When my parents arrived at the home of my grandparents in the small town of Winthrop, Maine, with my two-year-old brother, Brian, in tow, the aroma of chocolate and spices was wafting through the small house. It was Christmas Eve 1965, and my grandmother had spent the afternoon baking chocolate chip and molasses cookies in anticipation of their visit.
After supper, she set the dessert plate on the table and bustled off to wash dishes and tidy the kitchen with my mother. As the story goes, my father, grandfather, uncle and brother dug into the pile of sweets until only one chocolate chip cookie remained among the mound of molasses. I picture the men clustered around the table, three sets of eyes focused on my brother, as they discussed the dilemma before them. My father advised Brian to save that cookie for Santa, for he had it on good authority that old Saint Nick did not care much for the taste of molasses, while my uncle — ever the instigator — encouraged him to eat it. That last chocolate chip cookie went the way of the others.
The following morning, Brian burst into the living room to see if Santa had been there. There was a new choo-choo train in front of the tree, and his stocking was bulging with mysterious shapes, but curiously enough, the molasses cookies remained on the plate. Once the adults assembled for the opening of the gifts, he burrowed his hand into the knit stocking, tossing aside apples, oranges and small toys. When he reached the very tip of the toe, his chubby fist closed around a small, jagged object. Coal! Santa had not been impressed by the offering of molasses.
For many years, the cautionary tale of the year Brian got coal was recited on Christmas Eve, the telling becoming the closest thing my family had to a holiday tradition. Until the year the coal resurfaced, that is.
There was nothing remarkable about package addressed to my mother that was slipped under the tree in 1996 — a small box, wrapped in store-bought paper with a plastic bow affixed to the top. Inside, perched atop a bed of cotton was a piece of coal plucked from the basement of my brother’s newly purchased home, a shimmering strand of Christmas garland twirled around it. Stunned silence was followed by shouts of laughter.
That chunk of coal reappears at every Christmas celebration, gifted to the person deemed naughtiest that year. We all gather to watch with bated breath as each present gets parceled out, all the while trying to remember who the holder of the coal was and debating over who the next recipient will be. Nobody is exempt from the passing of the coal — not even the dog. And while there have never been complaints or hard feelings, this is one gift that occasionally gets returned to the giver.