Growing up in a large family Christmas was always celebrated in the traditional Norman Rockwell style with many brothers and sisters both older and younger than myself, the excitement and anticipation of Christmas began immediately after Thanksgiving, when dear old dad would pull out all the holiday lights from the cardboard boxes concealed in the attic and spread them out across the floor as us kids would compete with each other to find any burnt out bulbs that needed replacing. Once that task was completed, it would be an honor to hold the long strands of lights as dad balanced precariously on a ladder nailing them along the roof overhangs, then as if by magic seemingly always just at the right moment as darkness began we would all gather to watch as they came to life. In that moment of unified silence the Spirit of Christmas became one with us.
Then would come the tree. Never but never an artificial tree, not in our house. Even in the years when there would barely be enough money for food, there was always a large freshly cut evergreen tree, with the scent of pine filling the room. Boxes of beautiful antique ornaments handed down through the generations would be carefully unwrapped and meticulously placed in just the right spot with rows of tiny flashing multicolored lights accented by a million strands of silver and gold tinsel, almost each strand carefully dropped over the branches by us kids leaving the lower part of the tree with significantly more than the harder to reach upper branches, but no body even complained.
This majestic Christmas tree would always be up no later than the first week of December and then brightly wrapped boxes would begin to appear beneath the tree. That was the Christmas tease that has tormented children through the ages… What could possibly be in these beautiful boxes? Of course, children being children, we would all find a way to ever so very carefully steal a peek in that one of two particular box with our name only to almost without exception discover that the box contained nothing more than clothes. Silly kids – we already knew that only Santa Claus brought the good stuff and that wouldn’t happen until Christmas Eve.
Each Christmas Eve all of us kids would be herded off to bed early and given a stern warning that soon Santa Claus would be near and he’d know for sure if we weren’t sleeping. Of course we couldn’t sleep but each of us in our own way did our very best to pretend to as we each fantasized about what Santa might leave us. The hours would pass slowly – very, very slowly – until the early morning hours when dad would open the bedroom doors, releasing us from our rooms with the excited announcement that Santa had come and we would all rush into the living room and stand in awe at the piles and piles of presents that had been left beneath the tree.
With so many kids all anxious to rip open these gifts, controlling the chaos was the first priority. With the barely contained excitement of a child himself, dad would reign over the distribution of the presents, picking one box at a time and loudly calling off the name of each. In that large circle all our eyes would be gleaming in silent anticipation as we each awaited our name to be called. Then quickly pouncing forward when it was, to claim our gift and retreat behind the lines to rip it open. Soon enough the living room would be overcome with haphazardly discarded boxes and wrappings but nobody seems to really notice.
No matter what each of us received in that moment of time it became our entire world. Of course there would be the obligatory clothes, which were inevitably piled neatly to the side, to be collected later. Although we seldom got the toys we really wanted – apparently Santa Claus had a cash flow problem and couldn’t afford the most popular toys – what we got quickly made us forget about what we thought we wanted and the joy of receiving those gifts overcame any disappointment.
Looking back, I can’t recall even being disappointed at not receiving what I thought I wanted, as what I got always seemed to be even better. That’s why I knew even long after other kids my age gave up that Santa had to be real; dad couldn’t possibly afford all those wonderful presents. Only too many years later did I realize how much he would willingly sacrifice each year to make Christmas special, working long hours at the steel plant and even pawning off his few prized possession as nothing was ever allowed to break the sanctity of Christmas.
Soon after all the gifts were unwrapped we would be forced to set them aside and retreat back into our rooms to dress in our Sunday best then pile in the station wagon for a drive to the Christmas service. Even the thought of resisting this ritual seemed silly – marching into church as a family each Christmas morning was as much a part of Christmas as Christmas itself even of we didn’t fully understand the spiritual implications of Christmas at that time. But even as the priest administered the solemn sermon, already our thoughts were on the fest that would soon follow.
