162 | Christmas Decorating Party

December 26, 2010
Sunday, 6:00 p.m.
Letter #162: Christmas Decorating Party


Dear Family,

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Though I haven’t written in a few weeks, you all have been in my thoughts and prayers. I’m excited to tell you a bit of what my life’s been like this month.

At the beginning of December, we received an announcement in each 40-man “pod” of guys that we would be entered into a “pod-decorating contest.” Mind you, I do not have a Michael’s Hobby Crafts store nearby or an attic full of last year’s Christmas décor at my ready disposal. And those Christmas lights I used to put all over my vehicle? Yeah, I don’t have those, either. Or the vehicle. So, I laughed.

In California’s prison system, we aren’t allowed to put up any signs, artwork, or pictures except in a small designated space on our wall in each cell. Here? Wow … delivered to each pod was a stack of construction paper, ribbon, cotton, glue stick, child’s-type scissors, and a roll of red wrapping paper. Additionally, we were allowed to have used cardboard boxes to cut up (yes, with razor blades, which are confiscated if found in California facilities).

I was elected “design coordinator,” but I basically just asked what each guy wanted to do and assigned them to do it. (Hey, if you want to painstakingly cut out 3-foot long reindeer from cardboard for an hour each, who am I to interfere with your nine-hour Day From Hell?)

Instantly, it seemed, our very bland, almost institution-like living environment—in fact, very institution-like living environment—became transformed into a winter wonderland of festive cheer* with candy-cane-striped poles, snowflakes galore, a fireplace, chimney, and Christmas tree. Magazine pages folded into small cubes became colorful ornaments hung from railings. Every door had a couple small paper stockings with the occupants’ names on them. Some pods had Nativity scenes either beautifully drawn and posted or created from discarded items. Another pod had a large “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season” banner next to a life-sized papier-mâché red-nosed reindeer head mounted on a wall.

I wanted to “let my light shine” without hanging Santa from a noose or hanging a Rudolph trophy head. So, using the only colored sheets of paper I possess—light blue—I “wrapped” my door. I put strips of white paper for “ribbon” and a bow (which made it resemble the flag of Greece), then made it look like the package was being torn open. Inside, against the dark blue backdrop of the door were gold letters that read “Holy Bible.” A tag completed the gift: To: You From: God “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14).

The warden’s representative who judged each pod walked straight over to my door and she oohed and ahhed, saying what a great concept it was, blah, blah, blah.

During the times when I’d stay inside my cell, many officers walking by throughout the season gave me a “thumbs up” gesture as they pointed to the message on the door. (The craziest part is that the glue stick wouldn’t bond the paper to my door, but the toothpaste provided for us worked perfectly. It smells like a band-aid and sticks like one too. Except that band-aids wouldn’t turn your teeth grey after six months of use.)

I put myself in charge of decorating our 10 tables, which was a big mistake when I realized all the work it would entail. So, I devised a “Tree Centerpiece Decorating Contest.” I cut out 20 tree shapes, put two each in 10 large envelopes and gave them to 10 willing and gullible participants whose job it was to return them to me in the envelopes, fully decorated. Well, the guys went all-out with ribbons, tiny ornaments, bows, candy canes, tinsel, and even gifts underneath.

During a lunch service, I handed out pre-made voting slips for everyone to write their first (three points), second (two points), and third (one point) choices for the best tree. Everyone voted, and besides a participation prize of a Top Ramen soup for each completed tree, I awarded four sodas for the 1st place tree, two sodas for 2nd, and one for 3rd.

It was deemed a huge success, and I could devote my time to sending out well over 100 Christmas cards. (If you didn’t receive one, it’s because I don’t have your address. Please send it in reply to this emailed letter.  🙂  Thank you!)

I’ll be staying at this facility for up to a year, it now appears … I’ll keep you posted … More on Christmas later …



*This statement may contain a slight bit of exaggeration.