If you get a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking, you’ve been naughty. Getting coal instead of candy is your punishment. I can think of worse!
The tradition of giving lumps of coal to misbehaving children goes back far enough to be associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. There’s no history to explain the gift of coal except that it seems to have been convenient.
Santa, St. Nick, and La Befana get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel or in shoes left nearby. Sinterklaas’s assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes.
All these Santa figures are tied to the fireplace. So, if the Santas find kids who don’t deserve a present, they encourage better behavior by leaving something undesirable. Coal fireplaces were very common during the 1800s and early 1900s, and what could be easier than reaching down and grabbing a lump of coal? St. Nick, La Befana, and Sinterklaas also have been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions.
In the 1800s, when the modern forms of both Christmas and Santa Claus were developing, the idea of punishing naughty children with coal was rare. The Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas portrays St. Nick as wholly benevolent, his bag containing only toys for the good little girls and boys.
Before the 1820s, when coal began to be adopted, many people still burned wood in their hearths. Instead of coal, naughty children received stones, fresh whips in the form of small branches, ashes, or cold potatoes as punishment. But, as coal gained ascendance in keeping houses warm, it begins to appear in Christmas stories.
Many stories from the early 1900s show poor families happily receiving coal. New methods of mining, shipping, and burning began to make coal so available that the wealthy might not have hesitated to give it to their children as a punishment (or a joke). But for the poor, coal was vital. As it became affordable, that changed and, by the 1920s, coal’s status as a punishment for bad children appeared everywhere, in magazines, books, and newspaper articles. Coal was a fondly remembered Christmas tradition by the end of the decade.
If you’d like to carry on the tradition, you can apparently purchase coal via the internet as a gag Christmas gift.
Of course, if you’re cold you can burn it instead. No children will object.