Christmas in Prison – John Prine

John Prine at Bonnaroo 2010

Christmas In Prison
©John Prine 

(lyrics found at the Prine Shrine)

It was Christmas in prison
and the food was real good
we had turkey and pistols
carved out of wood
and I dream of her always
even when I don’t dream
her name’s on my tongue
and her blood’s in my stream.

Wait awhile eternity
old mother nature’s got nothing on me
come to me
run to me
come to me, now
we’re rolling
my sweetheart
we’re flowing
by God!

She reminds me of a chess game
with someone I admire
or a picnic in the rain
after a prairie fire
her heart is as big
as this whole goddamn jail
and she’s sweeter than saccharine
at a drug store sale.


The search light in the big yard
swings round with the gun
and spotlights the snowflakes
like the dust in the sun
it’s Christmas in prison
there’ll be music tonight
I’ll probably get homesick
I love you. Goodnight.



I have been a John Prine fan since I first saw a PBS documentary on him over Christmas break in 1982.  The guy is amazing and he’s still going (relatively) strong in his 70s.  I was going to post a Youtube video of him performing this song at a concert in 2011, but I wasn’t sure of the copyright laws.  If you want to check it out (for entertainment purposes only), click here.  If you haven’t heard it, check it out before you read on.  Art should always be appreciated first before it is analyzed.

The song title and opening line sets the stage for a melancholy mood.  The closest I’ve ever been to being in prison at Christmas was when I was separated from my family, staying with an older couple while I went through some treatment.  There were no bars, no guards (but the food was real good there too).  Oh, and there was also the time I was in the psych unit over Christmas.  I was confined there (and the food wasn’t even that good).

Prine’s absurdist humor comes through almost immediately (turkey and pistols carved out of wood).  On the live video clip, someone laughs (probably hearing it for the first time) and you almost miss the next lines (a danger you face when going to a Prine concert).

Prine abruptly shifts from absurdist humor to tremendous longing, as the prisoner dreams of his lover (even when I don’t dream) and finds himself bodily attached to her, though physically far separated.  This lover’s paradox appears as well in another of Prine’s songs “Donald and Lydia” (find lyrics here).

The chorus then shifts the focus slightly to a more spiritual realm.  The inmate is hoping to outlive his sentence, that love (in the form of his lover) would come back to him.  Prine’s doesn’t hesitate to introduce God into his songs, but his theology is rather elusive.  He seems to prefer common phrases “by God” that could suggest a simple expression, but it also opens the door to a strong connection to the divine.

In the second verse, the inmate poetically describes his lover as someone who is intelligent and life-giving, with a love that can not be confined.  Lest he turn his prisoner into Wordsworth, however, Prine then has his narrator compare his lover’s sweetness to “saccharine at a drugstore sale“.  You can’t get much sweeter than that in prison.

The final verse brings the dreaming inmate back to the reality of his imprisonment and separation from his lover.  The only light is coming from the searchlight swinging round with the gun.  Snowflakes, which remind many of the joys of the season are only spotlighted “like the dust in the sun”  It’s hard to know where the music will come from (maybe in the reverie of the narrator).  He concludes with a woefully understated summary – “I’ll probably get homesick.  I love you.  Good night.”

In yesterday’s post I reflected some on my own loss this season as I face the death of my marriage.  Even with that, I can’t begin to imagine the grief and longing of those whose loved ones have died, children who are permanently separated from their parents, or people in prison or war-torn countries desperately wishing they were somewhere else.  My hope is, if any of you should happen to stumble onto this, you would find hope in your seemingly hopeless situation.

We are rolling.  We are flowing.  By God.

(photo of John Prine from wfuv – some rights reserved)

One thought on “Christmas in Prison – John Prine

  1. This song has always made me feel slightly sad, and more forgiving.

    “Wait awhile eternity ” resonates with the ‘free’ and ‘not so free’. Classic words which humble us all.

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