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by William H. Benson

December 24, 2009

     Jim Bakker’s Christmas at Heritage USA was a spectacular production, a

seasonal extravaganza, and a destination point for sightseers from near and far. Called the Christmas City of Lights, the spectacle attracted thousands of people to the Heritage Village just south of Charlotte, North Carolina, each Christmas season throughout the early 1980s. Jim insisted that Christmas at PTL be an over-the-top lavish display.

     Heritage USA was listed as a top Christmas destination point in America. Over 1,250,000 colored Christmas light bulbs were splayed across the dozens of buildings and hundreds of trees that dotted the 2500-acre property. The Christmas tree inside the lobby of the Grand Hotel stood nearly three stories tall, and workers decorated the tallest tree on the Village’s Main Street with recognizable moving Christmas characters.

     There was “Angel Boulevard,” a startling display of angels lit up in lights, and a “Living Nativity” that featured Mary, Joseph, a baby, three wise men, sheep, goats, horses, and even three camels.

     In the 1986, and final, edition of the annual Christmas parade, “Uncle” Henry and “Aunt” Susan Harrison, Jim Bakker’s friends, dressed up as Santa and Mrs. Santa and rode in a float fashioned into a sleigh pulled by reindeer. All the floats in the parade sparkled with hundreds of lights powered by portable generators. The security department at Heritage USA recorded over one million visitors during that 1986 Christmas season.

     And then it all came crashing to an end with the “revelations.” In March of 1987, Jim admitted to his wife Tammy Faye and to the public that he had had a one-time affair with Jessica Hahn, a New York church secretary, in December of 1980. In humiliation and disgrace, he resigned as pastor of Heritage Village Church and passed his pulpit over to Jerry Falwell, a Baptist televangelist from Lynchburg, Virginia. By October of that year, Falwell, who lacked Jim Bakker’s talent for raising money, placed PTL in bankruptcy.

     Two years later in October of 1989, a jury convicted Jim Bakker on twenty-four counts of wire and mail fraud, and Judge Robert “Maximum Bob” Potter sentenced Jim to an astonishing forty-five years in prison. Late that year, Bakker woke up to find himself housed in a cramped cell with three cellmates, who smoked and swore nonstop, on the second floor of Building 2 at the Federal Medical Center in Rochester, Minnesota.

     “I must be in hell,” he thought.                                                                                                                

     Jim’s job was to clean the toilets, sinks, and shower stalls every morning after the other inmates on his floor had headed to their day jobs.

     One afternoon in mid-December of 1989, a guard handed Jim a box and told him to assemble a Christmas tree for the sitting area. He stared in amazement at “a few colored lights, one short straggly garland, and some beat-up ornaments, that were worse than ragtag—they were the ragtag ends of nothing.” “The tree was truly pitiful,” Jim said.

     Other inmates saw what he was doing and cursed him. “What are you doin’, Bakker, puttin’ that tree up like that?” Several told him where to shove the tree.

     Christmas Day in prison was especially painful: Tammy Faye arrived with their two children—Jamie Charles and Tammy Sue. They each cried and hugged Jim as long as the guards would permit. Then, because they were the last family to receive their Christmas dinner in the chow line—not until three o’clock—the guards told them to “Wrap it up!” before they had eaten a bite. The Bakker’s had to throw their plates into a garbage can.

     Then, as Tammy Faye, Jamie, and Tammy Sue headed outside into the falling snow—an unappreciated white Christmas—a sobbing Jim endured the indignation of yet another strip search and a hurried march back to his cell to make the daily four o’clock count. Envious eyes stared up at him from the other cells as he walked past them.

     Someone explained to Jim that first year that inmates in prison count their time served, not by calendar months or years, but by the number of Christmases that they have missed away from home. Fifteen years in prison meant “Fifteen Christmases.”

     No man living in the twentieth century fell further than did Jim Bakker. The contrast between his Ghost of a Christmas Past and his Nightmare of a Christmas Present was immense, absurd, and most ironic.

     How much is enough of anything? How much of Christmas is enough? How much of prison is enough? A week incarcerated has to be horrible, a year ghastly and inhumane. The poet William Blake wrote that, “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.” Jim knew all about “more than enough,” in at least two ways.

     After a judge reduced his sentence twice and with time reduced for good behavior, he was released from prison on July 1, 1994, after enduring “five Christmases.”               

     Wherever you may reside, treat yourself well, and make it a Merry Christmas.