Winter came early this year, covering much of the map with snow and downright frigid temperatures well before Thanksgiving.

Last night, I grabbed my thermal shirt and sweat clothes to layer up before heading out to the track, and wondered how will I survive my first Christmas inside a place as cold sounding as prison? Insulated clothing may keep my physical body warm, but how do I keep my spiritual body, my soul, warm? Place a liter bottle of soda in the freezer long enough and the expanding pressure of the cold will eventually explode the bottle. How do I keep my soul from getting so frozen that it breaks under the pressure?

The holidays are about family and tradition. We are bombarded with media images of hearth and home – a warming fire, warming food, warming friends and family. And as a child, though no one I knew had a fireplace in their 1970s ranch home, my family celebrated the holiday with warming traditions.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, wrapped mysteries would trickle in to find a tempting place under our tree. These presents were riddles. Fed up with our constant nagging of what Santa might bring, my Mom would put out one present for each of us in the family; a present that could withstand our “gorilla with Samsonite luggage” examinations. Guesses of the contents were based on exhaustive attempts to decipher Mom’s cunning disguises.

Large, lightweight boxes were as deceptive to decode as were weight-laden small boxes: to a child “large” should be heavy; “small” – light. Violently shaken, a silent box was as annoying as those resounding of gravel or nuts and bolts. What items from the Sears Wish Book catalog made those kind of noises? These gifts were like human pet toys, entertaining us kids with Holmes-like suppositions for hours upon days.

On Christmas Eve, we would pile into the station wagon and head for church. It was the one time of the year my Mom had no trouble getting the whole family to go to church; mostly because Santa came to our house while we were at the evening service.

I would sit in the pew imagining what Santa was doing moment by moment. Was he enjoying the milk and cookies we’d left? We’d gone to such lengths to leave him our favorites. Would he appreciate how good we had been by not eating all of our favorites in advance – overcoming our daily pre-Christmas temptations for his sake? Were the other reindeer jealous of Rudolph because we only left one carrot especially for him, or did he share by letting a different reindeer eat the carrot at each new house? Rudolph was the most popular with all of my neighborhood friends, so I knew no one ever thought of Blitzen or Prancer by leaving more than one carrot. Did Rudolph remember the pain of being left out of the reindeer games, which is why he gave his carrot away as an act of forgiveness?

One year my Mother forgot to buy carrots, so out of fear I panicked. I ran over to the neighbor’s snowman and stole the carrot from it. As I sat in church that Christmas Eve, I realized I had done wrong. I knew Rudolph wouldn’t eat, let alone share, that shriveled, weeks old frost bitten nose, plus I feared Santa would find out I had stolen it. Surely he spoke to all the snowmen in the neighborhood – after all, they had magic in their silk hats. Robbing Frosty to pay Vixen is always naughty. As a child in the pew, sometimes the secular and the sacred would become interwoven.

My favorite part of the service, the part where I forgot about Santa, Rudolph, the olfactory-deprived Frosty, and all the rest, was when Minister Peters asked us all to kneel as he read the Christmas story, Luke 2:1-20 (RSV).

“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…,” and as he read, the organist began to quietly play an interlude into the hymn Silent Night. The lights over the congregation were dimmed down and out so only the altar was swathed in bright light.

“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth…,” and the congregation softly joined the organ and sang as underscoring to the minister’s narration.

When the lyrics started, an acolyte took the center candle of the Advent wreath and lit the handheld candles of the first person seated in the front row on both sides of the center aisle. As Minister Peters continued and we sang, those first people used their candles to light the candle of the person next to them. Slowly the darkened congregation began to glow in candlelight as each successive person passed the flame from their candle to their neighbor’s.

“And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them…”

“…all is calm, all is bright…”

I tipped my unlit candle into my Mom’s flame and then turned to offer my light to my sister. And so it moved down the pew through my other siblings to my Dad, and then to my grandparents in the pew behind, and on to my uncles and aunts, my cousins, continuing row by row to the very back door of the sanctuary where eventually even the “standing room only” glowed in flickering light.

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men…”

“Christ the Savior is born… 

Christ the Savior is born.”

In that candlelight, with tears of joy streaming down my face and my soul wide open, I understood the mystery of God and the truth of Christmas. On a silent and often cold winter’s night, light and love moved from the altar, spreading across a sea of humanity, to fill that room with the hope that it would continue to burn in our hearts, and before our eyes, lighting our way long after the candles were out and we went forth into the cold, dark world.

For years after the service, my grandparents would ride back home in the car with us. Without fail, my Grandma would point out a red blinking light in the sky and declare it was Rudolph leaving our house. She did this long after my sister and I grew old enough to insist the light was just a plane circling O’Hare airport.

My Grandma kept the fantasy alive for my youngest brother and sister by rebuking that “planes never fly on Christmas Eve so Santa doesn’t have to worry about the reindeer getting hit by Pan Am.” (Later in life my Grandma came to despise the song Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer, mostly because she felt betrayed by Rudolph for all those years she gave him credit in denying the existence of an aircraft holding pattern.)

I’m not sure how I’ll recapture those feelings of Christmas while I’m here at Oakdale FCI. Without family, longtime friends, and all the traditions that go with celebrating Christmas, it could become a bleak midwinter’s night. How can the light shine here?

Bundled up on the track, I stood contemplating that and the Christmases of my past, while trying to imagine this Christmas to come. I looked up into the chilly night sky and thought of Grandma. No blinking red noses in sight. But there was a star. A bright star. I know I’m no wise man in finding my way here, though I did come from east of Oakdale. That star, and all the stars that filled the night sky, reminded me that I am free, even though I am imprisoned. Funny how reminders of comfort and love are often right in front of our eyes, if we only open our souls to see.

There will be no traveling for me this year, and I definitely don’t have any gifts to bear. I don’t even have a drum on which to play a song; however, my heart does beat the rhythm of life. A life that can once again kneel, see the light, feel the light, and pass that light on to others. With that knowledge in my soul, I am more free inside this prison than many who sit in their homes before a warming fire, or even some who sit in the packed pews on Christmas Eve.

I’ve realized it doesn’t really matter where I spend my Christmas – as long as my heart is in the right place. That is the flame of truth I’ll burn bright with, warming my soul from the inside out.

May you know peace and joy this holiday season, celebrating love with those who surround you, and sharing that light with others who are still out in the bleak, cold dark night.