Saturday, August 7, 2021
Black and white photo of a snowy yard surrounded by a fence.
Photo by Anna Zalevskaya


Today is December 22, 2013, as I sit here at USP Tucson during this Christmas season. This year, Christmas falls on a Wednesday, so we’re days away from one of the most important holidays, or holy days, of the year.

I’m a guy who loves to be festive, especially during Christmas. At home, I love Thanksgiving, and the weekend after, I’m putting up Christmas decorations, making merry before November is even over. I love everything about Christmas, from the true message to the cartoons, family, presents, and festive music.

But in prison, things are much different. When I got here on December 7, 2012, I didn’t get a chance to get any festive Christmas spirit in me. This year, I found a Tucson radio station, 94.9 FM, that’s been playing twenty-four hours of Christmas music until Christmas.

I love it.

Yet I’ve found that most inmates don’t like it. How can you not like this Christmas music? Even many Christian inmates shy away from listening to too much Christmas music. It caused me to think why inmates fear Christmas as I listen to this station’s Christmas music.

Well now, is it really “fear” (as I listen to Chicago’s version of “Let It Snow”)? Do inmates “fear” Christmas? There clearly is a negative feeling toward this holiday, and the answer is obvious: Christmas, to most inmates, means family. And no one here will be home for Christmas. So the holiday becomes a reminder of things they cannot enjoy.

Some inmates have children; my cellmate has a daughter who is only four years old. Others have parents, siblings, wives, or girlfriends, and others who they won’t get to see this Christmas…as a rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” comes on, possibly by the Vienna Boys Choir. So, to many inmates, Christmas in prison is a reminder of loved ones they won’t get to see this year.

Christmas also invokes past memories, most pleasant, some unpleasant. Personally, I don’t recall a “bad” Christmas. I enjoyed every one of them, so Christmas is a wonderful time for me to recall past joys. Yet to many, the holidays may not have been so kind. So the idea of actually celebrating Christmas has mixed emotions . . . as I hear “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” by I think Michael Bublea . . . however you spell his name. So Christmas in prison is more stressful than joyful. I’ve certainly seen more stress than joy up to today, three days before Christmas.

What’s fascinating is that these men, some looking like bodybuilders, some in gangs, some violent natured, clearly shun the celebration of Christmas . . . as I listen to “The Ringing of the Bells” by whom, I don’t know.

What is sad is that this may be a capsule of what we think of as Christmas and have completely forgotten the true message. Whether in prison or not, it’s still a celebration of the birth of Christ—have we forgotten that? The song on now is “This Christmas,” a classic R & B Christmas song, but I draw a blank on the artist—Donny Hathaway!

Have we, as inmates, lost the message and reverted to carnal celebrations? As this is the birth of Christ, ought we celebrate it anywhere? Without the Christmas tree, the presents, the food, the music, or even family, Christmas still comes, and the holy day exists whether we hide or not.

Having said this, building a case that inmates have a fear or stressful feeling toward Christmas, somehow the spirit is still able to show through. Here in the dorm I live in (B2), there are several Christmas get-togethers; inmates pooling money or canteen to make a “spread” for inmates. I personally have been invited to three: one for guys from Louisiana (I was born in New Orleans), a second here in the dorm for many guys, and a smaller one. Inmates will find a way to celebrate, if nothing more than to share fellowship and ward off the stress of Christmas.

The prison provides a Christmas dinner; this year it will be turkey and steak. The prison gave each inmate a Christmas package (paid by inmate spending in canteen): a bag full of snacks. Some inmates have put decorations in their cell. The chapel will have a Christmas play, and there will be holiday activities. So are we really fearing Christmas if we’re surrounded by the celebration of it?

There is no doubt that for inmates, Christmas is a hard holiday to deal with because it can be an emotionally painful experience . . . as I now listen to the rock and roll classic “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and I’ve forgotten who did this.

I think inmates take the holiday in doses, afraid to submerge themselves in the Christmas spirit; it’s just too painful to many of these guys. But they can manage it in smaller doses. For example, I can listen to Christmas music for hours…I think Kenny G’s “Winter Wonderland” is on.

I love this kind of music. But most inmates can’t listen to more than one song of this music before they turn the station.

Perhaps . . . perhaps, the fear is losing control of emotions while in prison. There is no rule that says inmates can’t have feelings, but in the super-macho world that is prison, most inmates can’t afford to look “weak,” even over sentimental feelings of Christmas.

So, as the classic Christmas song “Feliz Navidad” comes on, I am reminded to be merry for Christmas. We have to remember that this isn’t about the material things that come and go, it’s about the birth of Jesus Christ, which ought to invoke great joy because on this day, hope was given to mankind.

For that reason, we can’t fear or stress the holidays just because we aren’t home. Christmas comes no matter what we do; we can’t hide from it; we might as well embrace it.

I will not “fear” Christmas . . . as my last song sounds like Rod Stewart’s “Let It Snow.”

Hey! I started this essay with the same song, different rendition!

Merry Christmas to all—