But seeing so much strife in the world makes it a perfect time for Christmas, Gillis said.

“Whenever we feel kind of an impending sense of chaos, people are always looking for peace,” he said. “This is ultimately the story of Christmas.”

In a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, nearly half of Americans polled said they were somewhat or very worried about being a victim of terrorism, up from a third in 2014. Three quarters of those surveyed also said terrorism was a critical issue in the country, up from one half of respondents in 2011.

Terrorism and mass shootings were not far from the minds of many Western New Yorkers, even as they tried to enjoy their holiday outings. Canalside was a popular destination last weekend. The rain stayed away and temperatures dipped enough to make the ice rink usable. The Rojek family drove from Cheektowaga to check out the giant Christmas tree and say hello to Santa Claus, who made an appearance. A persistent cold blast off Lake Erie delivered as much bluster as a presidential debate, but the Rojeks didn’t seem to mind.

“This feels like Christmas, instead of 50 degrees,” said Bob Rojek, who wore a stocking cap and was joined by his wife, Misty, and two sons, Alex and Justin.

“The only thing that would make it better is if we had a couple inches of snow, not 7 feet,” added Justin, 11.

Each year, the Rojeks cut down their own Christmas tree, usually at Jurek’s in Clarence. They were among many families adding a new tradition to their season with a trek to Canalside.

The threat of terrorism wasn’t going to alter their enjoyment of Christmas.

“If you let fear in, it consumes you,” Misty Rojek said. “I’m not naïve to it, but I’m not going to let it change my way.”

Daniel Antonius, an assistant professor of psychiatry in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo, has written a book on the psychology behind terrorism fears. He said the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino may actually intensify the experience of the holiday for people because Christmas represents the polar opposite of what terrorism is.

“It’s the holiday of getting back to the community,” he said. “Christmas is all about coming together in safety and security.”

We’re wired not to stay fearful for long. The mind transforms that sense of fear or lack of control into outrage and purpose.

“That’s a protective factor, a positive factor,” Antonius said.

And yet, Antonius acknowledged a cumulative effect on “underlying fear” as more terrorist attacks occur, especially among people who pay close attention to such attacks through media.

“The main point of terrorism is you don’t know when it’s going to happen next,” he said. “That adds to public fear.”

Bob Rojek said he’s noticed it in daily interactions with people.

“People are definitely more on edge,” said Rojek, who manages a Delta Sonic.

“A lot of my friends are talking about carrying guns,” he said.“ I don’t think I’m at that point yet. I hope I’m not.”

Statistics show that many people have arrived at the point of gun ownership. In Erie County alone, applications for pistol permits filed in December with the county Clerk’s Office more than doubled from December 2014. Stephen J. Aldstadt, president of the Shooters Committee on Political Education, said mass shootings like the one in San Bernardino certainly were contributing to the rise in gun ownership. But he also pointed to legislative proposals seeking to restrict guns as another motivator.

“There’s a lot of people who were maybe on the fence about owning a gun and now they’re saying, ‘I better get one while I can,’ ” said Aldstadt of Colden.

Kathleen Dolan took a seat in the Kleinhans Music Hall lobby, waiting for 2,000 audience members to clear after a Saturday night Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Holiday Pops concert. Dolan has ushered BPO performances for 25 years, and she wore a festive, glistening red sweater over a black dress for the annual concert of Christmas classics.

“I think everybody’s pretty happy here tonight,” she said, pointing towards people shuffling toward the exits with smiles.

The concert never fails to deliver no matter the circumstances in Western New York, the country or the world, she said. People sing along, they laugh with the conductor, they appreciate the beauty of the music.

“Christmas takes over and people forget about all those problems,” Dolan said. “These people have forgotten the problems of the world for a few minutes.”

Among them was Mark Makowski, a Buffalo police captain who enjoyed the concert with his wife, brother and sister-in-law. It’s become a tradition the past few years, something to help fuel the yuletide embers amid all of the negativity in the world.

“You surround yourself with family and friends and purposely try to get into the Christmas spirit,” Makowski said.

Makowski admits to being a television news junkie, watching multiple channels to keep up with what’s going on. But he decided this year he wasn’t going to let it impinge on his enjoyment of the Christmas season. Since Thanksgiving, he’s kept the TV off.

“We turn on the holiday music, and you know what, we’re not going to pay attention to all the craziness going on out there,” he said.

The Rev. William J. “Jud” Weiksnar, a Franciscan priest, stepped inside an ornate booth at the southeast corner of Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna, turned on the overhead light and listened as a handful of parishioners trickled in to confess their sins and ask for God’s forgiveness. It’s a ritual that’s lost luster with many Catholics over the years, but for some, it remains a cherished tradition.

After an hour, Weiksnar turned off the light and stepped from the booth, only to be greeted with the question: So what about this Christmas season, with the terrorism and the vulgar Trump talk and refugees and all of that?

Weiksnar offered a personal response. He’s kept a daily journal since he was a teenager in high school. He’s now 58, and each morning he reads back what he wrote 40, 30, 20, 10 and one year ago. It reminds him that what we’re experiencing now isn’t all that different in the annals of human history.

“It seems like every decade there’s something terrible going. And it would have been the same thing 2,000 years ago as well,” Weiksnar said. “Jesus came in the middle of that stuff. I think Jesus would feel right at home in 2015.”

Indeed, the historical context around Jesus’ birth was hardly peaceful. Gillis described Herod, the king of Israel at the time, as a paranoid and genocidal tyrant who sought to eliminate any threats to his power.

“It’s the story of an Asian-born baby who became an African refugee,” Gillis said. “There’s no question it was the farthest thing from a silent night.”

But it was, and still is, Christmas.