This article was published in partnership with Charlottesville Tomorrow, a community-driven, socially conscious news organization covering the Charlottesville, Virginia, area.
“Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright,” I sang softly, harmonizing with my mom and sisters.
About 20 years ago, in Saltville, Virginia, Silmarien, Gwynniel and I sat huddled around our mother on a sagging couch. Even in the dinky apartment, they looked like a trio of angels, bathed in the soft blue glow from the fake, white Christmas tree in our living room.
It was around 3 a.m. — still Christmas Eve to us — and we finally finished last-minute Christmas preparations that had started right after we put my two young brothers to bed. I don’t know if Mark and Joseph, 8 and 9 years old then, still believed in Santa, but us older gals (I was 17 years old) enjoyed the ruse.
After we tucked the boys in, we tramped out to the parking lot and retrieved their gifts from the trunk of Mom’s Ford Mustang, our breath puffing before us in the frigid air. Back inside, we spent several hours trying to be quiet and stifled laughter as we joked and teased each other, tackling our Christmas night to-do list.
We frantically wrapped and arranged presents, prepared sides and desserts for dinner the next day and cleaned up messes we made along the way. Somehow, despite our antics — frosting smeared on each others’ faces and gift bows stuck in places they don’t belong — we managed to pull off a Christmas miracle.
When we finished, Mom poured us glasses of eggnog, generously laced with Maker’s Mark — even though only one of us was older than 21 — and turned off the lights. We lit cigarettes, settled on the couch and smoked silently before our mother opened a battered, green hymnal and began to sing.
My sisters and I grew up singing in the Church of Latter Day Saints in Richmond, Kentucky and Sugar Grove United Methodist in Morgantown, several hours west of Richmond. That night we joined our mother, belting out literally every Christmas carol in the book. If I had known that would be the last time I would share those cherished Christmas rituals with them, I might have told them how much I treasured that moment, and all the times we came together to create magic out of thin air.
Soon I began a pattern of missing family holidays to run around and get high, which continued until 2008, when I spent my first Christmas incarcerated in Bexar County Adult Detention Center in San Antonio, Texas. The next year, just out of my teenage years, I was sentenced to 20 years in prison for aiding and abetting capital murder and transferred to the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women.
But that night all those years ago, before the chaos and the turmoil, as we sat illuminated by the ethereal light of the tree in 2002 — one of the rare serene moments without any bickering or cursing — I enjoyed feeling that, for a little while, all truly was calm and bright.
Even on the inside, Christmas was never a silent night
In 2015, I was living in the College Wing of the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. As the name implies, the College Wing housed students taking classes through Piedmont Virginia Community College’s satellite program. Unlike people in the general population wing, we had dedicated time each day for studying, when noise levels were regulated. And every month we held a potluck to celebrate birthdays and holidays. During the years I lived there, I was surrounded by a close-knit community and involved in a serious relationship with another prisoner, Lisa.
Lisa was a pretty girl — sweet, bubbly, friendly. Everyone liked her, and she always had a smile on her face. But around me, at least in those early days of our budding romance, she would disassemble in the most endearing way. I remember when a friend shared that Lisa had a crush on me; the next day, I sat down at the desk in front of her. Before I knew it, Lisa burst out in nervous laughter, jumped up and ran to the bathroom. It was adorable.
Around Christmas, a festive holiday atmosphere pervaded the wing (decorated with a “Nightmare Before Christmas” theme) and a variety of events were organized: a pinochle card tournament, bingo and door prizes, a holiday cook-off, and a potluck for the entire wing. No one was excluded, and people happily paid for anyone who couldn’t afford the buy-in for games, a gift or a dinner dish. For example, if you couldn’t afford to buy a gift for the holiday gift exchange, someone would buy one on your behalf and add your name to the tag. For potlucks, those of us who could, would pitch in with an extra bag of chips or cookies, and if we made pizza — the crust constructed out of cheese puffs and crackers — we’d slice it up and pass it around.
