Special Mention - Diane Milhan
Elmer’s Last Christmas Morning
By Diane Milhan
Death House, Sing Sing Prison, Ossining, New York
Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?
A Charlie Brown Christmas
I awaken to squabble. Harrison is complaining about something. As is his nature.
“Come on, Patterson,” he says to the keeper walking down the corridor. “At least on this
day the greasy oatmeal could be on time with the lumps only half frozen.”
“Choke off your winning, Harrison, it is Christmas for all of us, not just you,“ replies the
I picture Patterson's face. Preferring he was at home. Or maybe there is no home and no
family and that is why he is here with us. I see Jay Allen stand in his cell.
“But for us, this is the swan song Christmas, the final Silent Night, the great Santa
Goodbye,” says Allen, who stretches his arms overhead like a bird about to take flight coming to
the front of the cell. I immediately turn away from him. His name is still on the execution list.
“Not my last Christmas,” I whisper.
“You’re lucky to get breakfast at all,” says the keeper. “The temporary warden said that
no one has to work today so the kitchen is short staffed.
I don’t expect that this day will be any different than yesterday, even though the cell
mates had been talking about what could happen today on this special day. Cassidy had said he
hoped that we would hear the Christmas music coming from the cell Block. McLaughlin
repeated his hope all day yesterday.
“I really hope that we can hear some,” McLaughlin says now. “We heard rumors about
gift stogies and us getting to puff away here in our cells.”
But none of that is happening. Merry Christmas to me. Who will be here next Christmas?
What will happen to us all? We are sentenced to die, all of us, but every so often a commutation
comes through. Six are on the list to die when the new warden takes over. But I am not listed.
I remember my mother at Christmas. She baked cookies and pies. Gingerbread men were
my favorite. I ate my share hot out of the oven. Dad dressed as the old Santa himself and lugged
a pack of presents into the house. After Dad died, there was no reason for us to stay in
California. Mom had promised to get me back to another Santa in Rochester. To make it home to
Rochester to have Christmas with family. Christmas was so important to her that she worked
three jobs to get the train money to get us back East. But she did it and we made it home for
Christmas. I guess no gingerbread men today.
The door at the end of the corridor opens and in walks Father Cashin. Several cons greet
him happily; he never comes to see us this early, and never on a Thursday.
“Greetings boys. Merry Christmas to you,” says Cashin.
“What are you doing here so early, Father?” asks Cassidy.
“I thought that I would come and see you early before I went to the rest of the prisoners,”
explains Cashin. “I have some good news that I pray will give you solace on this Day. We have
Christmas commutations from Governor Smith as gifts to two men in cell block. I will
accompany Temporary Warden Grant to deliver the good news.”
“Well that’s great for them. But we are here with no Christmas sweets or music or cigars
neither'' says Allen. “ You got any surprise pardons for us, Father Xmas? Are you our Santa
“Christmas calls for you to be cheered in the alleviation of suffering for persons other
than yourself. Christmas hopes that you can share happiness with others over things that may not
come to you. Can you not be joyous for these two fellows?” asks Cashin.
“Merry for someone else's good luck? Or good lawyers or good connections?” asks
Allen. I could picture the way his lips curl up toward his right nostril like they did when he
talked to me about his life.
“You can talk about sacrifice, but we're all here to be sacrificed to the State of New York.
What do dead men want for Christmas?” says Allen.
Cashin looks at the floor and then looks down the corridor. Was Cashin surprised that his
news got rebuffed? Was he leaving the Death House? I see that Cashin is quiet for several
minutes and I sit on the edge of my cot to listen to what he might say about dead men and
“I have a story about sacrifice, “ he said at last. “And what Christmas means around
here. Three years ago two young men, here in the Death House, men just like you and younger
than some of you, asked to be executed three days earlier than the date given to them by the
“Why would they do that, Father?” asks Cassidy.
