Christmas in Jail
The upper floors of the City-County Building in Madison, Wisconsin are part of the Dane County Jail
"This is the first time I'll be in jail over Christmas. I've been in jail a couple times before, but never over Christmas. I feel so bad for my family. Being in jail hurts my family more than it hurts me. I feel so bad for my kids. I'm really hurting my family by not being home with them for Christmas. I can't let this happen again. I've got to get my life back together."
The young woman struggled to keep tears from seeping out of her eyes as we went around the circle in the jail chapel, talking about what the Christmas story that we had just read in Matthew and Luke meant to us today.
I tried to imagine what it would have been like for my mom to be in jail over Christmas when I was a little girl. It's hard to picture my mom being in jail. I think the most illegal thing she ever did in her life was speed up to 70 miles per hour to pass a car on curvy Highway 12, driving from Cambridge to Madison on her way to work in the morning. The speed limit was 65 back then, and she had a gadget in her car that buzzed when she reached 66 mph. That didn't happen very often.
Family portrait, about 1960: Nancy, Dad, Mom, Danny, Marian
But supposing Mom was in jail, whether guilty of anything, or not… What would Christmas have been like for me?
- No Christmas baking: No cut-outs to frost and decorate. No Norwegian cookies. No date bars. No new recipe experiments – Mom tried out one or more new recipes every year. No homemade peanut brittle. No Holiday Hill whipped cream cake…
- No one to ensure the whole house was decorated for Christmas, not just the tree.
- No one to help us memorize our parts for the Christmas program in church.
- No perfect Christmas presents. Mom always figured out what we wanted most, and managed to do all the Christmas shopping during the lunch hours of her job in Madison.
- No one patiently trying to teach us patience on Christmas Eve as we waited for Dad to finish milking the cows and then come back into the house so we could open our presents.
- No Christmas stockings. Mom always gave each of us one of her old nylon stockings with runs to set out on Christmas Eve for Santa to fill with an orange, an apple, a candy cane, and a few small wrapped presents for us to open on Christmas morning.
- No special dinner on Christmas Day. Pan-fried chicken was my favorite.
- No one to play Scrabble with me on Christmas afternoon.
I understood the young mother's point in the jail circle. Christmas is a very important time to be with family, not to be sitting in jail. But that's the situation for her this year. The other inmates understood her point, too. They felt the same way.
As we continued around the circle, we got to me. I commented that hearing the whole Christmas story read in one sitting – the shepherds, Jesus' birth in the stable, the wise men – reminded me of a question that's printed in the bulletin of one of the churches I'm playing at this Sunday. "If you could play a part in the Nativity story, which role would you want: shepherd, inn keeper, wise man, angel, Mary, or Joseph?" I said that I would either want to be an angel or a shepherd. It would be so much fun, so thrilling to be singing – or playing an instrument – to be welcoming Baby Jesus into the world. Several of the inmates explored this idea for themselves. One said, "Oh, I'd want to be a shepherd. It would be so exciting."
When we all finished sharing our thoughts on what the Christmas Story meant to us this year, it was time for our annual Christmas carol sing. I went to the piano and Chaplain Julia handed out song sheets. She told the inmates they could keep the song sheets if they wanted, but she would have to remove the staples before they could take them out of the chapel. Most of them wanted to keep the song sheets.
Chaplain Julia said they could request two things – the song to sing and which verses to sing. The first song requested, as soon as Chaplain Julia asked for requests, was the last song in the booklet, "Do You Hear What I Hear?" The requester asked for all verses. Actually, all verses were requested for every song we sang. And, boy, did we have fun singing! There was never a long, awkward pause waiting for a request. As soon as we finished one song, another request was immediately out there. The women sang every song with enthusiasm, as a truly special women's choir. I think we all identified with the angels. We sang a lot of angel carols – "Angels from the Realms of Glory," "Angels We Have Heard on High," and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." As usual, we ended with "Silent Night."
When we finished singing, Chaplain Julia asked me, "Could we choose to be Baby Jesus in my question of who we would like to be in the Christmas Story?" She said, "It would be wonderful to be Baby Jesus and feel all the love of everyone singing to me." The inmates agreed.
I guess a little miracle happened in jail last Thursday. The women who came to the chapel to worship God and sing Christmas Carols, walked in feeling the weight of being in jail over Christmas, away from their family and loved ones. When they walked out of the chapel and were escorted back to their cell blocks, their spirits were lifted. I'm sure some of their spirits were still praising God, singing "Glo-ri-a in ex-cel-sis De-o." God's love was being experienced right there in jail.
This picture may be bleached a little too white, but it still shows love – wondrous heavenly love and peace present on Earth.