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The Christmas holiday season spent in prison is a vile amalgamation of two conflicting concepts. One being a celebration, and the other, an imposed state of penitence. The experience can vary, depending on an individual’s circumstances. Family ties (or a lack of them), length of sentence and the number of years incarcerated can affect a person’s outlook.

I attempted to discuss this topic with about a dozen inmates. Most of them would not have the conversation, and even made some type of derogatory comment. This very basic fact speaks volumes.

One of the men who did speak with me, simply said the holidays made him miss the family he lost. He is serving five life sentences.

Another man explained rather awkwardly about his estranged wife bringing the children for a yearly visit each Christmas. He shrugged and told me, “It gets weirder every year.”

Then he walked away while saying, “And don’t use my name.”

He is in the middle of a 20-year sentence and has a boyfriend here in prison.

I spent last Christmas writing about my earliest holiday memories. Here is what I wrote on Christmas Day in 2020: 

It was after the dog ate my birthday cake in the fall of 1970, I started school.

I was in a small town school in a place called Middletown, Delaware. It didn’t seem overly imposing at first. After all, I’d just been transferred from a state orphanage to a private foster home for adoption. Things were looking up.

I was trying to gain an understanding of why my new foster sisters fed my birthday cake to a very appreciative Irish Setter when I entered the public school system.

My concentration on this dissipated when I discovered the other kids at school were fixated on the upcoming holiday. All conversations concerned the guaranteed bounty Santa was sure to deliver. Santa this, Santa that …

The school was soon covered with decorations. The teachers kept us in line with threats or promises involving the almighty Santa himself. I had no experience with this Christmas thing, and my one recent birthday memory included contusions and abrasions.

At home, the upcoming event was not discussed much, though it was clearly acknowledged there was no such thing as Santa. Gifts would be from the foster parents, and practical ones only. Clothing sizes were confirmed, and the only decorations mentioned involved some mandatory chore of putting popcorn on a string.

In school, other kids talked of outrageous gifts Santa would bring. Just a few days before the holiday vacation was to begin, some children started to show off gifts that Santa had somehow delivered early.

Amazing yo-yos, shiny slinky toys, and cool matchbox cars, seemed to spill from my classmates’ pockets. I wasn’t overly bothered by this. I still had my birthday gifts.

The problem started when an older boy noticed I didn’t talk about Santa or toys. He liked bragging about his new glow-in-the-dark yo-yo. He also had a bright red sock full of shiny new coins — lots of nickels, dimes, and even quarters gleamed in his little red stocking.

He got mad when I didn’t seem sufficiently impressed. Soon he was making mean comments about my red hair and where I lived. When it came time for recess, he just wouldn’t leave me alone. Santa this, Santa that…

Finally, I just yelled at him. “There’s no such thing as Santa! It’s all a big lie!”

I may have cussed a bit too because then he hit me in the mouth and split my lip. I knocked him down and started kicking him. I think he was surprised by my response. He was accustomed to winning, and I was tired of losing.

The last time I kicked him, his little red sack of loot popped out of his pocket and dozens of glittering new coins showered all around us. He started wailing frantically just as a teacher arrived to investigate.

Corporal punishment was an accepted practice in those days, and I was paddled in front of the whole class. 

That was no big deal until I yelled out for all to hear, “There’s no Santa! It’s all a lie!”

That’s when they expelled me from school.

I learned a valuable life lesson that year on Christmas Eve. Don’t ever put ketchup on popcorn and eat it if you have a busted lip. It burnt like heck.

After decades in prison, the holidays have become a meaningless day as time marches toward release, madness, or death. Upon release, an inmate’s apathetic reaction to the holidays can be a near crippling form of social impairment, as he commits faux pas at every turn.

I don’t know what I’ll be doing for the holidays this year. I’ll probably be writing.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Eric Finley is a writer incarcerated in Florida.