22 December, 2012

Tidings of Comfort and Schadenfreude

You might never know the Yuletide was upon us. No one here trims a tree, hangs mistletoe, lights candles, or carols merrily. No one wraps presents. No one strings blinky lights. Except, in prison, the spirit of the season glows from our TVs — endless faux-festive commercials, news broadcasts of Christmas tree lightings, and Miracle on 34th Street marathons. The joy wafts over the airwaves, to our radios, in cycles of “Winter Wonderland” covers and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” A few candies, chips, and single-serving freeze-dried coffee packets come in the treat bags distributed by the prison’s staff about one week before Christmas, and these are the closest we prisoners come to happy holidays.

Tensions tend to run higher here, beginning around Thanksgiving, escalating around year’s end. In the free world, families are gathering together (or planning to), coalescing in spirited reunions that are off-limits to those of us locked away. For the convicted, there will be no candied yams or prickly kisses from matriarchs, and they’re unhappy about this fact. Unwilling or unable to talk about the seasonal depression brought about by isolation, many let their frustrations build, or seek succor in mood-altering substances. I imagine the drug trade always picks up, this time of year. Certainly there are fewer silent nights, as I see more arguments, more fights, and animosity so thick in the air you can taste it. It tastes nothing like egg nog.

I have gorgeous memories of childhood Christmases with my parents. We celebrated in the way my mother had grown up with, having our family dinner and opening our gifts to one another on the evening of the twenty-fourth. Every year we had a live tree, tall and hardy, festooned with silver tinsel, handmade German ornaments, and real candles. Brightly wrapped presents ringed the tree’s blanket-covered root ball, and the thick scent of pine filled our candlelit living room. Mum, being such a traditionalist, played an LP of German carols as my father stoked logs in the fireplace. Right before we surrounded the tree to unwrap gifts, she’d open a tin of Lebkuchen that had been air-mailed to us by family, then slice a stollen bought from our local German market the week before. When both sides of the record played through and all the treats were eaten, my father put on a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and I danced like a drunk ballerino, leaping and kicking until I fell down on the carpet, warm, full, and happy.

As an adult, though, I’ve been content to have my Christmas dinner alongside the Jewish families and Middle Eastern med students at a Mongolian barbecue place. Christmas just doesn’t interest me as it did when I was little. I’ve even been accused — perhaps not without due cause — of humbuggery.

But in a mildly ironic way, being locked away means I have reason to be glad of my disenchantment. While the hearts of my fellow inmates are being gnawed at by every Christmastime jingle and “Ho, ho, ho!” they hear, feeling for perhaps the first time all year the chilly distance between them and the people whose lives they are no longer an immediate part of, I suffer only mild annoyance at what I consider so much dutiful, forced, fake cheer.

All the reruns of It’s a Wonderful Life will not get me to finally watch that treacly mess of a movie. A new rendition of “Silent Night” will not move me any more than the old ones do. Another candy cane, in a plastic sack full of salty snacks and cheap sweets, won’t do anything for me but make my breath minty-fresh for a half hour. Unlike most around me, this is the one time of year when I feel almost protected, sheltered from smarmy sentiment and out-of-control consumerism, not overwhelmed by the perpetual sense of missing out. And since I’ve no place to go, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

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