• Carol Alfred

Game of COAL

While Christmas shopping one December almost twenty years ago, I chanced upon a cute tin with a beaming Santa and one word, COAL, on its cover. Curious, I opened the tin, and there, nestled inside, was a single, honest-to-goodness lump of coal. I did not hesitate. I threw that tin into my basket and headed for the register. Then I spent far too much time in the days before that Christmas pondering and calculating: Who was the most deserving recipient of the COAL that year? You see, the COAL tradition in our family was new to us that year, but it follows the old coal-in-the-stocking tradition that most of us have heard of, if not been threatened with it. It will likely surprise no one that the year I bought the COAL, two of my three children were teenagers. (The third was double-digit, though pre-teen.)

My firstborn, Kevin, received the COAL that inaugural Christmas morning. Ironically, he would not receive it again for almost a decade. Instead, his sister and my middle child, Glynne, became the serial recipient of the COAL. For years she made my decision easy as she was a virtual COAL slam dunk. Glynne actually came to regard the COAL as a badge of honor – until, that is, the year my youngest, Colin, found the COAL at the bottom of his stocking. How his sister crowed with glee!

Since that fateful Christmas morning, the COAL tradition has expanded, resembling a competition and, at times, a game of intrigue. The three kids and their father lobby about the others’ “COAL-worthiness.” They are merciless in their attempts to throw each other under the bus for any action or statement that strikes them as more naughty than nice. Throughout the year, any one of them will break into the chant “COAL! COAL! COAL!” if someone else’s behavior warrants. They also ponder and calculate likely recipients, vigorously jockeying to put someone (anyone!) else in COAL position.

My response to their involvement has been to triple my supply of COAL, in part because the family has grown. Glynne’s boyfriend, Nate, and their Standard Poodle, Layla, now share Christmas with us; therefore, they are in the running for the COAL. Neither wasted any time earning it: Nate for scoffing at the COAL tradition, and Layla for knocking me down.

Every Christmas morning, after the inevitable protests by the COAL recipient or recipients (some years multiple COAL is awarded) and smug laughter by everyone else, I quickly collect the COAL and carefully hide it away. This guarantees that I will retain my solo status as Awarder of the COAL and, consequently, non-receiver of the COAL, especially as the “COAL! COAL! COAL!” chant is actually aimed at me at times. And my name more and more frequently is in the “COAL-worthy” conversations. But traditions need to be cherished, respected, and preserved. That is why I intend to keep the COAL tradition pure by maintaining full control.

Eventually, our family expanded. Kevin married Caroline; they got a dog, DIPA. Colin became engaged to Steph; they rescued a dog, Honig. The result is almost double the pool for COAL recipients, not to mention almost double the intrigue and scheming. It reminds me of Game of Thrones, minus the body count, sex, and dragons.

Despite the increased competition, the 2018 decision was easy. Caroline was the hands-down winner of the COAL, although most thought DIPA was a shoo-in. Poor DIPA had suffered the misfortune of sharting on Caroline and the couch during my visit in November. Yet, the all-important scales of COAL justice tipped towards Caroline, the shartee, not DIPA, the sharter.

How is that possible? Caroline was sharted on, an innocent victim! Well, au contraire. You see, Caroline had lured DIPA onto the couch, despite an agreement with Kevin that the dog would not be allowed on the furniture. First, she allowed DIPA on a futon, then a recliner, next the couch. True, the dog is a prolific sharter; however, he would be sharting on the floor, not on Caroline/furniture, had the couple’s pre-dog agreement been honored. Case closed! COAL 2018 justly awarded.

COAL 2019 was not as obvious. The COAL pool was too murky, transgressions too evenly matched. I was stumped and close to not awarding it. However, while rummaging through my cache of Christmas “stuff,” I ran across a small canvas bag with a cute print of an RV camper. Serendipity.

I would give the COAL to Nate, my daughter’s husband, for following up on an ad for a $169 “fully equipped” camper from China, receiving only a $2 beaded bracelet for his money. To be fair, Nate pursued the ad more out of curiosity and a desire to please my husband, the finder of the ad, than out of naiveté. And he was a good sport about it. Plus, you could say my husband was more worthy of the COAL in this case. But that cute little bag sealed Nate’s fate. I tucked the tin in the bag, then deep-down into his stocking, and Nate became a repeat COAL winner. The crowd – and Nate – were shocked.

No one saw it coming because they knew what I didn’t: Nate had logged hours researching and shopping for my Christmas present from the kids, a laptop. It replaced the wonky tablet I had been suffering with for years. He would spend hours more on Christmas day helping set me up on the laptop, transferring documents from the tablet. (A similar scenario to what he had done the previous Christmas when he shopped for and set up a giant flat-screen TV for us.)


As you might suspect, I felt some guilt about my choice for COAL 2019. I scrambled for a way to make amends and, within a week, Nate received the first-ever Get Out of COAL Free Card. It guarantees COAL immunity – until December 26, 2020.


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