Santa Claus is coming to town really, really soon. And, as the story goes, if you’ve been well-behaved, that means that you can expect presents under the tree. But if you’ve been naughty, then you might not end up with anything but a stocking filled with a lump of coal on Christmas. For decades, parents have warned their children that coal is what Santa gives kids on Christmas who are not so nice. But the question still remains: Why coal?
In truth, the legend of Santa Claus did not always involve him bringing coal to naughty children. In the 19th century, for example, there was much more emphasis on how joyful Santa was and how he rewarded good behaviour. As you can see in Clement Clarke Moore’s legendary 1823 poem from the era “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” nowhere is there any talk of Santa giving naughty kids coal for Christmas. And even in one of Moore’s tales of Santa Claus that does involve punishment, the festive figure leaves “a long, black, birchen road” for naughty kids—not coal.
Going further back, however, you’ll find legends from other cultures that involve coal as punishment. For example, one famous Italian tale involves a witch known as La Befana. She appears in early January, flying around on a broom rather than in a sleigh and gets into people’s homes via chimneys and keyholes. Kids who have been good get candy and small toys from La Befana, while naughty ones get—you guessed it—coal.
With the turn of the 20th century, coal as punishment began to pop up more and more in Christmas culture stateside. In “The Toy-Makers’ Strike,” written by Ruth Catherine Wood in 1918, for instance, things go awry when Santa’s elves go on strike, and one naughty boy ends up getting a huge doll whereas a nice little girl finds lumps of coal in her stocking. (Don’t worry though, “the fairies found out and changed it.”) Likewise, in Myron Adams’ 1912 short story “A Prince of Good Fellows,” the fact that a good-hearted boy named Tom receives coal in his stocking leads to confusion.
But why does Santa give out coal for Christmas versus something else undesirable? Brian Horrigan of the Minnesota History Center has a solid theory. “Santa Claus comes down chimneys…and he needs something to give the bad kid,” he explained to CBS Minnesota in 2012. “So he’s looking around and picks up a lump of coal, and sticks that into the kid’s stocking.” People might not use coal today to power their fireplaces, but they definitely did back when stories of Santa were first being written.
So, it makes perfect sense!