Editor’s Note: This letter from Doug Cupery, director of church mobilization at Crossroads Prison Ministries, was sent to all Crossroads mentors earlier this month.

During the Christmas season, what do you say to someone who is in prison? Is it okay to say “Merry Christmas” to someone who is lonely and hurting? Can you say “Happy holidays” to someone who doesn’t have many reasons to be happy?

Crossroads students experience the Christmas season much differently than we do. For our students, there will be no family gatherings around the fireplace. Though your student may be a father, mother or grandparent, they will not wake up on Christmas morning to children laughing and presents under the tree. The joy of opening gifts with the sweet smell of cinnamon rolls in the air will not be their reality.

Prison is a tough environment at any time, but it takes a darker and more somber tone during Christmastime, as people are left with their thoughts of what could have been. Shame, guilt and longing in the hearts of people in prison deepen the awareness that they have been cast aside to the margins of society. It’s all so overwhelming.

Although it has been years since my release from prison, I am still flooded with memories during the Christmas season. I begin to feel the grief and guilt afresh. But when I focus too much on the hurt and pain I caused others and the shame I felt, it’s easy for me to miss the true meaning of Christmas.

You may feel uncomfortable or guilty if you say “Merry Christmas” to your students. But I want to remind you what we mean when we say “Merry Christmas.” When we extend this holiday greeting, we aren’t just conjuring up Christmas cheer. We are celebrating the coming of Jesus.

Jesus, God in the flesh, came to us amid all the darkness and brokenness of our world. He grew in the womb of an unmarried teenager on the margins of society and was born in a stable surrounded by smelly animals. During His ministry, He spent time with lepers, tax collectors and other outcasts, and in the end, He was rejected by society, falsely convicted by the state and given the death penalty. Therefore, Jesus knows the pains of the hungry, the orphan, the widow and the prisoner, and He cares deeply about them (Matthew 25:34–46).

In this Christmas season and beyond, as you think about the way you interact with Crossroads students, reflect on how you might bring the light of Christ to their dark environment (Matthew 5:14–16). Even if your student doesn’t express it, tell them that you see their pain, guilt and longing. Remind them that the message of Christmas is that Jesus loves us all so much that He came into our darkness with His light (John 1:4–5). Tell your students that you care for them and are praying for them.

To close your letter, consider sharing a Christmas blessing like the one I am saying over you:

“I give thanks for you, God’s beloved child, created in His image. May you freely receive the gift of Immanuel—God with us—and the joy that comes with His incarnation. May you be confident in the truth you share, the God you serve and the hope you carry and offer to others. May you have a sense of God’s presence as you travel through each day, knowing that He loves you and cares for you and that He will always be the light in our darkness.”

Is it okay to say “Merry Christmas” to those hurting in prison?  Yes, it is. But I hope you won’t leave it at that.