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Christmastime in prison brings memories of Christmas lights and family holiday gatherings.
Photo by Tony Webster (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“Wow! Mom, look at that one!” we all seemed to shout at once. Packed in my mother’s Dodge, my siblings and I were awestruck by the houses decorated with Christmas lights. Some were decked out in specific color schemes; others had reindeers and snowmen set up on their lawns. We would practically climb over one another to get a closer view through the car window. 

Looking back on my childhood, I find myself consumed by joy. As an incarcerated individual, my holidays in prison are obviously nothing like they were at home. But many of us try to foster a holiday spirit in the prison environment. Some guys will bring out their 15-inch televisions and keyboards to watch football and play music in the dayroom. Others will cook microwave dinners together and crack jokes about turning Top Ramen into a meal Grandma used to make at home. It’s funny, but we only laugh to keep from crying.

Growing up, winter was always my favorite time of the year. The crisp air and the smell of snow on the sidewalks freed my spirit. And the Christmas tree that lit up our living room always provided a sense of serenity. But it wasn’t really the lights, the tree or the brisk air brushing against my face that made me happy; it was the family gatherings. 

Early Christmas morning, the grownups prepared mouth-watering meals to bring to the house they all agreed to meet at for the holiday. Meanwhile, my cousins and I would be off plotting how to convince our parents to let us spend the weekend together. We couldn’t wait to compare and contrast our latest toys.

When Christmas morning came and went, and the gift-wrapping paper had been cleared from the floor, the family began making their way to Christmas dinner. I can still hear Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” and their cover with Kenny G of “The Way You Move” blaring through the living room speakers. Not long into the evening, my grandmother had already emptied a few glasses of R&R Canadian whiskey. She was always extra kind after a few drinks — and that’s when we kids would typically ask for stuff.

At the other end of the house, my stepdad and uncles could be heard trash-talking and playing video games. My Uncle Earnest’s voice always carried the loudest. After a few beers, he became the life of the party. 

The women would be in the kitchen making last-minute meal preparations. The kids were always fed first. “Whatchu want on yo plate, baby?” my auntie would ask.

The kitchen table was covered end to end with pans of chicken and ribs, bowls of potato salad, macaroni and cheese, candied yams, collard greens, and square-cut slices of honey glazed cornbread. The counters were filled with different desserts, including my favorite: pineapple cake.

Once everyone had eaten and talked about all there was to talk about, the house began to clear out. As my aunties and uncles dispersed toward their vehicles, my cousins and I began putting our weekend plan to the test. In most cases we were able to execute it, and one of us would be staying the night with the other.

Back in prison, this time of year is very different. We try to create a sense of normalcy by watching football games and sharing meals with our fellow prisoners. But beneath it all, we ache not being with the people we love.

This becomes acutely clear when prisoners finish their 20-minute phone calls home. If you ask how the call was, the response is always some version of, “Dang man, I miss my family.” Some people have gotten to the point of not calling home at all. It is their way of minimizing the pain that comes with being excluded from the family gatherings they once enjoyed.

These are typically the vibes we incarcerated individuals catch around this season. We find joy in what was, while mourning what is.

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.

Antoine Davis is the author of “Building Blocks” and is a licensed minister at Freedom Church of Seattle. He is the founder of Inside Out Mentoring Program and also does community work through Youth Violence Prevention Network. Davis is incarcerated in Washington state.