Did your parents tell you about Santa Claus? Most people know that he goes around the world distributing toys to good children at Christmas. He knows which children have been good, and also which children have been bad. Bad children, so the story goes, don't receive toys. They receive a lump of coal.
Now that I'm older, I have to say that coal isn't such a terrible thing, but I guess that when you're a child, and you know that Christmas morning means bicycles and model trains and new baseball gloves, it's hard to see much value in coal. Anyway, my parents told us about Santa Claus, and presents for good little boys, and lumps of coal for bad little boys. It worked pretty well, and one year, it almost worked in a way that even Santa himself could not have foreseen. That was the year that I tried to sabotage myself at the last minute so that I could make the naughty list.
I was seven years old that year. On the morning of December 24th, I was reading a book about Santa and his reindeer. My parents were in the kitchen, preparing breakfast, and I happened to overhear their conversation.
"Jenny, I'm concerned."
"What's wrong, Bill?"
"The roads are icing up. I heard the weather report on the radio, and the temperature is going to drop even further during the day."
"No one expected this cold front. It caught everyone by surprise. Everyone expected mild weather."
"Well, that shouldn't affect anything, should it?"
"Jenny, we only have about twenty pounds of coal for the furnace."
"Yes. That's about enough for one day. That's going to be a problem if it's cold again tomorrow."
"I think I need to go into town and get some coal."
"Please don't go, Bill! It isn't safe! I don't want anything to happen to you!"
"I can't just sit here and let us get cold."
"Bill, we all have warm clothes, and the oven is electric, so I can prepare hot meals. It'll be cold, but we'll be OK. The boys will love it."
"But, Jenny . . ."
"Please, Bill, stay here! The roads will be too dangerous. You'll have to drive over the bridge, and that will be even more dangerous. Please don't go. We'll all be together. Isn't that the most important thing?"
My father had no answer to that question, but I knew him well enough to know that it bothered him. I didn't want him to worry about that, or anything else, on Christmas, but I couldn't think of anything to do. I went back to my book and read:
"Then Santa and his elves load the bags onto his sleigh. His bags are full of toys for all the good little children, and lumps of coal for the bad little children. The elves feed the reindeer . . ."
Then it struck me; there was the answer! Mom didn't want Dad to go and get coal, so maybe we could arrange to have Santa Claus bring some coal to us. It was up to me; I had less than twenty-four hours to get from the nice list to the naughty list, so I would have to get to work right away.
My parents called my brother and me in for breakfast. My mother had made us oatmeal, and she knew how to dress it up. She had added raisins, chopped apples, walnuts, cinnamon, cloves, and maple syrup. It really looked quite good, which made my job that much harder, but a guy's gotta do what a guy's gotta do.
"Here's your oatmeal, Willie," my mother said in her sweetest voice.
"YUCK!" I yelled, at the top of my lungs.
"YUCK! I hate oatmeal!"
"Why, Willie, we had oatmeal just a few days ago and you didn't complain."
"I don't care. I hate oatmeal!"
"Willie, that's enough." This time it way my father who spoke. "Eat your oatmeal."
"All right, then, go to your room." I marched off to my room, hungry, but hopeful. Getting sent to your room before 8:00 am on December 24th seemed to be a good start.
Some time later, my father walked into my room.
"Willie, that was no way to talk to your mother, and we are not going to have that, especially with Christmas coming. You'd better behave. You can go now and eat your breakfast, but you and I are going to have a little talk later on."
I went to the breakfast room and found my oatmeal just where I had left it. For a moment, I considered dashing it on the floor, but I really was hungry, so I ate. It was room temperature by that point, but edible nevertheless.
After I finished my breakfast, I walked into my family room and saw my brother Tommy.
"Willie, do you want to play checkers?"
Tommy was, and still is, a kind-hearted person. He is genuinely empathetic. Any time I was sad, or angry, or in trouble, he just wanted to cheer me up. He knew that I liked to play checkers, and so he thought he would help. He held out the checkers board to me and had a big smile on his face. Of course, I couldn't tell him what I was doing; I was the older brother and this was my responsibility. He stood there, smiling, kindness written all over his face. It made it really hard for me to haul off and punch him in the nose, but a guy's gotta do what a guy's gotta do.
Naturally, Tommy wailed like a banshee. I figured that, if Santa Claus had missed the oatmeal episode, he must have heard Tommy crying and said to his elves, "Cancel that bicycle for Willie and give him a big lump of coal instead." Such was my hope, anyway.
While my mother consoled poor Tommy, my father, in a voice twice as stern as the one he had used at the breakfast table, said, "GO TO YOUR ROOM! NOW!" Off I went. It was only 9:00. I was on a roll!
