Here’s How This Community Displayed Support For a Grieving Family
After these siblings lost their dad and aunt to COVID-19 during the Christmas season, neighbors joined together to give them a memorable holiday a few months late.
For some, putting up Christmas lights is yet another holiday chore. But in the Pascucci household, it was always a big day of celebration. Every year on the day after Thanksgiving, Anthony Pascucci, the family patriarch, woke up excited to string lights and decorate the lawn of his home in Bethpage, New York.
And why wouldn’t he be? It was a family affair. Starting in early November, Anthony and his older sister, Connie Pascucci, had a tradition of visiting local stores to check out new decorations and to dream up their vision for that year’s extravaganza.
Anthony’s son, Anthony Jr., and daughter, Sara, shared the home, and they pitched in as well. Anthony Jr.helped with the wiring, while Sara hung ornaments on the tree inside the house, playing “White Christmas” over and over to keep everyone in the spirit.
In 2020, as in every other year, Anthony Sr. strung colorful lights all around their roof until it looked as if sparkles were dripping onto the porch. On the front lawn, he inflated a large white Frosty the Snowman and a Rudolph with a glowing red nose. The whole place looked like a scene from a pop-up Christmas storybook.
Anthony Sr., 60, had outdone himself, as if the brightness of the lights could counter some of the darkness of the past year with COVID-19.
“It was just such a rough year that he tried his best to make it extra special,” Sara says.
When her 18-month-old son, Robbie, saw the finished display, he ran around the yard, pointing and giggling.
On Christmas Eve, the whole house twinkled with lights, and gifts were piled under the tree. Everyone was looking forward to platters of crispy fried calamari and overly stuffed clams—a typical Italian feast. But most of all, they looked forward to enjoying another Christmas together as a family.
Then Connie got a call: Someone she worked with had tested positive for COVID-19. Though Connie didn’t have any symptoms, she decided to get tested right away. Her rapid test came back positive.
Anthony Sr., Anthony Jr., and Sara decided they should all get tested too. When their results came back, they all learned that they also had COVID-19. Sadly, everyone agreed their Christmas celebration would have to be canceled.
At first, everyone’s symptoms seemed manageable. But right after the new year, on January 4, Anthony Sr. started having trouble breathing. Anthony Jr. took him to the hospital, where he was admitted.
Five days later, Connie began feeling weak and wouldn’t eat. Sara called an ambulance for her, but Connie died before they got to the hospital. Less than a week later, Anthony Sr. passed away.
Sara says the next weeks were the worst of her life. She felt as if she was in a fog. Grief left her doubled over in pain. On top of that, “We were still recovering from COVID-19 ourselves,” she says.
In addition to helping plan funerals for her father and aunt, Sara had to figure out the mortgage, transfer the utility bills, and tackle a seemingly endless list of difficult todos. And perhaps hardest of all, she had to try to explain to her young son the concept of death. It was almost too much to take.
But when she pulled up to the house at the end of a long day, the twinkling Christmas lights brought her a spark of joy. “It made us happy to see them,” she says.
Making it even more poignant, the lights were one of the last mementos Sara and Anthony Jr. had of their beloved family members when they were still alive and healthy.
“I couldn’t bring myself to put them away,” Sara says. Taking the lights down felt like a final act of closure she and her brother weren’t ready to take. So they kept them up.
Scrooge delivers a letter
One day in February, Sara received an envelope in the mail. It had no return address. “I thought it contained my dad’s ID card,” she says. She had been waiting to get a few of her dad’s belongings back from the hospital. Instead, inside the envelope she found an anonymous typed note.
“Take your Christmas lights down! It’s Valentine’s Day!!!” the unsigned letter read.
Sara looked at the paper in shock. Then she got angry. “We were already dealing with so much,” she says.
Sara could have bottled up that anger, but she decided to write about it instead. “I wanted to remind people that we all had a tough year. We all have been through so much and people should be a little more caring toward each other,” she says.
She logged on to a local Long Island Moms Facebook group and shared the letter, adding a note of her own: “For anyone in the Bethpage area—if you know a person who would do something as insensitive as this, please pass along my message.” She ended the post with this: “Be kind to people because you never know what they are going through.”
Others in the group rallied to Sara’s side. Her inbox quickly filled with messages of support. A local news station learned what had happened and ran a segment about it. People from all around the area started sending Sara letters and Facebook messages about how they’d lost relatives, too, and how it was especially tough to lose loved ones around the holidays.
The prevailing sentiment from friends old and new: Keep the Christmas lights up.
“I know what it feels like to lose someone and not want to put their things away. It’s very hard,” one man told her when he stopped by with roses. Neighbors sent meals and cards in support. Someone even set up a GoFundMe page to help cover the funeral expenses.
“I wasn’t expecting that much support,” Sara says, “but having it helped us get through a rough time, just knowing that people could relate.”
And then something strange began to happen. Sara was driving back from work one day when she noticed that Christmas lights and decorations were appearing—or reappearing—on neighbors’ houses. In most cases, Sarah knew for a fact that the families inside these houses had already taken down their holiday lights.
The mystery had a sweet explanation: Her neighbors had gotten together and decided, collectively, to hang their lights back up and turn them back on in honor of Anthony Sr. and Connie.
“I couldn’t believe that someone would send her this letter,” neighbor Karen McGuggart told the Washington Post. “Losing her wonderful dad, whom all the neighbors loved, and her beautiful aunt, who was always smiling, was such a tragedy. We [were] heartbroken.”
When McGuggart’s children heard what had happened to Sara, they were outraged. They went up to the attic to retrieve their box of Christmas lights, and they—like dozens of others in their neighborhood and surrounding area—got out the ladder and set about reinstalling their holiday lights and decorations.
“To see the lights and the block lit up again,” Sara says, “it touched my heart.”
Christmas in February
The support didn’t stop there. When the man formerly named Frank Pascuzzi—who legally changed his name to Santa Claus—saw Sara’s story on TV, he decided to take his Santa suit out of seasonal retirement. He spends the holidays dressing up in Santa’s traditional red and white suit and doing appearances for local organizations, including the New York Yankees.
On Valentine’s Day, Claus rode down Sara and Anthony Jr.’s street in a car parade he had helped organize, which also featured Mrs. Claus and the Grinch. One of the first cars in line blasted “Frosty the Snowman” while some 60 others followed in vehicles decked out with flashing Christmas lights.
“We wanted them to see that the community was behind them,” Claus says.
Sara, her brother, and her son stood outside their house, drinking hot chocolate and waving to the passing crowd. The icing on the cake: It had snowed the night before, so all the lawns were covered with a dusting of white powder. It was as if the whole world was conspiring to make sure Sara and her family had a proper Christmas.
“We got a little bit of joy back that night,” Sara says.
She never learned the identity of the Scrooge who sent the note. But for the Pascucci family, that one mean-spirited act was far outweighed by so many more acts of kindness. The shows of support by their neighbors were an important reminder that “the good does outweigh the bad and most people have good hearts,” she says.
A few weeks after the Valentine’s Day Christmas parade, Sara and Anthony Jr. decided they were ready to take down the lights. Sara said it was hard to pack them away—“but not as hard as I think it would have been if we didn’t experience all that support and love.”
As for this Christmas, Sara says, “We are not going to make it a sad holiday. We will keep the tradition going. We’re definitely going to do something big.”
And if they make their display bright enough, she believes her dad and aunt might even be able to see it from heaven.
Next, see how this one hotel owner took his community in during a Christmas blizzard and why we named his town the Nicest Place in America 2021.