On Christmas Eve, I went upstairs to Lisa’s room. Although the facility rules prohibit socializing inside other inmates’ rooms, our wing had a system. Before an officer entered the area, one or more people would say, “Uh oh!” in unison, giving you time to step out of the room. We all pitched in whenever we were in the day room, so we didn’t worry about getting caught where we weren’t supposed to be. Usually that meant I spent a lot of time in Lisa’s room. But on this day, she banned me as she prepared for our date that night.
Earlier in the week week, Lisa and I had spent a small fortune on commissary — a prison general store, of sorts — ordering the ingredients for our dinner: Blocks of cheese, pasta sauce, cheese puffs, ramen noodles, sausages, packages of Chef Boyardee-style lasagna, chocolate chip cookies, creamer and Kool-Aid for frosting. We also had an onion smuggled from the prison kitchen. During the day on Christmas Eve, Lisa enlisted me to cut, crush and mix things in the day room prior to her cooking them. Periodically, she would come down and grab ingredients to take back up to her room, where the food was being prepared.
When it was finally ready, she invited me up. She had placed colored paper over her light and had a Christmas concert playing quietly on the TV. A warm, intimate ambience filled the room. After greeting me with a hug and kiss, she directed me to sit down on one of the folded yoga mats on the floor. Her property box, covered with a sheet, made a small table.
Lisa, who was released from prison in 2019, was an excellent cook. She served lasagna, baked for an hour with a blow dryer, ginger ale mixed with a splash of strong black tea (which tastes somewhat like flat dark beer without the alcoholic kick), and chocolate cake decorated like a Christmas tree.
After we ate, she made peppermint hot chocolate and we sat side-by-side on her bed, listening to the televised orchestra playing “Joy to the World.” We sipped in silence until they finished their last performance. When the credits came up, she turned it off and looked at me.
“Want to exchange a gift tonight?” she asked.
Grinning, I reached into the pocket of my sweat pants to pull out the small, neatly wrapped package. I winked and said, “One step ahead of you, darlin’.”
She turned to retrieve a comparably-sized package for me. We opened them together, laughing. We’d gotten earrings for each other — we both bought them off the black market through friends. She got me silver stars, my favorite shape, and I got her little gold elephants, her favorite animal. When our giggling subsided, she hugged me tightly.
“Merry Christmas, Rellie.”
“Merry Christmas, babe,” I replied, resting my cheek on her hair. As I sat there holding her, I began to sing “Silent Night.”
On the next song — I think it was “Hark! the Herald Angel Sing” — she joined me, about as harmoniously as a yodeling cat. I chuckled at her efforts. We sat in her cozy room, singing carols, sipping hot chocolate, teasing and laughing until I returned to my room for count at about 9:30 pm.
After we locked down for the night, I hummed while I finished making and wrapping her presents. Around 3 a.m., I climbed onto the top bunk and cocooned myself in my blankets. I laid there contemplating the next day’s festivities, fighting child-like anticipation, until I finally fell into blissful sleep.
This year, at age 37, I’m in another program wing called the Prison Fellowship Academy, designed to help us learn to live by pro-social values both here and outside. Last weekend, we played Christmas carols on a speaker in the day room while we made and hung decorations for the wing. Our theme this year is snowmen, and each door is unique to the person who lives there. Mine, for example, has a snowman screaming because a dog is chewing on one of his arms. Across the top of the door it reads, “FELIZ NAVIDOG.”
I’ll have several small celebrations with friends, gathering them together for cappuccino, coffee, hot chocolate, snacks and Christmas carols. Until then, I am content with playing “Santa Rockstar” (a “Guitar Hero” knockoff in which Saint Nick plays Christmas classics with a metal twist) on my prison tablet, singing to myself as I tap colored squares on the screen and daydream about Christmases past. I’ve heard Lisa is married now, so I imagine she’s baking cookies and other Christmas treats in a real kitchen this year. She deserves it.
This will be the 14th Christmas I’ve celebrated in prison, each one unique. To me, the Christmas spirit is chaos wrapped in song, so wherever I am or whoever I’m with, Christmas Eve is never quite a silent night.
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.