There I was, in my room, all alone. As good a start as I'd gotten on the day, I realized I couldn't let up. It would be a while before lunch, and Tommy wasn't here, so what kind of trouble could I cause? I hated sitting there idle. I looked around at my room: bed made neatly, books on the shelf, toys in their box, clothing folded and . . . yes, that was it! Would Santa bring coal to a boy who kept his room neat and clean? I doubt it, and I wasn't about to take a chance. A guy's gotta do what a guy's gotta do.
Within a few minutes, any semblance of order and neatness was gone. You couldn't see the books that I'd thrown on the floor because they were covered with clothes. My bedside table was toppled over, my toy box spilled out, and I even tied my sheets together like I'd seen in a movie about men escaping from prison. I surveyed the scene and said, "Willie, you have outdone yourself!" I found a book, with difficulty, and sat down to read.
After some time had passed, my father came into the room. He took one look and said, "What in the world happened here?"
I responded, "I threw everything on the floor."
My father looked as if he were about to blow his lid, but then he thought better of it and said, "Willie, put your book down and look at me."
"PUT YOUR BOOK DOWN AND LOOK AT ME!" That time, he used a tone of voice that I was powerless to resist, and I could only hope that Santa Claus would understand. Then Dad spoke to me in a calm voice.
"Willie, what's wrong?"
"Don't give me that, son. Your mother was very upset about the way you acted at breakfast, and your brother cried for ten minutes straight. He said he was trying to cheer you up with a game of checkers. Why, Willie? Why are you acting this way?”
I knew it was up; I would have to tell him.
"I want to get coal in my stocking."
"You want WHAT?"
"I want to get coal in my stocking."
"What are you talking about?"
"Good children get toys from Santa Claus, but bad children get lumps of coal, right? Well, I want a lump of coal. A bunch of lumps would be better."
"Why in the world do you want that?"
Resistance, as they say, is futile. I had to tell him everything.
"I heard you and Mom talking before breakfast, and you said that we don't have enough coal, and you wanted to go buy some but Mom said no because she doesn't want anything to happen to you. I don't want anything to happen to you either, Dad. I just don't want you to worry. So I thought that, if I was bad enough, Santa Claus would put coal in my stocking and then we'd have coal and we'd be warm and you wouldn't have to worry."
My father said nothing; he looked like he wanted to say something but couldn't. After what seemed like a long time, he said in a quiet voice, "Son, listen to me. I'm really proud of you for thinking about me and the family at a time like this. It shows that you're not selfish. But you have to understand something: you can't do something bad and expect something good to come out of it. Do you understand me?"
"I'm not going to go into town. I thought about it and your mom was right; we'll all be together, and that's more important than anything else. We'll be OK. If it snows tonight, you and Tommy can build a snowman tomorrow."
"Really??" That prospect was exciting.
"Sure. We'll be fine. But what kind of Christmas would it be if you spent the whole day today acting the way you've been? Christmas is a time to be happy, not mean."
"Now, son, we're going to put all this behind us, but you need to apologize to your mother and to Tommy."
"After that, you need to clean up your room."
"Your behavior needs to improve the rest of the day. Besides, I can tell you for a fact that Santa Claus is not going to leave coal in your stocking, no matter how bad you are."
"How do you know?"
"Never mind that. I know. Now, go on and apologize to your mother and your brother. And, Willie . . . thank you for being concerned about us."
We walked out of my room, and before I could find Mom and Tommy, the doorbell rang. Dad went to answer it, and I heard him say, "Hello, Nick! Hello, Chris!"
"Hello, Bill. We brought you some coal."
I ran to the front door and saw two men that we knew from church. I knew them as Mr. Miller and Mr. Roberts, but Dad called them Nick and Chris.
"Yep! Father Flanagan called me first thing this morning and asked me to help him buy and deliver coal for anyone who might need it, especially on this side of the bridge. He knows that I have snow tires. Do you need some coal?"
"Well, we could sure use it."
"Will forty pounds do?"
"That would be wonderful! Thank you!"
They brought in the coal and set it down near the furnace, and Dad invited them to stay for a cup of coffee.
"Thanks, Bill, but we really need to keep moving. We've got more deliveries to make."
"Well, then, please come back one day later this week and stay for a visit."
"We will." Dad shook hands with both men and wished them a merry Christmas. As they walked back to the truck, my dad called, "Hey, Nick!"
"How did you know that we needed coal?"
Mr. Miller was about to say something, but then he looked at me, smiled, and said, "Santa Claus told us."
My dad smiled back and waved. "Thank you again, Nick. This is a wonderful surprise. We really appreciate it."
"That's all right, Bill. A guy's gotta do what a guy's gotta do."
Aobut the author
Father Richard Libby is a Catholic priest in Texas. His story, "The Dog at the Manger" appeared on this site last December. His poems have been published in THE LYRIC, THE ST. AUSTIN REVIEW, and GRAND LITTLE THINGS
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