Within a few hours we were home again. The Christmas Spirit filled the house with a joyous mood as Christmas carols played endlessly on the record player and our attention turned from the gifts we already received to plots of pilfering the table piled high with cakes and candies laid out for guests that might drop by. With military precision us kids would band together and recon the living room then slowly sneak our way towards that table and careful not to let our presence be known, our little heads would pop up quickly as our hands reached for that morsel of sweet goodness and then a quick retreat would be made.
As all the dishes of cookies, candies, and cakes would slowly disappear the smell of Christmas dinner would fill the house. Without exception Christmas dinner would be provided with abundance in the traditional style with all the trimmings and the family would gather around the expanded table and eat. This was the one meal when no matter how dysfunctional the family was the rest if the year, we were truly family for that one meal. But then it would too soon be over and that one special day became only a memory.
These memories continue to be my Christmas and have become my ritual. Merle Haggard once sung a song about a man turning 21 in prison doing life without parole. My own ballad would not be that much different. I’ve never had another Christmas since leaving home. At 46 years old, this is now my twenty-sixth Christmas in a cage; the past 23 Christmas’ have been spent condemned to death in a cage on death row.
It is the Christmas of the past that remains my Christmas of the present. Being condemned to death I am not allowed to celebrate Christmas in any traditional sense. In the early years I would anxiously await the Christmas cards from family and friends, then hang each upon my cell wall and share the Spirit of Christmas with the few who chose to remember me. But as the years slowly passed the cards became fewer and fewer, even most of my brothers and sisters have now long forgotten me and given me up as dead. Although I remain blessed by a few special friends who make a point of sharing their Christmas Spirit with me, the friends too slowly drift away and become fewer and fewer.
Many years ago when I first came to death row we were allowed to celebrate Christmas and it was something we looked forward to. Each December we would be allowed to receive two packages from the outside world containing various necessities such as winter clothes, a pair of shoes, cosmetics and toiletries, and even a nice watch or ring. Then the Christmas meal would be traditional style, real turkey with all the trimmings and various pieces of cakes and pies. But then conservative politicians found out about the “special treatment” given to prisoners at holidays and made political careers by campaigning against these things. One by one every holiday privilege was eliminated and out of vindictive malice and spite the Spirit of Christmas was banned from prisons.
Where I once proudly displayed the few cards I’d receive on my otherwise barren grayish beige wall, I am now prohibited from doing so. Up until a few years ago I had a photo of a beautiful Christmas tree I’d tape to my back wall above my sink until one Christmas Eve a guard made an issue of it. I was ordered to remove it, but refused. A few hours later as I was taking a shower that guard went into my cell and removed that picture – ripping it into small pieces then throwing it into my toilet. That one small semblance of Christmas I so cherished was lost forever as that Spirit of Christmas was overcome by malice and spite.
Now each Christmas becomes more depressing as I become even more isolated from that world outside. Too often my thoughts now turn to my own kids and grandkids and wishing I could spend just one Christmas with them. All my own children are now grown, but I can only imagine the joy on my grandson’s face as he anxiously rips open the brightly wrapped box containing the small gift a friend so generously sent in my name.
Then I think of all the others here and in prisons across the country who like me can only think of Christmas’ past, as the Christmas of both present and future no longer even hold the hope of what the true Spirit of Christmas is about. I remain blessed by the few cards I will receive, but know that many others around me won’t get a card at all. There will be no Christmas sweets and treats. There will only be the same cold, barren walls and the sound of silence as each of us retreat into our own dreams of what once was and most likely will never be again.
So, this Christmas I ask you to remember what the true Spirit of Christmas really is as we gather to celebrate the birth of a men condemned to death for our sins, that through His condemnation each of us equally were given the gift of Hope. If those of us who claim to be Christian cannot actually be Christians on Christmas, then when can we be?
What would Jesus do of He were to celebrate Christmas today? I’d like to think that He would reach out to the lowest of the low and share hope with those condemned to death; that in the true Spirit of Christmas, in the true Spirit of Christ. Especially those condemned would not be forgotten.
To both friend and stranger equally the same, I say… Merry Christmas!!!