Little touches of the Christmas spirit are scattered around San Quentin. Twinkling lights and other decorations adorn the Protestant Chapel, Education Department classrooms, the library, visiting room and administration offices.
The Protestant Chapel hung two wreaths on the front door. Inside the chapel, a three-foot Christmas tree was erected. Tinsel can also be seen throughout the chapel. On Dec. 8 the chapel held its annual volunteers banquet.
According to Arnulfo Garcia, a prisoner who attended the banquet, many smiles adorned the faces of those that attended. “I was very appreciative for the volunteers who contributed to feed 350 prisoners and guest,” he said. “Christians have been celebrating the birth of Christ since his birth and every year they tell the real meaning of Christmas. Christ brought us out of darkness and into the light, giving all those who believe in eternal life with God. So Christians come together to celebrate Jesus as our savior.”
A small artificial Christmas tree with twinkling stars greets staff, volunteers and prisoners in the Education Building foyer. Other Christmas decorations are sprinkled throughout the building. According one staff member, “The inmates at San Quentin are active in the celebration of Christmas. They scavenge for bits and pieces that can be used to make Christmas decorations. The wreaths were made by twisting paper bags together and tying them with twine.”
Christmas literally means “Christ’s Mass.” The oldest known use of the term dates back to 1038. It is sometimes abbreviated “Xmas,” which is taken from the initial letter chi (X) in Greek, according to the on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia.
Throughout the world, gift-giving and a special meal is traditionally an important part of Christmas Eve and Christmas. Giving gifts dates back to the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, an ancient festival that took place in late December and may have influenced Christmas customs. It is associated with St. Nicholas and gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh that were given to the baby Jesus by the Biblical Magi.
For San Quentin prisoners, Christmas is celebrated in various ways. M. Quezada has been incarcerated since he was 16 years old, has a “Christmas Eve” spread, which consists of beef burritos, Pepsi soda and brownies or some other chocolate sweets. He also telephones his parents and siblings to wish them a Merry Christmas.
Jorge Heredia, who has been incarcerated for the last 15 years said, “My Christmases were too good on the street. I don’t celebrate it because it hurts not being able to celebrate the way I used to celebrate it with my family. Starting in October, I don’t write or call them until around the end of January. I don’t want them to think about me when they are supposed to be celebrating.”
For the last six years, prisoner Quinton Walker has been celebrating Christmas in the morning by saying a prayer and listening to Christmas music. He then drinks a cup of coffee. “I only put cream and sugar in my coffee at Christmas,” he says. Walker calls his mother and talks to her and other family members who gather at her home. He says,” calling home lifts my spirit.” At noon, Walker and four other people gather and play Monopoly. Before the 4 p.m. lockdown, around 3 o’clock they share a meal of seafood burritos. “Three of us don’t eat meat,” Walker says. “At night, I light a small battery operated candle and watch Christmas movies.”