RED HOOK — New Yorkers devastated by Hurricane Sandy — including some who just got their power back after weeks — celebrated Christmas Tuesday in neighborhoods that are still reeling nearly two months after the monster storm.
At the St. Francis de Sales Parish in Belle Harbor, a standing-room-only crowd packed into the Christmas morning mass, reuniting with friends they hadn't seen during the long cleanup.
"It was very comforting," said Bridget Santiago, 49, a Belle Harbor resident. "This is a really tight-knit community and seeing so many people here today was indicative of what this community is.
"I was crying through the whole service. It really was beautiful."
Across the street, a Red Cross tent decorated with lights and wreaths stood by the church's playground, offering hot meals and a warm place to spend the afternoon for those who still didn't have heat.
Pat and Richard Blanck, Belle Harbor residents who only just got their heat back two weeks ago, helped dish out the food.
"We're volunteering for the day to give back what we got just a little while ago," Pat Blanck said.
Her husband added, "It gives you a purpose for the day, to share."
Christmas lights twinkled from many houses on the surrounding Rockaways streets, but on some blocks, there was still nothing but rubble.
In Breezy Point, which suffered a massive fire in the wake of the storm, hundreds of families returned to St. Thomas More Roman Catholic Church on Rockaway Point Boulevard, including many whose homes were destroyed and are now living elsewhere.
"People came back to celebrate on their home turf," said Michael Curran, 57, the parish's monsignor. "Even if people can't stay here, there's something about celebrating Christmas at home."
The church flooded during the storm, heavily damaging the bottom portion of the walls, which have been removed.
But Curran said it was enlightening to celebrate Christmas amid so much hardship.
"Like Jesus, Mary and Joseph, we are on the road, living on the kindness of others," he said. "I think we have a deeper appreciation for the spiritual meaning of Christmas, the familial meaning of Christmas. We've gotten beyond the glitter."
In Brooklyn's Red Hook Houses, residents pushed carts stacked high with presents across the complex Tuesday afternoon as cooking aromas wafted from high-rise windows.
Reina Polanco, 45, said she only just got her electricity back last week, and she struggled to afford gifts for her young daughters because her work cleaning houses had dried up.
"At night it's very difficult because there's a lot of water in the walls," said Polanco, who added that the poor conditions had aggravated her daughter's asthma. "It's just freezing."
But Aaliyah Williams, 15, who also lives in Red Hook Houses, said her family was celebrating the holiday just as they had in years past.
"It's normal," she said. "My mother's cooking string beans, collard greens, mac 'n' cheese, ham and chicken, all the Southern foods."