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Taking Our Lumps

December 24, 2011
By HEATHER ZIEGLER , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

The year one of my siblings received a piece of coal in her Christmas stocking was a real eye-opener for the rest of us. We had always heard about such things happening to "bad" kids, but we had never witnessed it happening before to anybody we knew and loved. Until that particular Christmas.

Now, none of us believed our sister had misbehaved enough to receive the black rock in the bottom of her stocking. And for the record, she got plenty of Christmas gifts that year. But we had an uncle who thought it would be funny to place that lump of coal in her stocking. No one else thought it was funny then or now.

Granted there were times we all struggled to behave. It's a wonder we aren't totally paranoid adults after being told as children that "Santa and the elves are watching" a hundred times a day.

I don't know if I had ever examined a real piece of coal before that Christmas Day. Little did we know what that lump of coal meant to so many people in the great state of West Virginia.

A simple piece of black coal might as well be made of gold as so many families' lives center around the mining industry. Coal miners are a proud bunch and rightfully so. They complete a job every time they go into the mines that most of us shudder to think about. Why the fruits of their labors have been associated with bad kids and Christmas stockings remains a puzzle to me.

Not too many years ago, I interviewed an elderly woman who lived near the railroad tracks in East Ohio. She told me about the very poor conditions that she endured while growing up in the Ohio Valley. Food and basic demands of everyday life were scarce.

Families had to be very resourceful. She recalled how she and her siblings would rush to run alongside the trains as they chugged through her town. The rail cars would be overflowing with coal pulled from local mines.

As the trains passed through the town, it was inevitable that some coal would bounce out of the rail cars onto the sides of the tracks. She would help her brothers scoop up the lumps of coal. Never did they look at coal as a bad thing. They only knew that every bit of the precious ore would help keep their tiny house warm when added to the stove.

Sometimes the children would be chased away from the tracks as rail workers believed it was too dangerous for them to be near the trains. Others would actually make sure some of the coal "fell" out of the cars in easy reach of these children in need.

This Christmas Day as you embrace your family and friends you can look toward the new year in two ways. You can be one of those people who ignores the less fortunate running along the tracks of life or you can toss some help their way. It's your choice.

Merry Christmas.

Heather Ziegler can be reached via e-mail at

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