Many people I’ve spent Christmas with in prison have described this time of year the same way: feeling like there’s something they’re supposed to do, but they couldn’t remember what it was. I can’t quite relate to this. Every year, the moment Thanksgiving is over, my Christmas spirit becomes activated.
It begins quietly in my cell, making links of green and red paper into “lights” that I tape as close to the ceiling as I can reach. Slowly, these begin to spread across the dorm.
Next my snowflake stencil comes out, alongside a stack of white paper and a disposable razor. A couple of soups traded to the mental health arts-and-crafts group, and I have silver glitter in hand. Bedazzled paper snow suddenly appears in the windows and doors. Paper gingerbread men and snowmen are not far behind.
After December 1, all bets are off. Christmas music comes on the radio and I’m caroling down the halls with gusto. I cannot sing a lick. You may think folks in my dorms would find me obnoxious, or that COs would try to censor my Christmas spirit, but it tends to rub off on everyone who comes in contact.
I’ve actually come to love Christmas even more than I did before I was incarcerated.
Once the commissary finally has Christmas cards in stock, I’ll buy them up like I’m at Sam’s Club. After taping them around the dorm and covering every inch of my cell door, I’ll sit down with my address book. Everyone in the free world who is dear to my heart gets a card. Everyone in my dorm does too, each containing a particularly corny Christmas joke, chosen just for them.
Then the Christmas trees. I’ll make a small one for my cell, a less small one for the dorm, and ornaments for both. On Christmas Eve, two dozen bundles containing one soup and one nutty bar each will arrive under the dorm Christmas tree—each with a sticky note bearing a name and room number, to avoid confusion. The bundles for the folks with the least financial support will have some extras, like soap and deodorant, too.
I regret that I have never sung in the annual Christmas show put on by the chaplain’s choir and other people who can actually sing. I worry my singing voice would make people laugh at me or perhaps suffer an aneurysm, but I love Christmas music. A tradition in and of itself is cajoling, pestering, begging—”merry bullying,” some may have called it—my friends into attending the Christmas choir with me.
Christmas Day is showtime, baby. On the 12th day of Christmas, my two good friends and I bring: 50 ramen soups, 20 packs Sweet Sue canned chicken, 10 spicy summer sausage, four large dill pickles, two bottles jalapeño squeeze cheese, two bags refried beans and one jar jalapeños. Total $124.44 at commissary and served in a cereal bowl, as the lyrics go.
More than a decade in prison has challenged me to expand my concepts of loved ones and community.
About 2 million people, many of whom celebrate Christmas—or did, in the free world—will be incarcerated in the United States on December 25. It’s understandable if not all of them feel particularly festive. But I’ve actually come to love Christmas even more than I did before I was incarcerated.
More than a decade in prison has challenged me to expand my concepts of loved ones and community. All those Christmases have taught me to create my own traditions, but none of them are really for me. They’re for the people in my life, near or far. I’ve just always wanted Christmas to feel real to them, for it to hold the meaning and joy that it does for me.
We’ve all heard that the true meaning of Christmas isn’t defined by the decorations or the gifts or the food. It isn’t defined by physical location, either. It can permeate the prison walls or anywhere else, so long as you actively cultivate it. Christmas is a heart condition.
Top photograph via Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. Inset photographs by anonymous.