Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Christmas behind bars: a time of joy, sorrow
Of all the characters in the nativity story, Calvin Swan identifies most with the three kings from the east who visited the infant Jesus.
Not that the 45-year-old Winnipegger considers himself wiser than average, but because he understands the importance of celebrating a new life -- and knows the pain of missing the birth of a new grandchild.
"They (the wise men) celebrated the birth of Jesus, and they share in the celebration of the king being born," Swan said during an interview in the stark, cinder block-lined visiting room at Headingley Correctional Centre.
"They bring gifts and they share hope of the new spirit being brought in the world."
With a total of eight Christmases behind bars over his lifetime, Swan understands hope inside a jail might be as rare as the wise men's gifts of frankincense or myrrh. Released last week after serving 10 months, Swan plans to celebrate Christmas with his family, but he recognizes his former cellmates probably won't be having a jolly holiday.
"Christmas Day (inside) is really slow. It really drags," says Swan, a guitarist, former community newspaper columnist and would-be actor, originally from Lake Manitoba First Nation.
"There's no big celebration. Your kids aren't there, your partner isn't there. Christmas Eve would be (their) last visit."
Chaplains at the provincial men's jail conduct about 20 services in the week leading up to the holiday, gathering small groups of inmates to light candles, sing carols and share the Christmas story, Rev. James Hatherly says.
"Our hope is to be present to those going through stress, who want to talk, to offer people of faith time to worship," says the United Church minister now spending his second Christmas as a prison chaplain.
"This is an emotionally dark time for people. And I think finding the light, claiming the light at a time when it's the most darkest, is the most powerful."
Despite that powerful message, Hatherly admits to some professional struggles of his own. He compares his role in the prison to that of an unseen character in the nativity story trying to persuade the innkeeper to find a safe corner somewhere for a woman about to give birth.
"There were so many restrictions and orders and imperial rules that Mary and Joseph faced," says Hatherly, 56, of the parents of the infant Jesus.
"The innkeeper said there were no rooms. How do we find a place for the Christ child to be welcomed in a simple way, as a gift to be found in challenging circumstances?"
For Swan, who honours both his Ojibway heritage and his Roman Catholic faith, the Christmas story means finding a place for all the characters. This year, he plans to share the day with as many of his children and grandchildren as possible, including a new baby born while Swan was imprisoned. He will also take time to remember the four members of his family who died while he was locked up.
Happy to share the holiday with his family, Swan knows many of the men in Headingley jail will be marking Christmas Day much differently.
"Christmas (in prison) is more intense because the whole world is celebrating and not everybody is celebrating Christmas and that would be inside the walls," says Swan, who plans to return to school to become a youth support worker.
At best, inmates can look forward to family visits before the holidays, says Frank Ostrowski, 62, who spent 23 years at Stony Mountain Institution.
"It's a very happy time and a very sad time in the same way," he says, recalling when his family came to the annual Christmas party at the federal penitentiary north of Winnipeg.
"You're happy to see your family, but it's a sad time because they leave and you want to go with them."
The feelings of loss go both ways, with families missing their imprisoned fathers, sons and brothers, and inmates who are separated from their families, says the executive director of the John Howard Society of Manitoba.
"One of the things about being locked up is that you don't stop being a member of the community, you don't stop being a member of a family," says John Hutton.
"It's a time when people turn to their faith. It's a Christian theme to be thinking of those in prison when we are having an orgy of eating and presents and celebrating."
Swan hopes other Christians celebrating Christmas might also spare a prayer for people like him and his family.
"I would like people to pray for each other, whether it be in person or in the free world, and share their life experiences," he says.
"There's a better way of life than to be locked away and not to have a choice of when you do things."
Too many Christmases inside have also taught him the lesson modelled by the wise men who sought out a new baby: It's much more fun to give a gift in person. That's exactly what Swan plans to do on Sunday.
"I just want to see the faces of my kids when they open their gifts," he says.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 24, 2011 I13