An Empty Manger

By: Gunther Fiek

Posted by: Bob Chatelle

Our six day Christmas weekend began, in a way, on Thursday. I say that because the Warden pretty much canceled all activities on Thursday since the staff was to enjoy a Christmas concert performed by Nu Release, a group of very talented and musically inclined inmates that were handpicked by the Warden among the population through an audition to be part of the band — the Warden’s band. TVs came on early in the morning to our delight (usually they don’t come on until 4:30 pm on weekdays) — an indication that our long weekend had officially began. Many inmates, however, had been looking forward to Friday.

Friday arrived and with it came what many look forward to in December: the Warden’s Christmas package. A bag of various commissary goods with an average total price range of around $15. Each of the roughly 1600 inmates at this facility received one. We also received a box of chicken tenders from Zaxby’s and a small bag from the chaplain containing donated toiletries. (I do want to emphasize, though, before anyone screams misused tax payer’s money on inmates, that the Warden’s Christmas package and the chicken box is paid for by us – with the inmate benefit funds. That fund is partly funded with the profits made from the sale of goods from the inmate commissary and other profits made by other services available to us).

Nu Release, the Warden’s band, did a concert for the inmate population that morning. They played a mixed of R and B songs along with some traditional Christmas themes. I must admit that, since its creation about a couple of years ago, it was my first time seeing them. I was impressed. Some of the inmates that are part of the band were musicians out there before coming to prison. They were all indeed talented and I could tell the Warden takes pride in them. Although I did enjoy the concert, three hours in a packed gym was a little too much for me. All those who attended the concert received a small bag of popcorn. We do love popcorn!

Many guys spent Friday afternoon exchanging the goods that they had received in the package. Many cooked meals, ate their Zaxby’s chicken, and a few even misused the goods that they so graciously received or their chicken box to purchase things or spend it in a way that I will not discuss here. So what many waited so anxiously for December was all gone between Friday and Saturday. And just like that it was all over, and back again to the somber mood that accompanies this time of year — or every day of one’s life in prison. For many, everything we received was their Christmas.

Aside from a few Christmas decorations in certain areas within the facility, I have not seen a Nativity scene. I haven’t heard much about what Christmas is all about within the inmate population — there isn’t much talk about the real reason for celebrating Christmas. All I’ve heard for the last few weeks was the anticipation of when we would receive the Warden’s Christmas package and how big it would be, and whether we would get a chicken box or not. Since I’m my dorm’s inmate representative, I would be constantly asked if I have heard anything about it to the point of being annoyed. My concern — my focus — was different.

But it dawns on me that what December brings about is not much different out there, the free world, than it is in here. People focus on get together with friends and coworkers throughout this period. Gift exchanges, decoration, baking and cooking — all fruits of the planning that goes along with the occasions. Then comes the gathering of family and close friends for Christmas Eve and Day — certainly an exhausting month. It seems that many just celebrate Christmas as part of their culture or tradition — just going with the flow and allowing the current to take control of one’s life. I marvel to the thought of how many actually pause for a moment to consider what originated the Christmas season in the first place. Or how many actually read stories on the history of Christmas – the birth of Jesus, and if any individual or families pick up a Bible and read the Nativity narrative in one of the Gospels. What about just contemplating on a Nativity scene? After all, the image of what it represents is worth a thousand words.

I recently read an editorial in Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, OSV, (Dec. 24 – 30, 2017) where it said, “Our goal is not to do away with the rituals and traditions that have come to define Christmas for us, but rather to realign them so that they are in the proper place. We offer gifts to loved ones to express our love for them. We gather with family to celebrate relationships. We bake and decorate to create an atmosphere of joy. But it’s only when we welcome the babe in the manger into our homes and our hearts that our gift-giving, family gatherings and traditions make sense.” If not, then we are simply just lost and swept away in wrong directions. And just like the atmosphere here, after the 25th, it’s all over … back to our regular routines.

When I was growing up in my home country of Peru, I remember one tradition that many families had was setting up the Nativity scene in early December without the baby Jesus on the manger. Yes, an empty manger. We would get together on Christmas Eve for dinner and then, at midnight, as we all welcomed the 25th with ‘Feliz Navidad’ and warm hugs, someone would place the baby Jesus in the manger. It was then, at that moment, that we welcomed Jesus into our homes and hearts. For a brief moment, we celebrated the very reason why we were gathered in the first place. It was surely a moment where we contemplated in the imagery of the Nativity scene the meaning of the greatest gift that anyone can receive.

I still have vivid memories of those days in my mind. With each one of those moments lived, seeds were planted and today they are flourishing the fruits of where I stand today as as man of faith and beliefs. Beliefs — convictions — that allow me to experience the Christmas season as a religious season and not a secular celebration.

Over the last few weeks my concern – my focus, as I mentioned earlier, has not been about the Warden’s Christmas package or a chicken box. It has been about living and experiencing the season for what it actually is and not for what it has become. I have been trying to do just that. The Christmas season started four weeks ago with Advent (Dec. 03) — a time for joy, hope and repentance as we prepared to celebrate the birth of Christ. Then comes Epiphany (Jan. 7) — the commemoration of Christ’s manifestation to the Magi and, finally, the Christmas season culminates the following day with the celebration of The Lord’s Baptism — the day on which Christ formally accepts his mission as the redeemer when he receives St. John the Baptist’s baptism of conversion and repentance.

As the OSV editorial emphasized, “Our intentions aren’t bad — it’s just easy to get caught up in the weeds that our culture is sowing.”

It is my hopes and prayers that all are experiencing a joyous Christmas season and may 2018 bring many blessings to everyone