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This Christmas marked another year here in prison and was filled with all the challenges and complications that fill daily prison life. Still, we made the best of it. 

One of the events that took place was a facility-wide decorating contest. The prize for the unit with the best Christmas decorations was a sheet cake, a rare treat inside prison. My unit was determined to win.  

My unit’s decorating committee turned the dayroom into a whimsical Christmas land. There was an ice rink with skating characters all made from cardboard. Silver glitter over blue paint gave the illusion of real ice. White paper snow accented the bookshelves. An array of snowmen made with tissue paper pulled through holes in a cardboard cutout were placed throughout the dayroom.

My clerk’s desk displayed a toy workshop with elves, toys and a conveyor belt. The porter’s desk had an 8-foot Santa Claus with a 3D scroll of names that were set like ribbons to the clerk’s desk. The cop shop was turned into a gingerbread house decorated with candy cutouts and gingerbread men. A sleigh pulled by cardboard reindeer took flight off the phones and across the lower ceiling on one side of the dayroom. We also had a live tree with homemade ornaments and real Christmas lights. The decoration was meant to bring a smile to your face and remind you that we were making the best of Christmas even though we were not at home.

How you experience Christmas in prison depends on where you came from and who you have left in your life. We had amazing staff this year who allowed everyone in the unit to make a phone call home on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day. But overhearing the calls ripped my heart. 

A girl new to prison was sobbing as she told her parents how much she missed them and wanted to be home. Another call involved a girl trying to keep her child’s attention on the phone. The girl tried to keep her composure, but you could tell it was hurting her. A few girls turned down the opportunity to make a phone call because they had no one to call. Another girl was so excited to tell her parents about how her room joined together to make a Christmas meal and exchanged gifts. She was giddy as she described the hygiene products and candy she had received. 

In my room, we watched Christmas classics on television and exchanged stories of past Christmases. We also decorated the room. On the side of a locker, we taped a Christmas tree made of empty Mountain Dew cans. There were different stockings made of paper. Others were crocheted or made from other materials. We decorated the window with snow and a snowman made out of white toothpaste.

We also exchanged gifts and made a Christmas feast. We started cooking on the 23rd and finished up on the 25th. We had tamales, homemade hot sauce, rice, beans, corn, prison fudge and prison cake and drank sodas. The tamales were made by crushing nacho chips and adding water to make dough before rolling them with meat and cheese. The tamales were then bagged and cooked in a bucket of boiling water to allow the flavors to develop. 

There were incidents of amazing Christmas spirit this year. Room 5 in our unit went particularly above and beyond. They selected older inmates in our unit and became their secret Santa. My roommate, who has been in prison for the past 30 years, was one of the chosen and received gifts from Room 5. The act was so sweet and in the Christmas spirit that it touched us all.

I received pictures of my daughter, who does not know me. They show a child growing into a young woman. It reminded me how much I have missed, am missing, and will miss. It also made me think of how my family has missed out on both my daughter’s and my life. 

My bunkie had a sad day. Her sister who lives overseas was home with her children to see their parents, but our prison was too far away for her family to visit. It’s doubly hard because this was her first Christmas in prison. 

I recognize what she is going through because those same feelings are being experienced by every woman in the room and almost every woman in this prison. Everyone wishes they could be with their family, kids, grandkids, etc. 

Christmas in prison is where past memories, present illusions, and future dreams and wishes all meet. We all did the best we could to remain cheerful and not give in to the emotional avalanche that was threatening to break through. 

And the results of the Christmas decoration contest? 

On Dec. 26, it was announced that we had won the prize. That night after our evening meal, a cake was delivered to us, and we lined up in the hallway. 

As we approached the table set up in the game room, we could see the huge sheet cake for the 200 residents in the building. The cake was white and topped with a cream-colored whipped frosting. We picked up our slices, served by members of the Inmate Advisory Council, and returned to our rooms. As we passed by the rooms where the leaders of the decorating committee resided, we thanked them.  

I took a bite, savoring the taste of butter and real powdered sugar in the frosting. The cake was moist and there was a hint of vanilla. My taste buds immediately picked up on flavors that are so rare to our palette. Everyone enjoyed the treat.

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.

Dorothy Maraglino is a writer incarcerated in California. Writing is how she processes the world around her and devotes most of her time to short works that share the realities of prison.