“So that their families could place their bodies into graves before the holy day, so that
their parents wouldn't associate Christmas with their sons' deaths,” says Cashin.
There is silence in the Death House as we consider Cashin’s story. Here I only think
about living one more day, as many days as I can, putting off that trip through the chamber door.
“Well that’s just bonkers, Father. No one dies by choice before they have to go,” say Allen finally.
Cashin walks over to Allen's cell and says, “Some people will never understand how to
sacrifice for others.”
“What about all those dead soldiers in the war? They all put others first. How was it right
for them to all die? How did anyone receive the benefit from all that dying, Father? I ask you to
talk that out,” Allen demands. “And choosing to give up three days of living so that your mom
doesn't drink too much hooch on Christmas is not thinking right.” I agree with Jay Allen. I want
every moment. Would I do that early dying to save Christmas for my Mother?
“But Father, is anything going to happen in a holiday way for us?” asks Cassidy.
“No, I am sorry, my son. The old warden did not make any plans, and Warden Grant has
only been nine days on the job and soon to leave again. He did not do any planning for the holiday,” says Cashin. “This is going to be an uneventful Christmas for all of us this year.”
“Except for those two guys in B Block, I bet they will remember this Christmas,” I say.
“Thank you, Elmer, for finding some joy here today,” says Cashin.
Cashin gives us a Christmas blessing at the arrival of the breakfast trays and then he slips
out the side door. As he exits, I mull over the good news that he will speak in the cell block next
door and what that might feel like on Christmas. Then I see on the tray next to the cold oatmeal
and mug of the prison’s bitter coffee, I am surprised to find a pack of Camel cigarettes wrapped
in a red bow holding a little silver bell. Not my Luckies, but passable as smokes go. I can hear
grunts of surprise as the other cons find their gist smokes. I open my pack and place my hand
holding the cigarette outside the bars as a request for the keeper to come and give me a light. I
barely hear little bells jingle in the House as more cons peal the Christms decorations from their
pockets. More dangling fingers jut outside the bars requesting the flash of a match. The sound of
the matches being stuck brings other men to the front of the cell and we all stare at each other as
a Christmas acknowledgement that we are here and together.
Then someone, probably Cassidy begins to tingle the little bell. Another begins to strike
his bell against the bars producing a rhythmic clank. Others hold their cigarettes in the same
hand to jingle their request for the light. Multiple little ringers toll throughout the House.
Patteson now moves from cell to cell and works his fire magic on the Camels. Smoke fills the
house. I watch the butt of my Camel burn. I remember luminous votive candles aglow at the
divine statue of St. Vibiana in the cathedral in Los Angeles where mother prayed. Candles bring
light to the dark. Christmas with the whole family. Vibiana martyred for why Mother did not
know. No one knew. Camel smoke swirls around in the damp air. Mother lit votives requesting
favors from this young girl whose body rests above the high altar. Reclining cast of a daughter in
a pale nightgown dreaming of what she had missed. Does Mother pray for her husband’s health
or her return home? Red embers create sanguine streaks in travel to the wet wood floor. Do not
blow out the candle or you will blow your prayer away. Dad is alive and playing Santa by the
decorated tree. Cherry tips sparkle at the suck of each man’s lungs. Prayers stay alive only when
the candle light stays hot. Gad’s infected bones and the martyr’s ancient relics in the same city
are so far away. St. Vibiana in her while silk wrap wafts up within the Camel smoke. White
fabric wallows in the haze. Being a martyr is enough. Her sacrifice is enough but she looks down
at me. Dad, dressed as Santa with bloodshot eyes, drifts with Vibiana pressing upward. Suffocate
your candle only when your prayer is really extinguished. Dad and the saint pass my eyes
together ascending to the second tier and then they are clear. I hear the tiny bells tuning old
carols. In the corridor the flickering red lights create St. Vibiana’s altar, whose votive flames
release everyone’s prayers to burst through the ceiling of the Death House and escape into the
cold December sky.